Monday, February 23, 2004

Breyten Breytenbach

The response in some quarters to my posts on real South African history (as opposed to the propaganda dished out in school during the apartheid years) has been less than enthusiastic, with histrionic and self-pitying cries of "racism" ringing out where reasoned, factually supported arguments might have been expected. This is a pity.

It is simply an absurdity to accuse me of "racism" for pointing out that most of the voortrekkers were not culture-bearing supermen bringing enlightenment to dark savages, as has until recently been the portrayal of events. To say that they were for the most part poor and illiterate peasants is in no way an insult - so were most of anyone's ancestors until the 20th century - and there is a tacit racism in taking umbrage at my pointing out that what separated the Afrikaners from the Xhosas and Zulus they encountered was pretty much their possession of firearms and their whiteness, which afforded them better treatment from the British than the "natives" on many crucial occasions in the early-to-mid 19th century; after all, what is so insulting about being compared to Zulus, unless one still buys into the notion of "civilized" whites and "savage" blacks?

But let us leave all that aside for now, as I wish to point to an example of an Afrikaner who fought for the right principles and paid a big price for doing so, the poet, writer and painter Breyten Breytenbach. Let it not be said that one can assume all Afrikaners were racists or cowards when it mattered the most.

BREYTENBACH, Breyten (1939-), South African poet, prose writer, and painter, was born in Bonnievale in the Western Cape and studied fine art at the University of Cape Town. He left South Africa for Paris in the early 1960s, and when he married a Vietnamese he was not allowed to return. He co-founded Okhela [Zulu: ignite the flame], a resistance group fighting apartheid in exile. On an illegal trip to South Africa in 1975, he was betrayed, arrested, and sentenced to nine years of imprisonment for high treason. Released in 1982 as a result of massive international intervention, he returned to Paris and lived alternately in Paris and Gorée, Senegal, where he founded and headed a fine art workshop for African artists. His work includes numerous volumes of poetry, novels, and essays, many of which are in Afrikaans, many translated from Afrikaans to English, and many published originally in English. He has won five CNA (Central News Agency) Awards. He recently returned to South Africa to take an appointment in creative writing at the University of Natal. (emphasis added)

One consequence of the risks Breytenbach was willing to take, and the price he paid for taking them, is that when he talks today about the rights of the Afrikaan-speaking minority, he has a moral weight that none of the old National Party types, not even FW de Klerk, can ever hope to muster. What a pity it is that more than a few Afrikaners are unable to emulate his example even today, and face honestly the true nature of the system they enthusiastically supported for so long.