The Albino terrorist
On Tuesday evening, I attended a meeting organised by the Bank Windhoek Socratic Forum, where the world-renowned Afrikaner writer and painter, Breyten Breytenbach, was the guest speaker. The room was packed to capacity, and Breytenbach did not disappoint.
He presented a thought-provoking paper titled Utopia in a Season of Anger, Confusion, Despair & Uprising: Modernities & Our Inner Africas. He covered a wide range of topics, and there is no way that I can do justice to them in this piece. Instead, I shall give a brief overview of who Breytenbach is, and thereafter present a few excerpts from his lecture.
In 1985, Breytenbach released a book titled The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, which is a memoir of the seven years that he spent in South African prisons, where two of those years were spent in solitary confinement. It appears that he has been a kind of rebel or non-conformist all his life: for instance, as an Afrikaner in those days (he was born in 1939), he was supposed to study at Stellenbosch University, but he studied fine arts at the University of Cape Town.
Breytenbach was part of a group of radical Afrikaans writers known as the “Sestigers”, with poets such as Andre Brink. They used their writings to oppose the apartheid regime in South Africa. The historian, Hermann Giliomee, describes the Sestigers as follows: “During the early 1960s a new literary movement, known as the Sestigers, or the generation of the sixties, embraced secularization, modernity, racial tolerance and sexual freedom, and used modern literary techniques and subject matter to explore these themes… This literature helped to change the political imagination of the Afrikaans reading public in subtle yet profound ways. They offered a new conceptualization of the Afrikaners and their history that differed starkly from the image the political leaders and cultural leadership tried to project of the Afrikaners as a people determined to crush all threats to their survival.”
As expected, Breytenbach became the regime’s public enemy number one, and he thus fled the country and went into exile in France in the early 1960s. While in France, he married a French-Vietnamese woman, thereby incurring more wrath from his fellow Afrikaners. During his time in exile, he built relations with ANC activists, and activists from other liberation movements. He was involved in clandestine activities against the apartheid regime, as part of the organisation known as “Okhela” (isiZulu for “spark”).
Unfortunately, in 1975, things went horribly wrong during a clandestine trip to South Africa. He was arrested and sentenced to nine years’ imprisonment for high treason. The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist is based on his experiences during this period of incarceration. He explained in the afterword to the text that this book “took shape from the obsessive urge I experienced during the first weeks and months of my release to talk, talk, talk, to tell my story and all the other stories”.
I have not read The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, but I was fascinated by the title. In the 1960s and 1970s, there were very few Afrikaners who were actively involved in the liberation struggle, even fewer who were charged under the notorious Suppression of Communism Act, with similar charges to those of Nelson Mandela and other black activists. Surely, seeing a white face in a sea of black faces made him appear like an albino!
At the Socratic Forum lecture, Breytenbach introduced himself as “An Afrikaans-speaking South African from the Boland who, by luck and of necessity, was also exposed to living and working elsewhere in the world. Add to this the observable fact that I am whitish – a historical, generic marker that has again become acutely polarising, even though it comes in all shades of pale. My home language, to an extent also my working tool, is French; my mother tongue is Afrikaans. I’m neither a literary scholar nor an academic although I have been employed on and off by tertiary education institutions both at ‘home’ and abroad.”
Amongst many other topics, he expressed some strong words about the “Fees Must Fall” campaign in South Africa, especially the burning down of educational buildings: “to destroy places of learning, the depositories of knowledge and the expressions of awareness or of processes of creativity that would help us free ourselves – on the pretext that these are not ‘African’ enough… Free education ought to be a given in a development state. It implies, however, that the viability of the concept of ‘university’ – now considered a Western construct that also embodies the universal need of being prepared and equipped for full citizenship – be revisited. Entitlement is not a revolutionary stance, nor does it promote brotherhood or true equality of opportunities. It is most certainly not a way to freedom. The students who have embarked on this road are barking up the wrong tree.”
In the final analysis, Breytenbach argues that our diversity should be a strength rather than a weakness. He quoted Edouard Glissant who said that “it is possible to be one and multiple at the same time; that you can be yourself and the ‘Other’; that you can be the ‘Same’ and the ‘Different’. When that battle… is won, a great many accidents in human history… will be abolished”.
Like I said, earlier, it is not possible to do justice to this great lecture. I can only say that Breytenbach is continuing his search for Utopia, a journey which he started as a young Afrikaans writer. His words are powerful; they are like real bullets.
I have thus concluded that Breytenbach remains the same albino terrorist that he was back in the day, even though there is now a new political dispensation which he, ironically, helped to bring about in South Africa.