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

May 13, 1985|KATHLEEN HENDRIX | 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.

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.

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.

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."

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