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Against the South African Grain

Breyten Breytenbach first came to public attention when, as a young poet and painter living in Paris, he sought permission from the South African authorities to bring his Vietnamese-born wife home on a visit and was informed that as a couple they would not be welcome. The embarrassment of this cause célèbre persuaded the authorities, in 1973, to relent and issue lim-ited visas. In Cape Town Breytenbach addressed a literary symposium. “We [Afrikaners],” he said, “are a bastard people with a bastard language. Our nature is one of bastardy. It is good and beautiful thus…. [But] like all bastards—uncertain of their identity—we began to adhere to the concept of purity. That is apartheid. Apartheid is the law of the bastard.”

In 1975 Breytenbach was back, but in a new role: on a clandestine mission to recruit saboteurs on behalf of the African National Congress (ANC). He was soon picked up by the security police, and spent seven years in jail. Returning to France, he publicly cut ties with his people: “I do not consider myself to be an Afrikaner.”

Nevertheless, during the 1980s he paid further private visits, under police supervision. A 1991 visit gave rise to Return to Paradise, the narrative of a journey through the “reformed” South Africa of F.W. de Klerk. As he explained, the book was meant to be read together with A Season in Paradise—the record of his 1973 visit—and his prison memoir The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist as an autobiographical triptych.

Being called “a bastard people with a bastard language” jolted even those Afrikaners sympathetic to Breytenbach. But in the years that have passed since 1973, “bastardy”—or, more politely, “hybridity”—has become a familiar term in cultural history and cultural politics. Revisionist historians are busy rewriting the story of the Southern African colonial frontier as a zone of barter and exchange where old cultural baggage was shed and new baggage taken aboard, and where new identities—even new racial identities—were tried on like clothing. For adventurously minded Afrikaners, laying claim to a dark ancestor now holds considerable cachet (Breytenbach himself is not immune to such self-fashioning).

Thus half a century after the National Party came to power vowing to preserve at whatever cost the Christian Aryan identity of the Afrikaner, the wheel has come full circle: the intellectual vanguard of the Afrikaans-speaking sector, shying away from the name “Afrikaner” so long as it carries its old historical freight of racial exclusivity, claim that they represent an embryonic, genetically hybrid, culturally syncretic, religiously diverse, nonexclusive, as yet unnamed group (“people” is still too loaded a term) defined (loosely) by attachment to a language—Afrikaans—of mixed provenance (Dutch, Khoi, Malay) but rooted in the African continent.

Dog Heart, Breyten Breytenbach’s new memoir, is confined to a tiny part of South Africa, a region of the Western Cape province dubbed by him “Heartland,” and within it to the town of Montagu, not far from his birthplace, where he and his wife buy and restore a house for their own use.

The economy of the region is based on viticulture and fruit farming, but in recent years Montagu itself (population 23,000), a town of some charm, blessed with hot springs and a spectacular setting, has become a haven for retired people, artists, and craft workers. Demographically it is unrepresentative of the country as a whole. Whereas two thirds of the national population is black, the people of Breytenbach’s Montagu are overwhelmingly brown or white; though nationwide Afrikaans is the mother tongue of only one person in seven, in Montagu it predominates; and, in a country whose population is skewed toward youth (nearly half of it is under the age of twenty-one), Montagu is a town of aging people: the young have migrated to the cities in search of work.

Crude though they may be, these statistics should alert us against taking Dog Heart for what it is not and does not pretend to be: a report on the state of the South African nation in the 1990s. Breytenbach’s Heartland is not a microcosm of South Africa; Dog Heart has little to say about politics or black-white relations on a national scale. What it does report on, with intimate attention, is power relations between white and brown in the countryside.

Who are Breytenbach’s so-called brown people? The seeming innocence of this label conceals problems not only of anthropology (culture, genetics) and history (who holds the power to call whom what, and how was that power won?), but of a conceptual nature too: What does it mean to be neither black nor white, to be defined in negative terms, as, in effect, a being without qualities?

For that is how brown (or coloured or Coloured—with a “C” the term still carries apartheid echoes; with a “c” it is more or less neutral) people were defined under apartheid legislation. The category “Coloured” was meant to pick out the descendants of unions between people (usually men) of European (so-called Caucasian) descent and people (usually women) of indigenous African (usually Khoi—the term “Hottentot” is no longer acceptable) or Asian (usually Indonesian slave) birth. But in practice it captured many others besides, of genetically diverse origins: people of “pure” Khoi—or indeed of “pure” “African” descent—whom circumstance had led to adopt a European or European-derived language and way of life; people who through endogamy had retained a “purely” Asian, Islamic identity; “Europeans” who for one reason or another had dropped through the net of “whiteness” and were leading “mixed” lives.

Though the laws of apartheid—laws forbidding marriage or indeed sexual relations across race lines, restricting racial communities to prescribed residential areas, limiting movement, reserving certain occupations for certain race groups, and above all limiting the franchise on a racial basis—were predicated on a system of classification watertight enough to allocate each individual South African to one of four categories (white, Coloured, African, Indian), they were based on a set of definitions that were ultimately tautological: a white was defined as one of white appearance whom the white community accepted as white, and so forth.

The most sophisticated resistance conceptually to this system of classification came from people classified as “Coloured”: if there were no “Coloured” community prepared to concede that it had preexisted its creation by apartheid, then, logically, there could be no community criterion of “Colouredness.” Throughout the apartheid years the status “Coloured” was, across almost the entire range of people whom it implicated, accepted, so to speak, under protest, as an identity forced upon them. Insofar as there is or was a “Coloured” community, it was a community created by the common fate of being forced to behave, in the face of authority, as “Coloured.”

It is this history that Breytenbach calls up when he writes of “brown” people: a history of two or three million South Africans of highly diverse ethnic and social origins first compelled to conceive of themselves as a community, even (in one of the loftier predictions of apartheid historiography) as “a nation in the making.” Then, in 1994, they entered into a new dispensation in which the race laws were abolished. Yet the old racial distinctions were kept alive in order to make possible the social-engineering measures known in English as “affirmative action” and in Afrikaans, more bluntly, as “putting-right.” “First not white enough, then not black enough,” complain the browns, not without reason.

The issue of whether there is or ought to be a category between black and white is not unique to South Africa. The rights of ethnic or cultural minorities in the multiethnic nation- state are a critical issue worldwide; debate is rife in Latin America and other corners of the postcolonial world on the politics of mestizo identity.

This ferment has prompted South Africans excluded from the “natural” identities of black and white to explore cultural identities for themselves entirely divorced from the choices offered by apartheid, adopting identities that link them to a precolonial past and even to a history older than that of “black” South Africans. (Pro-apartheid historians asserted that black Africans, speakers of Bantu languages, migrated into the territory of the present South Africa in the eighteenth century; archaeological research makes them much older, but not nearly as old as the primeval hunter-gatherers of the dry southwest of the country, the mythical heartland of Breytenbach’s “brown” people.)

Breytenbach makes a large historical claim for his Heartland region: during the time when it was a part of the colonial frontier, he writes, it bred a restless, nomadic, mongrel type of Afrikaner, without the social pretensions of farmers from the neighboring, more settled Boland region, where the economy had been built on slave labor.

It is a claim that will probably not stand up to scholarly scrutiny, but it does enable Breytenbach to advance his revisionist version of the Afrikaner pioneer. Whereas in the establishment version these pioneers were white-skinned farmers who, Bible in one hand and gun in the other, trekked into the interior of Africa to found republics where they would govern themselves free of British interference, in Breytenbach’s version they become people of inextricably mixed genetic origin who followed their herds and flocks into the interior because they had learned a wandering lifestyle from the Khoi pastoralists. And, Breytenbach argues, the sooner the modern Afrikaner discards the illusion of himself as the bearer of light into the African darkness, and accepts himself as merely one of Africa’s nomads—that is to say, as a rootless and unsettled being, with no claim of proprietorship over the earth—the better his chance of survival.

But bastardy, Breytenbach warns, is not an easy fate. It entails a continual making and unmaking of the self; it is necessarily dogged by a sense of loss. “[Yet] it is good to travel to become poor.” Thus Breytenbach links the two themes of his ethical philosophy: bastardy and nomadism. Just as the bastard sheds his self and enters into unpredictable mixture with others, so the nomad uproots himself from the old, comfortable dwelling place to follow the animals, or the smells of the wind, or the figures of his imagination, into an uncertain future.

It is against such a background that one must read the gruesome reports in Dog Heart of attacks on whites in the new, post-apartheid South Africa. These stories make disturbing reading not only because of the psychopathic violence of the attacks themselves, but because the stories are repeated at all. For in a country plagued with violent crime which the national police force—undermanned, underfunded, demoralized—is utterly unable to control, horror stories have become a staple, particularly among whites in the countryside, where farmers have died in murders that are commonly read in the most sinister light: as politically directed, as aimed at driving whites off the land and ultimately out of the country.

The crime statistics are distressing. South Africa is, as Breytenbach stresses, a violent country. Nevertheless, criminal violence is by no means directed against whites alone, while the circulation of horror stories is the very mechanism that drives white paranoia. Why then does Breytenbach lend himself to the process?

His point, it seems, is that rural violence is by no means a new phenomenon. From the old days he resurrects stories of such men as Koos Sas and Gert April and Dirk Ligter—“Hottentots” or “Bushmen” who flitted like ghosts from farm to farm sowing death and destruction before at last being tracked down and killed. In the folk memory of brown people, he suggests, these men are not criminal bandits but “resistance fighters.” In other words, farm murders, and crimes in general against whites—even the crime directed against the Breytenbachs when their house in Montagu is broken into and vandalized—are indeed part of a larger historical plot which has everything to do with the arrogation of the land by whites in colonial times.

The land, says Breytenbach, belongs to no one, and the correct relation to the land is the nomad’s: live on it, live off it, move on; find ways of loving it without becoming bound to it. This is the doctrine he preaches to his French-born daughter, a child clearly drawn to the wildness and freedom of the country, as he takes her around the sacred sites of memory. Do not become too attached, he warns her. “We are painted in the colours of disappearance here…. We are only visiting…. It must die away.”

The elegiac tone that suffuses much of Dog Heart and makes it so much more moving than Breytenbach’s previous memoirs comes in part from his sense of growing old and needing to begin to make farewells, in part from a Buddhist outlook in which worldly attachments retard the progress of the soul (this is the religious side of his ethics of nomadism), but also in part from a sense that the world into which he was born cannot survive. Dog Heart is the first of Breytenbach’s prose works in which he allows himself to articulate what emerges with intense feeling in the more private world of his poetry: that he comes out of a rural way of life which, despite being based on a colonial dispensation with all its manifold injustices, had become autochthonously African to a remarkable extent; and that in the same moment that the head condemns this way of life and judges it must perish, the heart must mourn its passing. (In this respect Breytenbach is suddenly and strikingly reminiscent of William Faulkner.)

In the tentative and ambivalent reconciliation that has taken place between Breytenbach and the Afrikaners, it is the Afrikaners who have had to make the greater shift. In losing political power, including control over public radio and television, the people from whom Breytenbach dissociated himself in 1983 have lost their power to dictate what an Afrikaner has to be: a “white” of North European descent, an ethnic nationalist, a Calvinist, a patriarchalist. Dog Heart speaks for a countercurrent in which fragments of groups in disarray begin to define themselves, and perhaps even to assert themselves, in a new way, cohering this time not around a political philosophy but around a shared language larger and wiser than the sum of its speakers, and a shared history, bitter and divided though that history may be.

Sharing a language, a history, a feel for the land, perhaps even blood, with “my people,” the people of his Heartland, Breytenbach, in Dog Heart, exchanges words with men and women of all states and conditions. Some of these exchanges disconcert him. The (brown) men who renovate his house treat him (the most celebrated poet in their language!) as a foreigner, ask whether there are brown and black people “over there” too. Accompanying his brother—who runs as an in-dependent candidate in the 1994 elections—on his canvassing rounds, he hears at first hand expressions of strong brown prejudice against blacks. (His informants may of course be playing games with him: they are as much—or as little—Afrikaner as he, and of the Afrikaner, “stupid but sly,” he himself writes, “my morning prattle and my night tattle are cut from the cloth which suits my interlocutor.”)

At the dark heart of the memoir lies an event that Breytenbach alludes to several times but never explains. It would appear that at the age of seven he had a choking fit and stopped breathing. In a sense he died and was reborn as a second Breyten (his very name, he points out, is like an echo; one of his poetic identities is Lazarus). “When I look into the mirror I know that the child born here is dead. It has been devoured by the dog.” So returning to the land of the dog is in a sense a search for the grave of the dead child, the child dead within him.

In the town museum—where the bust of D.F. Malan, prime minister of a segregated South Africa from 1948 to 1954, has been discreetly relegated to a storeroom—Breytenbach comes upon a photograph of his great-grandmother Rachel Susanna Keet (d. 1915). From the archives he learns that as a midwife she delivered most of the children of Montagu, brown and white, into the world; that she lived unconventionally, adopting and raising a brown child who was not her own.

He and his wife search for Rachel Susanna’s grave but cannot find it. So they take over one of the old, unmarked graves in the graveyard, adopting it, so to speak, in her name. The book ends on this emblematic note, with Breytenbach marking out, in the name of his dead ancestor rather than of his living child, the most humble of family stakes in Africa.

Citizen of France, most untranslatable of Afrikaans poets, Breytenbach has published his account of his re-exploration of his African roots in English, a language of which his mastery is by now almost complete. In this respect he follows his countryman André Brink and a host of other writers (including black African writers) from small language communities.

The reason for his step is, I would guess, practical: the market for books in Afrikaans is small and dwindling. Breytenbach certainly does not resort to English as a gesture of fellowship with English-speaking South African whites, for whom he has never had much time. Nevertheless, it is odd to be faced with a book in English that is so much a celebration of the folksy earthiness of Afrikaans nomenclature; that follows with such attention the nuances of Afrikaans social dialect; and that entertains without reserve the notion that there is a sensibility attuned to the South African natural world which is uniquely fostered by the Afrikaans language.

There is in fact a body of what I would call sentimental orthodoxy that Breytenbach seems to accept without much reserve. Much of this orthodoxy relates to what present-day cultural politics calls “first peoples” and South African folk idiom “the old people”: the San and the Khoi.

In two widely read and influential books, The Lost World of the Kalahari (1958) and The Heart of the Hunter (1961), Laurens van der Post presented the San (“Bushmen”) as the original Africans, bearers of archaic wisdom, on the brink of extinction in a world for which their gentle culture rendered them tragically unfit. Breytenbach repeats some of the moving twilight utterances of nineteenth-century San (the same material has been worked up into haunting verse by Stephen Watson in Song of the Broken String* ), sometimes lapsing into Van der Post-like romanticizing (“small sinewy men [with] an inbred knowledge of the drift of clouds and the lay of mountains”). But his main aim is to suggest that the old San and Khoi myths live on today in unconscious re-enactments: a woman who bites off her rapist’s penis, for instance, is repeating the trick of the Khoi mantis-god. Just as passages of Dog Heart carry a whiff of hand-me-down Latin American magic realism, the case for an unarticulated psychic continuity between old and new brown people is unpersuasive, while the recounting of myths has an obligatory air about it, as if they are being copied over from other books.

Breytenbach’s political beliefs are spelled out in the essays collected in The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution (1996). Insofar as he is still engaged in politics, his program can be summed up as “fighting for revolution against politics.” In Dog Heart, however, his politics is implied rather than explained. Quarrels and antipathies emerge in the form of casual side-swipes: at white liberals (“they have no memory of the past”), at the Communist Party colony within the ANC, at the Coloured middle class that has found a home for itself in the old National Party (rebaptized the New National Party, and still, after the 1999 elections, holding on to power in places like Montagu), at the “dogs of God” (Desmond Tutu and Alex Boraine) who chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, at the new artistic and academic establishment with its stifling political correctness. A brief brush with Nelson Mandela is recounted, from which Mandela emerges in none too favorable a light. (“People are allowed into his presence in one of the rooms, to whisper sweet nothings in the ear which doesn’t hear. Then he moves off with his entourage and the security detail….”) Thus Breytenbach keeps his promise to remain a maverick, “against the norm, orthodoxy, the canon, hegemony, politics, the State, power.”

Like Breytenbach’s other memoirs, Dog Heart is loose, almost miscellaneous, in its structure. Part journal, part essay on autobiography, part book of the dead, part what one might call speculative history, it also contains searching meditations on the elusiveness of memory and passages of virtuoso writing—a description of a thunderstorm, for instance—breathtaking in the immediacy of their evocation of Africa. Though not a work of great ambition, it contains abundant evidence of a creative intelligence of the highest order.

  1. *

    Sheep Meadow Press, 1995.

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