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South Africa, Seen by ‘Albino Terrorist’ : Poet Evokes Jailing as Purification of Anti-Apartheid Passion

Times Staff Writer

The other night I dreamed that I had to return to prison for the outstanding two years I still owe them. What a calamity! My pluck was gone, my heart sank like a fish going down to the bottom to die: Night was not deep enough to hide my defeat.

But what was it that mortified me so? The idea of losing my freedom? No--I have learnt that a wall is a point (and a joint) of relativity. There is no more freedom outside than inside. Mine is total. The sadness of being separated from a loved one? No--seven years had taught me to be like an ox before the plough with each hoofplod like a lightburst of the heart they can never destroy . . . . I was not afraid of prison.

What then? My spirit waned at the thought of having to start all over the process of creating a livable world for myself behind bars . . . .

How long before I make A-Group again? With what was I going to buy a broom from the storeman, or a suit of clothes that would fit? Naked as a shorn lamb I was going back.

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Except . . . all I had left was an inkwell that Yolande had given me, old-fashioned and beautiful even though the bottom was uneven so that it sat before me at an angle. But it was empty! Inside it there was only an evaporated reflection of blue. Like a memory of sky . . . .

--"The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist” by Breyten Breytenbach (Farrar, Straus & Giroux)

Breyten Breytenbach, South Africa’s leading Afrikaans poet, was found guilty of terrorism in 1975 and served seven years of a nine-year sentence, much of it in solitary confinement, in Pretoria and Capetown maximum-security prisons, before being released in 1983.

Earlier in 1975, he had entered South Africa under a false identity from France (where he had been living as an expatriate), bearing with him a manifesto crafted by anti-apartheid militants in Europe.

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Once in South Africa, he had attempted to connect with underground contacts, realized he was under surveillance, tried to leave and was arrested. After his release from prison, he returned to France and immediately recorded his prison memoirs, or “confessions,” in English, his second language, dictating them into a tape recorder, partly, he said later of that method, out of an obsessive need to talk.

Recently Breytenbach, 45, accompanied by his wife, Yolande, was a guest of UCLA, lecturing and reading from his works at the department of Germanic languages, later speaking privately, talking about his work, his imprisonment and the fate of his native land.

The man who emerged from imprisonment is soft-spoken, sad-faced, the gentlest of men. His manner is courteous and unpretentious. Compassion, patience and tolerance seem built into his demeanor. They are not the attributes of a weak man. If he is anything, he is hard, truly tough.

He is harsh in his judgments, often delivered with mordant wit, and dire in his predictions about South Africa, “a world of madness” that will probably not change without bloodshed. He comes down hard, and relentlessly loving, when he talks about its people, his people. And he is no less hard on himself, but unapologetic.

Hard and Irreducible

He has been burned, he says: Any guilt he had about being a white South African was “burnt” out of him in prison; any contradictions about whether his politics stemmed from ideology or personal friendship were likewise “burnt off”; his private self was “burnt away,” destroyed, so that he makes no distinction any longer between the private and public self; there is a “zone of death” in him where his own humanity “has been burnt off, where the grass will not grow,” that makes him recognize the humanity “of the other guy.” If he has indeed been burned, what remains is something hard and irreducible. It brings out a stark honesty that seems the source of the freedom he says is his.

“My utterings are shot through with paradoxes--as has been my life,” he told one audience at UCLA. He seems at peace with paradox. It is at the root of his identity.

He is an Afrikaner, one of that white ethnic group that created the modern, fundamentally racist state. His use of the Afrikaans language, with which that state is so intimately associated, is a source of both pride and humiliation to many of his white countrymen, it has often been said. He has turned what is uniquely theirs against them.

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If he is a traitor to this people, his elder brother, whom Breytenbach has called “my brother John Wayne,” is a hero, a general in the South African army, commander of its anti-guerrilla unit. They see each other as dangerous enemies, Breytenbach said, but he spoke of the “cement of affection” that persisted for a long time in his family despite the tensions. And yes, he said, he thinks he and his brother still love each other.

“I think so, yes. Love is like language. . . . You love some people no matter how horrible they may be, the way you love a language, however much it’s been misused.”

Breytenbach went to France in 1961 with the expectation of returning soon to South Africa. Instead, he met and married Yolande Ngo Thi Hoang Lien, a Vietnamese-born French citizen. Because she is non-white, their marriage was a violation of South Africa’s Immorality Act. For years, along with his public stance against apartheid, it was a reason why his country would not permit his return.

Those years were a time of self-questioning, he said, “of agonizing about being an African, making out of Africa a myth of the mind, making of my language my homeland, as it were.”

He was an exile then, a word that to him connotes a lamentable state of self-pity, backward harking, suspension. He does not call himself an exile now. That period, he said, ended when he went back in 1975.

“I consider myself an African of South African origin, using Afrikaans as my first language and continuing my life elsewhere in Europe, accepting that that peculiar South African experience will always be there in my mind, coloring my way of life, coloring my perceptions. . . . “

He has not come easily to that sense of himself. He concludes now that the anti-apartheid political militants who recruited him in Paris also exploited and manipulated him. He will discuss it only in general terms. He was, as an Afrikaner and poet, he concedes, a perfect choice. It made sense, but the fact that he was expendable to them, that he found himself alone, abandoned and ultimately imprisoned is still a source of some bitterness: “I am the plague,” he wrote of his effect on his former co-revolutionaries.

Lessons of Confinement

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Beyond the suffering, prison was a maiming, tainting experience, he said. His sense of aesthetics was changed permanently, he said, living as he did in a colorless world of confined spaces. It affected even his sense of aesthetic hierarchy. He learned too much of himself, he said, too much of his weaknesses, his concessions, his compromises. He would have learned this side of himself no other way, and will go so far as to call it purifying to gain that sense of oneself. It is a lesson, however, he said he would have done without.

He hallucinated, he despaired, he broke. He was left with what he sometimes refers to as “the ruins of my mind.” He came through it intact. He held on to his sanity.

“What is central is the fear of losing the sense of ‘I’ or of the self. That is what sanity is about. I suppose it’s a matter of control. To the extent you can still integrate what is happening to you, the extent to which you can still recognize yourself and realize something is happening to you which you can no longer control--you let go of yourself, which doesn’t mean you collaborate. . . . I had the strange experience of suddenly turning around and saying to myself, ‘But who the hell do you think you are to be so concerned about what’s happening to you?’ I realized I had a very bloated opinion of myself. I think once you can turn around and see yourself in that sense, realize that it’s not all that important and let go of yourself . . . you survive in prison.”

The Tone of Reflection

If he has a function now, he said, it is to “try to raise the tone of reflection about matters such as this--what is the real nature of politics, of expendability, the real ethics of a person working within that system? What is the real nature of paternalism--you find people being racist to one another even at the heart of some of these organizations.”

If he is not optimistic about South Africa’s future, it is the near future that he is talking about. Inevitably, apartheid will be overthrown, he seems certain, saying, “Time, you may say, is black.”

Whites, despite the fact they hold the power, are in a sense on the sidelines, irrelevant to South Africa’s future, he said. It will be determined by blacks.

Not knowing black people other than as servants, “cocooned in these vague layers of the unknown,” the whites fear they will be wiped out if and when blacks take over, a fear he does not share.

“You can’t blame a white South African for being entirely conditioned by what he grows up in. He’s blind. One thing I’d like to get across to white people,” he said, “is that we don’t realize to what extent we ourselves are being blinded, diminished by the privileges that have been have foisted upon us, as it were.”

It makes for “enormous moral destruction,” he said, and offered as an example the contradictory lessons of childhood that demand extreme respect for the elders, the fathers, uncles and grandfathers, of a patriarchal society, while at the same time permitting that blacks “be kicked around” regardless of their age.

“I don’t think anybody’s psyche can take that without some damage,” he said. “It makes for a split personality.”

From now on he will exercise the function he described for himself only through his writing and painting, he said. (He is also a recognized artist in Europe and has exhibited his works there, including drawings he smuggled out of prison.) His politics are inseparable from his art, he knows. But, for all the depth of his convictions, he is not the one to go on speaking tours alerting people to the evils of apartheid, he said. In that sense, he is done with politics.

“I will probably never again be involved in the active clandestine political movement that led to the book,” he said with no apparent regret, adding with dry understatement, “if for no other reason than that I’ve shot my anonymity.”


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