Apart from other volk

February 17, 1995

For Andre Brink literature played a large part in the dismantling of apartheid. Below is an excerpt from his Amnesty Lecture 'Writer as witch' and on the right Simon Targett speaks to the man himself.

Paris, 1959. A young Afrikaner has just arrived from South Africa, and is studying for a doctorate in comparative literature at the Sorbonne. He is a committed nationalist, a graduate of ultra-conservative Afrikaans-speaking Potchefstroom University in the Transvaal, a member of the secretive right-wing political society Ruiterwag, and a friend of the future president F. W. de Klerk.

Grahamstown, 1961. A lecturer at liberal English-speaking Rhodes University has written a novel which challenges received Afrikaner wisdom - about religion, about sex, about morality - and which is burnt in the streets and piously berated from the pulpits of the Dutch Reformed Church.

It may be hard to believe, but the student and the lecturer are the same person - Andre Brink, the acclaimed South African novelist who campaigned against the evils of apartheid and who has been nominated twice for the Booker Prize. So what made Paris his road to Damascus?

Brink had gone to Paris because of a certain je ne sais quoi. His roots are Dutch, and although he has a French-sounding name, he has no Huguenot ancestors. "I've always been a francophile," he reveals as he relaxes in the residents' lounge of his posh wood-panelled hotel near Oxford Street, trendily dressed from head to toe in blue denim, younger-looking than his age (he is 60 in May). "I don't know where it came from. It's just that I've always had this totally illogical love of anything French." He had studied French, read the novels of Balzac, and admired - "I feel terrible to admit it" - Napoleon and De Gaulle.

But Paris was "a shock", a word he often uses to describe the period. The shock of witnessing French colonial atrocities perpetrated upon Algerian freedom fighters. The shock of watching the Sharpeville massacre from a distance and "discovering the full extent of what the Afrikaners - my people - had been doing". The shock of living in a multicultural society after a sheltered existence in the provincial platteland where he had "quite simply never encountered any black person outside the position of total servility".

Back in South Africa, he started up the bi-monthly review Sestiger with a group of other radicals - notably Etienne Leroux and Jan Rabie. This dynamic, avant garde, cultural-literary group broke timeless Afrikaner taboos, and Brink lost many friends "who saw me as a renegade, as someone who was sticking a knife in the back of everything that was dear and important". But the group generally avoided overt political statements. Only Rabie, who also spent time in Paris (and like Brink holds the Legion d'honneur) and whose book of short stories Twenty One introduced Brink to "a whole new world of possibilities", openly challenged apartheid. "I think we were scared of taking the final step and really breaking away from the establishment," Brink now reflects. "I think we were afraid of the wilderness surrounding the laager."

It took another visit to his spiritual haven of Paris before he reached what he calls "the point of total rupture". In 1967, he had every intention of staying in Paris for good. He had just divorced, and with a room in the home of his great friend Breyten Breytenbach, the Afrikaner poet whose marriage to a Vietnamese woman meant enforced exile, he had no pressing need to return to South Africa. But the student riots the following year politicised his soul, and he realised that if he was going to continue writing, he would have to do so with the backdrop of South Africa. "I knew then," he says, "that the writer doesn't just operate in isolation."

Reinstated at Rhodes, Brink set to work on his seventh novel, a story about an extraordinary coloured man who is raised in neo-slavery, but who makes it first to university and then to London - where he trains at RADA and stars at the RSC - and finally returns to his homeland to confront apartheid. Published in 1973 and entitled Kennis van die Aand, it became the first Afrikaans book to be banned by the government. For years, the government had treated Afrikaners with what he calls "kid gloves" because they had wanted to avoid "an open break in the Afrikaner family". But this tale of apartheid pushed the authorities - as it were - beyond the brink.

Overnight, the thick-necked dullards in the security police developed a keen literary sense, if for all the wrong reasons. Manuscripts were seized, typewriters taken, letters intercepted, phones tapped. He was followed everywhere, even abroad. "I would either be called in or somebody would meet me and give me a detailed list of all the people I'd seen and a list of the addresses I'd been staying at, even though the arrangements were often impromptu."

Yet what he wrote about did not change. He was not cowed by the red pen of the censor. In fact, quite the contrary. "The very idea that whatever you wrote could be banned generated a sort of electricity," he explains. What gave him the greatest security was translating his work into English: "It made me feel that if the government does ban my work, it is still going to be published somehow and somewhere."

It goes without saying that the democratic election last year heralded a political and social revolution. It also heralded a literary revolution. South African literature had for decades been distinguished by its campaign against racial segregation. This had not stopped it from climbing to the summit of literary quality. After all, Nadine Gordimer won the Nobel Prize for Literature. But there was - and still is - a belief that there is nothing to write about anymore. Brink thinks this misconceived. So much so that he claims "there is so much more to write about than ever before".

The awfulness of apartheid meant that writers could not legitimately ignore it as a subject. The fact that it has been swept away means that new subjects can at last be considered. Brink says that writers are defined by their oppositional nature. For him the new enemy is many-headed: the people holding on to power in the police force, the army and the civil service; and the corrupt "fat cats in government" who were the downtrodden victims of apartheid less than a year ago.

"It's terrifying," he says. But in all this, he is careful not to paint Nelson Mandela with his broad brush, giving him almost reverential treatment: "Mandela is a person apart. He is just such a totally amazing human being, the closest to a saint the 20th century can hope to get, a myth who has to live up to incredible expectations and who succeeds in outdoing those expectations."

Without a common "enemy", Brink acknowledges that South Africa's various literary traditions might start to fragment: Afrikaner focusing on Afrikaner traditions, Zulu focusing on Zulu traditions, and so on. But he argues that the more likely scenario is a common bonding of the different cultural groups, a mutual emphasis on what they share - a deep love of Africa - rather than on what separates them - colour.

For his part, Brink intends to recover the lost "silent" history of Afrikanerdom. His writing has always been a dual struggle to liberate the blacks from white oppression and to liberate the Afrikaner from, as he once wrote, "the ideology in which he has come to negate his better self". He has achieved the first part of the struggle. Now it is time for the second part. In his next book, Imaginings of Sand, he delves into Afrikaner history while taking as its point of departure the election day last April.

But Brink is unlikely to forget the literary encounter with apartheid. As he puts it: "Whatever I write must to some extent be informed by that, even if I don't write about it explicitly. Once you have digested an enormous experience like that, one that has influenced everything you are, in one way or another, it will always be there."

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