Breyten Breytenbach was born in a conservative small town, Bonnievale, on the western side of Cape Town. He entered the then-unsegregated Cape Town University to study painting. The opportunity, for him, was revolutionary. For the first time, Breytenbach met Africans as equals, mixed with left-wing student groups, and delighted in his intellectual freedom and his escape from the narrowness and racism of his upbringing. He became a member of the radical African National Congress. At twenty-one, he left for Paris, completing his liberation, or revolt, from his family and race.
He married a Vietnamese woman (illegal under his country’s race acts). “It was . . . against the moral principles of the Christian Community that two human beings of different skin colour should lie together.” He had no choice but to remain in Paris, where he worked as an artist. He was prevented from returning with his wife even to accept the national prizes that were being awarded his work. A brief visit was arranged in 1972, during which his wife stayed across the border in independent and unsegregated Swaziland. This discrimination and rejection fostered his resentment. In 1975, he decided on active involvement and made plans almost as bizarre in practice as they were optimistic in intention. He returned on a forged French passport to set up a revolutionary organization for whites called Okhela, which would use sabotage and guerrilla action to overthrow the government.
There is still some confusion about his true motives and expectations. Given his wide fame, his attempt at disguise was ludicrous. He was arrested, and charged under the Terrorism Act. His unexpected apologies to the court allowed him to escape a potential death penalty, but he was sentenced to nine years imprisonment for terrorism. Frequent international appeals effected his release in 1982, and he returned to Paris, where he continued his writing and committed involvement with anti-apartheid movements.
Breytenbach spent the 1990’s writing a number of fiction and nonfiction titles, many of which explore the politics and post-apartheid era of South Africa, as well as two memoirs. His work as a painter increased in visibility with a number of one-man exhibitions held at the South African Association of Arts in Cape Town and at the UNISA Art Gallery in Pretoria, and in France, the Netherlands, Sweden, and Germany. He also co-founded the Gorée Foundation on the Gorée Islands off the coast of Senegal, which helps promote democratic unity on the African continent. In 2000 he was appointed a visiting professor in the University of Cape Town’s School of Humanities, an appointment that lasts for three years. He also dedicated part of his time to his continuing work with the University of New York, serving in the Graduate School of Creative Writing.
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