Against the South African Grain

Breyten Breytenbach
Breyten Breytenbach; drawing by David Levine

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…

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