South Africa: The Death of Justice

Two of the most important trials in Africa’s history are taking place in Pretoria, South Africa. One represents South Africa’s past, the second its future. Each trial is very different and yet both tell the same story. They show that reason and hope are disappearing in South Africa—that there is a widening gulf between, on the one hand, white liberals and even white radicals and, on the other, black radicals and moderates.

First, in the Palace of Justice, at the trial of Breyten Breytenbach, age thirty-seven, a leading Afrikaaner poet and a painter as well, the State is attempting to crush whatever liberal white views still exist. Breytenbach is married to a Vietnamese woman who was not permitted to live with him in South Africa. This is Breytenbach’s second trial. He was convicted in 1975 of treason under the Terrorism Act for trying to organize an underground movement against apartheid, and was given a nine-year sentence. Breytenbach would under the law be eligible for release after three years. Instead, the South African government, vindictive because he was one of theirs, threw him into solitary confinement for two years, telling him he would have to serve the full nine years of his sentence and threatening him with serving it in the most brutal kind of solitary imaginable.

Now Breytenbach is being tried again. This time he is charged under the Terrorism, Riotous Assemblies and Prisons Act with trying to escape from the Central Prison in Pretoria, and for trying to promote an underground organization to fight apartheid.

In fact the escape attempt was suggested by Pieter Groenewald, Breytenbach’s jailer in the prison. As the chief government witness, Groenewald admitted in court that he was sent into the prison by the secret police. He said he first suggested the escape attempt to Breytenbach and tried to use Breytenbach to implicate the remaining whites in the anti-apartheid movement.

Groenewald suggested to Breytenbach the names of a number of people who would help him if they were properly approached. After Breytenbach wrote letters to them, Groenewald met with them. Dr. André Brink, another important Afrikaaner poet, received Breytenbach’s letter describing his solitary confinement, depressions, and delusions. He gave Groenewald 300 Rand to help finance an escape. Brink and others who did not flatly turn Groenewald down expect to be indicted.

Breytenbach, admitting his escape attempt, tried in mitigation to describe what drove him to it. Deliberately kept next to the death cell for the full two years, where each month a dozen black Africans wait to be hanged, he heard the prisoners singing as they tried to quiet their fears—and watched as each of the over two hundred men walked to the gallows. The wardens made a point of telling how, even in their last moments, blacks were discriminated against. If a white man were hanged, he would get a new rope, but for the blacks, the same ropes were used over and over again, even though many of them were full of…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.