AMY GOODMAN: Breyten Breytenbach is one of South Africa’s most famous poets. He’s also an award-winning writer and painter, well known as an anti-apartheid activist, outspoken advocate for justice around the world.
The exiled poet was born to an Afrikaner or white South African family in 1939. He moved to Paris in the early ’60s and became deeply involved with the anti-apartheid movement. In 1975, Breyten Breytenbach returned secretly to South Africa under a false passport. He was arrested, charged with terrorism and imprisoned for seven years. One of his most famous books, based on his experience in prison, is called The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist.
Today, Breyten Breytenbach divides his time between New York University, where he teaches creative writing, and the Goree Institute in Senegal, West Africa.
I talked to Breyten Breytenbach earlier this month in New York and asked him to paint a picture of contemporary South Africa.
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Well, I think one needs to preface, whatever one says about South Africa, one tends to forget that enormous advances have been made since early ’90s. You know, to bring down apartheid, the system of discriminatory laws, segregation, it was a huge task. We’ve come a long way since then, but not necessarily heading in the right direction entirely.
The situation at the moment is that we are heading for national elections in very early in the new year. The majority party, which is the ANC, which at the moment has a two-thirds majority, will be appointing a new president. That is the constitution, South African constitution. The president is not elected by popular vote. We’ve just now had a split within the majority party, a breakaway group. They call themselves the Congress of the People. Their very name is being disputed in courts by the African National Congress, who says that Congress of the People is something so associated with the African National Congress party, nobody else should be able to use it. One doesn’t quite know yet whether there’s going to be a significant opposition, because really there is no opposition to the African National Congress.
We had a major meeting, a conference of the ANC last year at Polokwane, at what point—that was when Jacob Zuma was selected as the new president of the ANC, and thereby he will become the new president of South Africa. That’s also when the decisions were made to destitute Thabo Mbeki from power.
But the more interesting thing that happened there was, I think, a shift that a lot of people had been pleading for for quite a while, a kind of an activation of the—what’s normally referred to as the second phase of the South African revolution, the first one having been national liberation and bringing down the apartheid laws, racist laws. The second one ideally would have been moving towards a social, socialist revolution in a rather old-fashioned way, or rather, in ways that we became accustomed to from the twentieth century. In other words, for all practical purposes, a one-party state, with the political party—with the political power seated in the party and not in parliament or in government. And there’s a strong movement in that way. That’s probably part of the reason why you had a split within the ANC.
I think the split that happened is a good thing, in that it opens to new democratic space, confrontation of ideas, a new debate which had been absent for quite a while. It also probably will mean that the ANC, the rump ANC—they will still win the elections—may be held more accountable, because there’s been a huge problem ever since the ANC came to power. In fact, what has happened, I think I mentioned last time, is that we’ve had a growing gap between the rich and the poor. We’ve had what some people called a boardroom revolution, in other words, senior cadres for the ANC being taken into the capitalist boardrooms and becoming very rich in the process. But it really has not affected the daily lives of the majority of South African people.
We have an implosion of some essential institutions in the country, public health, to some extent public education, to some extent security. There’s been something like about 10,000 very localized acts of uprising all over the country over the last number of years, and people don’t normally know this. This has normally taken the form of people in a particular small village or township blocking the roads, complaining about the fact that the local officials are not delivering on the services, on municipal services, burning tires in the streets, kicking out the ANC officials, etc. So there’s a huge kind of a popular dissatisfaction with the track record of the ANC.
But I think, again, one should bracket that by saying that perhaps if one came to the country, the first thing that strikes one, from outside, if you know the rest of the continent, particularly, is how very vital and very alive the country is. Johannesburg is a huge metropolis. All the essential infrastructural features that you’ll expect to find in, say, the Western world, you’ll find in South Africa: roads and airlines, etc., etc., electricity most of the time. But it is accompanied by a very robust and, to some extent, a very lawless daily activity. Crime is a huge problem in the country.
We have not really achieved that which Nelson Mandela set out to do, in other words, building a new nation based on the reconciliation concept. I think that there’s been a kind of a fallback from that intention with the coming to power of Thabo Mbeki, so that what you have is a kind of a falling back into the component elements of the South African society. You have the resurgence of racism to a large extent. The people who were the beneficiaries of the previous regime, the apartheid regime, tend to withdraw behind gated communities, if they can afford to do so. There’s a huge exodus of competence. Something like 27 percent of people who have university education have left the country. And this is something that the country can very badly afford. And you have—concurrently to that, you have the arrival of very, very large numbers of people from elsewhere in the continent, because, of course, South Africa is the El Dorado and with attentions that that bring. So, South Africa is, at the moment, in a very fragile transitional period where I think we are realizing that, in fact, people were happy too soon. We thought we were out of the woods, and we’re not out of the woods at all.
AMY GOODMAN: Breyten Breytenbach, you also talk about the plight of children.
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the games of children—
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Yes.
AMY GOODMAN: —even at school.
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Yes. Yes, this is really, really a huge problem. I think that—you know, South Africa has always been a construct, right from the very early times on. When the first colonials went, they tried to create a colonial state. Afterwards, there was an attempt to make of it a colony, a British colony. After that, the apartheid state. Now we have a liberated South African state. But South Africa has always been premised on, to a large extent, social and political engineering. In other words, people move—huge numbers of people move across the country. People went to the north to the Gold Reef to work, for instance.
And with that came, of course, a breakup of many traditional structures, particularly family structures and family values, as well. So you have, together with this kind of a turnover population and a hybridization of cultures, you also have a distinction of traditional values, to a large extent. So you have many of the old laws and customs that are being questioned by the younger generation.
We also have a generation of young people who grew up in the late apartheid years, when the slogan was “Liberation before education.” So we literally have a whole generation of young people, younger people, who have not been socialized, who have not been educated, particularly.
We then have also all the young people who came back from exile, from the camps, who have been trained militarily and for whom jobs were not found. A lot of the very bad crime that we see in the country, in fact, is sort of perpetrated by groups of ex-MK people and other young people from within the country who take to arms and take to robbing, because that’s the only way they can possibly survive.
And I think, with that, with a very hurried and a very complicated attempt to integrate the schools, there’s been a deterioration in the educational system. People try to flee—as you see in other parts of the world, and I’m sure you see it in this country, as well—flee the poor areas to try and get into better schools. And that doesn’t necessarily always work very well.
So you’ve had—if you read all of this together—the bad economic situation, the bad security situation, the incompleted educational integration system—I think all of these are the underpinnings of the plight of the children in South Africa.
AMY GOODMAN: The issue of AIDS.
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: The issue of AIDS. One out of five people in South Africa live with HIV/AIDS. And for a long time, this has been denied by the government for complex reasons. Unfortunately, none of these valid.
We are now, finally, looking at the possibility of perhaps doing something about it. We have a new Minister of Public Health, Barbara Hogan, who is an excellent person. She’s just taken over as Minister of Public Health. And I think there’s going to be a real attempt made.
But it is calculated that probably something like 30,000 people died, who should not have died, because they were not being given the medicines that they should have been given, the antiretrovirals, for instance, because the government just denied the very existence of HIV/AIDS. They fought a very stupid battle against big pharmaceutical companies, which under most circumstances would be a valid one, claiming that AIDS is, you know, a Western invention, it’s an attempt to genocide of the African population, and the pharmaceutical companies are poisoning the population.
So we’ve been distracted by secondary considerations, when the real issue was what do we do to try and make it possible for people who are afflicted with HIV/AIDS to get the necessary medicine. How do we prevent the transfer of HIV/AIDS from mothers to children, for instance? That was a huge issue in the country. And how do we talk about this illness in such a way that it is not stigmatized and people are not excluded from society? Because that still is a big problem, too.
AMY GOODMAN: Do you think progress has been made?
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: I think there’s a growing awareness. I think that South Africa is only really now starting to feel the economic consequences of that, because it is affecting huge, huge sums of people. People in the country tell me that they spend one or two days a week just going to funerals. You know, this is a huge, huge concern, obviously.
And with HIV/AIDS, of course, come a whole slew of other things, such as tuberculosis, for instance, which is very widely spread in the country, or pneumonia. These days, people become vulnerable. People don’t—as we say in the country, you do not die of HIV/AIDS; you die of whatever illnesses you become vulnerable to, because of the repression of the possibility to resist it.
So—but I think, yes. I think it is from within a community. This is something I think is very important to remember. There’s a Treatment Action Campaign, TAC, which was a revival of something which is very powerful within the recent South Africa history, and that is the notion of civics, we call them, in other words, civil society organizations, associations, which group themselves to fight for the protection of the population and to fight the unjust laws. And the interesting thing is that this TAC, which is a very powerful civic now, is actually issued from the liberation movement. The liberation movement government had great difficulty dealing with the TAC, because these were their very own people who were trying to hold them to account.
I think the new minister is going to be interacting very closely with the civics, with civil society organizations. And I think she’s going to be very systematic in trying to do something about the problem.
AMY GOODMAN: Breyten Breytenbach, I wanted to move from South Africa to Zimbabwe and what is happening there.
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Implosion.
AMY GOODMAN: Mugabe, the revolutionary leader who took over in the early 1980s, still there.
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Yes, yes. I was talking to a friend of mine who lives in South Africa, a wonderful African intellectual called Achille Mbembe, a few days ago. He was here in New York. He’s from the Cameroon originally. And we were saying that what needs to be done—I know it’s going to be a very painful chapter to open, but there’s been enough time now. What needs to be done is to assess the track record of liberation governments in Africa: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, obviously, Guinea-Bissau. All of these—Mozambique, Angola. In all of these instances, we had—Algeria, a very interesting case in point also—where liberation movements came to power as the vectors of modernity and of justice, of social and economic justice, and the regain of dignity of the people.
And somehow—and that is, I think, what we need to look at. It’s going to be a long and a complicated and a painful process. Somehow, we’ve seen that the liberation movements didn’t find it within themselves, probably because of the ideology, maybe also because of the many years of struggle and underground activity and having to remain very closely bonded together. They didn’t find the means to be able to open the ranks to a newer generation coming in. They didn’t seem to be able to consider the notion that we could have internal democracy and we should move to a second phase. We’re no longer in a liberation struggle. Perhaps it’s far more complex than that at the moment.
And I think if you read together with that the fact that in many of these countries, such as Algeria, for instance, and in the case of Zimbabwe also, unfortunately, very rapidly, you had power abuse, and you had corruption at the very highest levels. What one should remember in the case of Zimbabwe is that around Mugabe you have a close number of senior officials and particularly senior military people who are very, very deeply tainted by corruption. You know the war, the Zimbabwean forces going into the Congo, for instance, at the time, a few years ago, to defend certain mines, etc. All of that led to huge skimming off of profits, in the same ways that happened with Uganda, when it comes from the eastern Congo. And I think it is—there’s a kind of an attempt to block any solution to the crisis in Zimbabwe, because they know that they’re going to be held responsible.
But the fact is that Zimbabwe, to the moment, is literally at the verge of imploding totally. Water has been cut off in Harare, because they don’t have the chemicals necessary to decontaminate the water. You know, there’s a cholera outbreak, which has now flown into South Africa, of course. Nobody knows exactly how many people died yet. But this is directly related to a deterioration of the water sources.
For the first time in Zimbabwe now, members of the army, of the defense forces, are starting to run amok in the town—in the streets of Harare, because they’re not being paid, so they’re trying to help themselves. And this is unfortunately the kind of thing, this kind of breakdown, where the government is entirely dependent for its power on its military means and on its police means, and if they no longer have the means to be able to pay those people, then of course people run wild. This has happened, unfortunately, in many parts.
Now, South Africa is profoundly to be held to account for not having been able to do anything about it. South Africa is the big neighbor in that area. All of Zimbabwe’s electricity is generated in South Africa, for instance. South Africa—Zimbabwe cannot import or export if it doesn’t go through South African ports. South Africa has a political relationship. If Thabo Mbeki’s government had stood firm and done what was necessary, because they could do so—they had that relationship with Mugabe—I think we would have seen a totally different picture by now.
I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. I think it’s going to take a massive international effort, even if we get beyond Mugabe, to try and rebuild that country, which is, by the way, potentially a very, very rich and a very strong country. It used to be considered the breadbasket of southern Africa and is now in the situation where, if it hadn’t been for international agencies, people won’t have food to eat. So this is really, I think, unfortunately, a textbook case of a ruling elite that has destroyed, for whatever narrow-minded purposes and hanging onto ill-gotten gains, the life and the existence of their own people.
AMY GOODMAN: Breyten Breytenbach, well-known South African activist, artist, painter, jailed in South Africa under apartheid. We’ll return to this interview in a minute. You can get a copy of the full hour by going to democracynow.org. Stay with us.
AMY GOODMAN: We return now to the exiled South African poet, anti-apartheid activist, Breyten Breytenbach. I asked him to talk about AFRICOM, the US Africa Command.
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Well, one is encouraged to see that not a single African country is willing to host the AFRICOM headquarters on their territory. I think I may have briefly alluded to it last time. One must keep in mind that, unfortunately, even now—and I think, unfortunately, it’s probably going to continue under the Obama administration—it would seem that the two major sources of interest when it comes to the African continent for the United States is security, the way they interpret it, in other words, how to counteract the possibility of Islamist influence in Africa.
And, of course, when one looks at Somalia, and when one looks at what’s happening in Mali, to some extent in southern Algeria, what’s happening in Chad, in the Sudan, these are real concerns. But I think these concerns are misread. I think, for instance, that breaking down, bringing down the Islamic government in Somalia has opened up a hornet’s nest, which is now coming to sting everybody else, because it was not an al-Qaeda government. I think there’s a total misunderstanding of the influence or role or presence of Islam in Africa, which is not a radical religion. That’s not the way we experience it in the continent at all. But any case, security seems to be the one, which has as a direct consequence the confirmation in power of the dictators in Africa, because these are the people who can collaborate with the American security forces.
And the second one, of course, is the access to natural resources, particularly to oil. Same effect. In other words, you’re not concerned about developing society. You’re not concerned about democracy. You’re not concerned about women’s rights. You’re not really particularly concerned about the health problems either, although some work has been done in that field. So, AFRICOM, I think, should be seen within that context. I know I’ve read that and I’ll say that they would be as interested in developing democracy and health services, etc., as they would be in maintaining security or assuring American security interest. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case.
AMY GOODMAN: The pirates off of Somalia, what context do you put them in?
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: You know, somehow, in some odd way, one has to nearly—one has to nearly admire, as happened a few days ago, when you have two small little skiffs trying to catch a huge passenger liner. You know, this is an act of such recklessness. I think what happens—obviously what we are seeing is a consequence of Somalia being a totally ungoverned country for the last decade now.
AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us some context? I think in the United States we hardly have a sense of the rest of the world, let alone Africa.
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Yeah, yeah.
AMY GOODMAN: But the trajectory of Somalia?
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Somalia had a longtime strongman called Siad Barre, who was brought down by an internal uprising by democratic forces, who were not originally necessarily religiously motivated, people who objected to a very, very long military regime that had been there. There was some moment of opportunity, I think, if the outside world had engaged these democratic forces who overthrew Siad Barre, that one could have helped them—
AMY GOODMAN: Siad Barre, long supported by the United States.
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Long supported by—long supported by the United States.
AMY GOODMAN: And the West.
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Of course, yes. You know, this is, we’re talking now, we’re talking of the tail end of the so-called Cold War, when any regime in Africa who will position himself against Soviet Union influence or Chinese influence would therefore be considered to be a friend of the United States. And the classical case is Mobutu, who was an absolutely bloody dictator in the Congo, and he was kept in power essentially by United States power, because he was considered to be our man. And we had the same thing happening when the Angolan civil war can be read in the same spectrum. So, instead of supporting the forces for democracy—