Breyten Breytenbach on Imagining Africa

Before boarding my JFK-Frankfurt-Paris flight, I picked up a copy of the latest Harper’s magazine. Quite a worthwhile issue, though right now I only want to draw your attention to one piece, the opening piece of the READINGS section. I used to read a lot of Breyten Breytenbach, during the years he was in jail in South Africa before the end of the apartheid regime there; I even interviewed him a few months after he was released from jail for France Culture radio in the early eighties, but then lost track of him and his work, and so was very pleased to find this article which I hoped would bring me up to date with his thinking. It did indeed, and Breytenbach has certainly remained a very astute, intelligent and prophetic political commentator. Haper’s reprints extracts from his opening remarks for the ARTerial Conference, delivered March 5 at the Gorée Institute, Gorée Island, Senegal. Breytenbach is speaking for a need to imagine another possible Africa, and although what he says is not totally new, it is worth repeating and restating — and he does that excellently. Unhappily the piece is not available online unless you are a subscriber to Harper’s, but it and the rest of the issue are worth the price at the newsstand. Here are a few paragraphs from that reprint:

I would postulate that we of this generation are suffering from a massive failure of moral imagination. Instead of responsible freedom, we substituted self-enrichment and entitlement linked to cowardice, bad faith, the corruption of dependence, and the glorification of impotence or of posturing expressed as political correctness, whereby our languages were gutted of texture and color and we posited our shrill interventions on the mumbojumbo of “healing” and “closure,” changing the terms we use for looking at the objectionable in the hope of thus repressing horrible realities. In some instances we even went through the sinister farce—or are still indulging in it—whereby “confessing” to torture and repression is intended to elad to an absolution supposed to bring about “reconciliation.” This must be a prime example of practicing the hypocrisy of religious motivations as snake oil for social leproasy in order not to lose the essential: the power and the privileges of the rich and those whom they co-opt. Anything—any show, any stuffed bird— but the firm commitment to proceed from our shared humanity and bring about justice!
The new horizon we propose must be shaped by questioning all assumptions of legitimacy and “historical truth,” or the glib justifications of nation building and purported majority rule; it cannot afford to succumb to the dictates of the lowest common denominator. In art, ethical clarity (which is not the same as certainty) is the prerequisite for keeping our tools sharp and effective.As cultural practitioners we just cannot afford to assume, for instance, that market ideology is a moral imperative. All the above implies an ongoing awareness of the nature of awareness and accountability.

Take the issue of national languages as contribution to tis dialectic. The continuity and evolution of one’s language is the connection through which one can understandand assume responsibility for one’s actions. When you erase a people’s language, you obliterate its memory. And people without memor are rudderless, unconnected to their own history and clture, mimics who have placed their knowledge-of-self-and-other in a “psychic tomb” in the mistaken belief that if they master their colonizer’s language they will own it and be allowed to sit as equals at the dinner table and use it as a fork, however clumsily. It is not easy to eat crumbs with a foreign fork. Such a people, because of their alienation, will be dangerous to themselves and to others. Like hooligan parrots.

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1 Response

  1. Alison Croggon says:

    Thanks for that, Pierre – I hadn’t heard anything about Breytenbach for years. I love his poetry. “Ethical clatity” is a phrase I’ll keep by me.

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