A Conversation With South African Poet and Anti-Apartheid Activist Breyten Breytenbach on His Own Imprisonment, South Africa’s “Failed Revolution,” Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama November 27, 2008Posted by rogerhollander in South Africa.
Tags: african national congress, amy goodman, anc, apartheid, breytenbach, capital punishment, capitalism, Democracy Now, liberation, mandela, nelson mandela, Obama, police repression, reconciliation commission, revolution, roger hollander, socialism, South Africa, violence, washington
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This is the second half of an interview with South African anti-Apartheid activist and writer, Breyten Breytenbach conducted by Amy Goodman on “Democracy Now!” Novermber 26, 2008. The first half of the interview discusses the anti-Apartheid battles prior to Mandela’s release and Breytenbach’s own experience in the sturggle and his seven year imprisonment. The second half of the interview speaks more to today’s South Africa, in particular the failures to stem violence and erase poverty. For the first half of the interview, you can go to the Democracy Now! website at:
AMY GOODMAN: Our guest for the hour is Breyten Breytenbach , the South African poet, writer and anti-apartheid activist. Dividing his time here in New York at New York University where he teaches creative writing and at Goree Institute in Senegal. You mention in your article in Harpers, former South African President and anti-apartheid Nelson Mandela turning 90 this July. More than 50,000 people attended a star studded concert in late June to honor Nelson Mandela.
NELSON MANDELA: Even as we celebrate, let us remind ourselves that our work is far from complete. Where there is poverty and sickness, including AIDS, where human beings are being oppressed, there is more work to be done. Our work is for freedom, for all.
AMY GOODMAN: Nelson Mandela at the 90th anniversary birthday—90th birthday party. Breyten Breytenbach, he says our work is far from done. Your piece in Harpers magazine called “Mandela’s Smile: notes on South Africa’s failed revolution”, a letter to Nelson Mandela on his 90th year.
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Well, its a harsh way of saying the same thing. The traditional wisdom has always been within the liberation movement that there’s probably a two-face process that needs to happen. One is national liberation, in other words, doing away with apartheid. And moving towards a dispensation where the majority of the people can participate in all of the processes that impact on their lives, political or social, cultural, economic. And the second one, the second phase that would perhaps one could describe as more hardcore, inner circle within the National Congress was that we would have to move towards a socialist revolution, perhaps, too provocative a word. People tend to get goose bumps using the word revolution. But what I mean by that is a profound restructuring of the power and of the economic system in a country. You know at the moment the gap between rich and poor is bigger, larger than it was under apartheid.
AMY GOODMAN: In South Africa?
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: In South Africa. Critical institutions have practically imploded under our national health system, to some extent our educational system, certainly our security system. It is claimed that even under apartheid more houses were built for the poor than has been built by the new government. Now, a lot of that ,a lot of that one can explain and one can take, one can contextualize because of the very difficult national conditions that came to power in, the international situation. But a lot of it is also, I think, must be brought to the door of responsibility of those in power within the ANC. There’s been a very rapid promotion and enrichment, quite obscenely so of a small number of senior cadres. Sometimes called a board room revolution. It’s a very intelligent and I suppose natural way for the for the very rich international enterprises in South Africa to obtain credibility by incorporates, by could he opting black faces or brown faces or Indian faces and paying them extraordinary amounts of money to do so. The fact that we’ve—we’ve opted for as I said earlier on—at the time of coming to power in 1992, from 1992 to 1994, and going to the free market system and subjecting ourselves to all of that, which is of course under external pressure, even now, the recent South African Ambassador Barbara Masekela to Washington would tell you that the American Treasury has a right to walk in whenever they want to South Africa and tell people what they should be doing in terms of economic policy.
AMY GOODMAN: Was that said critically?
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: It was critically, yes. It was critically. But my criticism would be directed at my own people, at our own people. I don’t think we should have expected any different. South Africa is a very rich country. It is also a country which has a very crude capitalist system. It’s been very profitable to many people, both nationally or minority nationally and to, of course, the international community as well. We knew this was going to be the case. We know what the policies— international policies in Africa are, more or less. It’s quite crude. It has to do with security and it has to do with access to natural resources. And by the way, unfortunately, I don’t think the new American administration is going to be any different. I don’t see any signs of that coming out at all.
AMY GOODMAN: What do you mean?
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: I mean that America in Africa is not about values. It’s about American interests as interpreted by—in a very narrow way by people in power here. It has to do with imagining that South Africa is being left to the un-tendered mercies of those in power, the dictators in power. You will have a resurgent or coming about of Islamist extremism. As somebody said, I read in a document, everything that is not defined or everything that’s opened is potentially dangerous. An empty space on the map, which is largely particularly is to the north, it’s potentially dangerous, it is thought by people in this country. I think that the security concern is going to be—is going to be a priority and, of course, access to oil, and access to diamonds, and access to precious wood and everything that comes out of the Congo. And South Africa fits within this pattern, so I don’t think we should have expected any different.
Where we can and we know historically, ethically, morally, politically, we could have expected different is the power, is the courage of our leaders with African National Congress and with the political parties as well to cover, to root for ourselves, within the context. We work powerfully enough to do so, we have the legitimacy, we have the history. After we talk enough the ANC which was founded more than100years ago, and gone through decades of intense and powerful struggle, where it was the vehicle for creating a new national identity with a new ethic underpinning and then when you come to the moment when we actually get to that power I can quite understand why we needed to have a transitory period of preventing civil war from happening, of neutralizing the South African armed forces, of having something like the Truth and Reconciliation Commission that would service a kind of—as a kind of a mechanism to—to pacify the people and to avoid extremes from taking place, extreme action. But we should have strategically fallen into lockstep with the North, or with the Western world when it comes to economic policies. And to some extent when it comes to political policies as well I find it utterly unacceptable.
I’m not holding Mandela responsible for that. I don’t think that—I don’t think at the time when he came to power he had the leeway or perhaps even internally the power to make it different. I think that strangely enough Mandela, perhaps because he’s such an adulated figure and because he’s become such become such an emblematic symbol, the real political power, in terms of his own party, and probably of the country was leached from him—and I’m somewhat concerned that maybe something similar may be happening to Obama. That, of course, we’re talking of vastly different moments in history. It seems to be very interesting and very intriguing parallels between these two men.
AMY GOODMAN: That there’s tremendous opportunity actually for change but they’re not going to …?
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: These two people first of all in their personal histories who obviously had to work very deeply upon themselves. Mandela said his major political work was done upon himself when he was in prison all those years. How to move from, say a nationalist leader to a national leader, how to move from historical revenge to reconciliation, to nation building- this is one of the easy things. I think in some ways it has to do with constructing one’s own identity, it has to do with constructing one’s own ethical guidelines. I think that’s what Mandela did and what Obama done also. But they come to power carried on a huge wave of popular expectation. You know, what I find painful at the moment it seems to me of course one doesn’t know because it’s at a very early stage – its that it seems to be kind of a discarding of what this national mandate actually means that brought Obama to power.
When, one to see the way the new administration is being constructed, it seems like Washington is continuing the way it always has. And that he would be locked in or be spun in a particular web of people who probably may even been very, very concerned, may even be very honest and serious, but do have vastly different interests from the people who put him in power, who voted for him. And I think this happened to some extent to Mandela as well. It’s nearly as if having achieved that kind of historical emblematic capacity of being able to bring such vastly different components of society together then somehow seems to incapacitate you, to be able to carry further that which historically really needs to be done.
AMY GOODMAN: You describe very graphically the violence in South Africa today. We live in a very insulated world in the United States, even as the most powerful country on Earth. Can you tell us what you see on the streets, what is the situation?
BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Well, the situation is that we have an average of 55 murders a day. We probably have some something like 150 women being raped. We have in vast parts of the country in urban areas what is in effect being considered as war zones. With organized hijacking, with police repression. You know, we’ve done away with capital punishment, which is something I think that everybody in South Africa is extremely proud of. Although, if it were to be put to the national vote I’m sure the majority of the people would want it to come back, as probably all of us would. I do think it took political courage. Also happened in France in 1981, by the way when Mitterrand came to power. And I’m very glad we did so. It’s being replaced by people being executed on the street. The failed revolution, the bitter frustration of thwarted expectations of the vast majority of the people of the country, when they are as poor as they were before or even poorer. Adding to that a huge influx of people from other parts of the continent, so-called [unintelligible] which is a horrible word, it means those who speak like birds, languages we don’t understand, and you probably have seen over the last year the ethnic—the internal ethnic violence within the African communities. Foreign Africans being chased and being beaten up and their properties being burned, etc. We have a state of lawlessness, we have an implosion of the security services. We don’t have political leadership coming from the minister of security or African National Congress. Not really so.
AMY GOODMAN: Breyten Breytenbach , we have to wrap up here. But I want to ask if we could have you back next week before you leave to finish this conversation. I think it’s a very important one. Breyten Breytenbach , South African poet, writer, painter, outspoken anti-apartheid activist.