’There’s so much constantly to react to in the world in which we live, and in a country like South Africa, that can become a full-time occupation’
Patriotic South Africans like to say that the biggest diagnosticians of their country’s failings tend to have something in common: not living in South Africa. One exception to this rule is the novelist André Brink, a famous critic of apartheid in the 1970s and 80s who lives in Rondebosch in Cape Town, not far from the university. Brink came to know many of the African National Congress’s leaders during their years of exile, and has high-profile admirers in the organisation – among them Nelson Mandela, who once told him: “When I was in prison, you changed the way I saw the world.” Yet he doesn’t pull his punches in the state-of-the-nation section that closes his memoir A Fork in the Road (2009), which finds plenty of fault with unreconstructed white South Africans but focuses chiefly on the “crime tsunami”, Aids quackery, corruption and dubious foreign policy manoeuvres presided over by Mandela’s successors. “Now that the ANC has moved into power,” he writes, “its regime sadly must be branded as the enemy of the people.”
“I know it was phrased in rather strong terms,” Brink says over coffee in his British publishers’ canteen, “but the strength of my disappointment was at least in part caused by the extremely high expectations that I had. They just were dashed. To see people I’d come to regard as friends – really sensitive and intelligent people – acting in such despicable ways, repeating all the predictable stupidities of their predecessors . . . I had somehow thought that they would be different. There I certainly was wrong. Human nature remains human nature, but one would like to make certain exceptions. And in South Africa, with people like Mandela and Desmond Tutu, we had reason to believe that some people could be different.” A few did live up to his expectations – he mentions the former ministers Kader Asmal and, “up to a certain point”, Trevor Manuel – but post-Mandela, he says, people he’d had high hopes of “started falling one by one.”
Brink has “almost a veneration” for Mandela himself, whom he wishes had stayed on for a second term in office. “Because Thabo Mbeki – for whom I had quite a lot of respect initially – really became a total failure.” As for white South Africans, “it seems to me that the majority of them simply abdicated whatever responsibility they had. To a certain extent, it resembles the way in which many white English-speakers in the country said ’This is nothing to do with us’ and just stood back after the Afrikaners came to power in 1948.” Nor is he optimistic about the World Cup: “Many tickets never got sold because people are simply scared about going.” South Africa’s successful hosting of the 1995 Rugby World Cup “was one of the great manifestations of ’the rainbow nation’ – a concept which has sadly bitten the dust. I don’t know whether the same can happen with soccer. We have a dismal team, so there will be little in the event itself to bring together the whole nation.”
Many of these views aren’t uncommon among disgruntled liberals in South Africa, and Brink is well aware that, as a white intellectual, he’s easily dismissed as a person of diminished relevance or worse. Do his credentials from the liberation struggle help? “That’s difficult to say, because one never knows exactly where the line is. I am a bit apprehensive about this young shit Julius Malema” – a highly controversial ANC politician who’s widely viewed by white South Africans as a Robert Mugabe-in-waiting. “He may well go on to the attack if somehow it gets through to him what I said on the news last night – that he should be stripped of any power or influence he has, because he is a danger to the system he’s supposed to represent.” Brink is more circumspect about Jacob Zuma, South Africa’s current president: “I’ve been meaning for a while now to try to arrange a meeting with him, but at the moment I have such a muddled impression of the man that it wouldn’t be fair either to him or to me to have a talk.”
This note of familiarity with the South African elite – including Zola Skweyiya, the current ambassador to the UK, whom he describes as “a nice man, with all the good and bad that term implies” – can look a bit lordly when transcribed into print. Some reviewers of his memoir also detected a degree of self-importance: “No one”, the novelist Christopher Hope wrote, “could say that Brink takes his work, or himself, too lightly.” In person, however, Brink makes more of the space between himself and the role of a political intellectual, a role that apartheid made unavoidable for his generation of South African writers. “By nature,” he says, “I am not a very forceful sort of person. I am not really an activist, I’m really rather timid.” As the apartheid system entrenched itself, though, “I just couldn’t take the things that were happening. And perhaps because my early life was so peaceful, I needed to look for some vocation in order to go on writing. Because throughout my life everything has really been geared to writing.”
Born in 1935, Brink grew up in a succession of “small dun-coloured villages” in South Africa’s interior, where his father, Daniel, worked as a magistrate. The family spoke Afrikaans, though Brink’s mother, Aletta, taught English, and the imaginative little boy’s first steps in that language helped develop his inner ear. His parents were Afrikaner nationalists, with all the beliefs that went with it. Daniel, whose father had fought ingloriously in the Anglo-Boer war, was anti-British, and when he discovered that the singer Marian Anderson was African-American, he started turning off the radio whenever she came on. Casual white-on-black violence was a fact of life during Brink’s early years, and the Calvinist teachings of the Dutch Reformed church cast a long shadow too. In his memoir, he recalls a pious phase during which he assembled a crowd of dark-skinned domestics and preached them a sermon on the Biblical reasons for their subordinate status.
Studying literature at Potchefstroom University, he continued to have the values of Afrikanerdom instilled in him. Along with the future president FW de Klerk, he was inducted into the junior branch of the Broederbond, an Afrikaner secret society that dominated apartheid-era politics. At the same time, he won a scholarship to Paris, a city he’d begun to take an interest in partly from certain notions concerning girls that he’d gleaned from Henry Miller and partly from a growing love for the French language – “Although,” he says, “I had to discover that what passes for French in a small corner of an Afrikaans university had absolutely fuck all to do with real French.” Albert Camus died soon after his arrival, and he fell under the sway of Camus’s brand of existentialism. He also mixed for the first time with non-white people on equal terms. After the Sharpeville massacre in 1960, he began to think more critically about his nationalist upbringing. When his bursary ran out a year later, he wasn’t altogether pleased to go home.
During the 60s he wrote novels and plays in Afrikaans while working as a university lecturer. For most of the decade, he was more of a gadfly than a declared opponent of the state, but he and several other young Afrikaans-language writers, who became known as the Sestigers (“Sixtiers”), dealt sufficiently freely with religious and sexual matters to appal the guardians of public morality. A novel by Brink’s friend Etienne Leroux was publicly denounced by a Protestant minister not only for what was in it, “but most especially because of what one can imagine happening between the chapters”. An upright matron is said to have complained that, while reading the same novel, she was sexually aroused “exactly 69 times”. Brink had a turbulent romantic relationship with Ingrid Jonker, a poet and fellow Sestiger whose suicide in 1965 had a Sylvia Plath-like resonance in Cape Town. Another significant political-literary friendship was with the poet Breyten Breytenbach, who was later imprisoned for his activities on behalf of the ANC.
After a further spell in Paris, during which he imbibed the air of May 68, Brink became more committed to speaking out. He and Breytenbach first clashed with the state in 1973, Breytenbach by embarrassing the authorities into letting him visit South Africa with his Vietnamese-born wife, and then proclaiming Afrikaners “a bastard people with a bastard language”. Breytenbach’s “mixed” marriage, illegal in his homeland, was deemed troubling as well as provocative, Brink says, partly because his wife “was so bloody beautiful that they could quite understand it – and of course it’s always been a sort of national sport among Afrikaners to have sex with coloured people whenever they had the opportunity.” Sex also played a part in Brink’s rebellion: his 1973 novel Kennis van die Aanddealt not only with apartheid but with the taboo subject of a love affair between a “coloured” man and a white woman. It became the first book in Afrikaans to be banned under apartheid-era legislation, and Brink was marked out as a traitor to his people.
“Until that time,” he says, “however much I had presented myself as an antagonist to the regime, I was still regarded – because of my language and the colour of my skin – as one of the family. It was a kind of benign tolerance: I was allowed to say and do certain things, because I was Afrikaans, until I’d overstepped an imaginary line.” In order to continue publishing outside South Africa, he started writing in English: Kennis van die Aand became Looking on Darkness (1974), and a string of internationally admired novels followed, among them Rumours of Rain(1978), A Dry White Season (1979) and A Chain of Voices (1981). His switch of languages was also viewed as a betrayal, and he was targeted by the security services. “A ban never simply meant silencing you, it meant that you were seen as an enemy of the state. There was an attempt to firebomb my house, to sabotage my car, to threaten my family . . . The house searches that I was subjected to, the interrogations – they were not pleasant to live through.”
Throughout all this, though, “there was a strange ambiguity about the whole function that I fulfilled. Even in the years following Looking on Darkness, I continued having a column in the biggest Afrikaans newspaper, writing a little story every week. And these stories were all very humorous, I wanted to draw on the whole rich tapestry of rather earthy humour that Afrikaners have. So among ordinary readers, I was a humorous writer.” Once, in the 80s, a distant cousin arranged for him to join a group of politicians and businessmen on a visit to the South African forces operating in Angola. “I was allowed, even though I was an enemy of the state, to go on a trip like this. And almost everybody I encountered only knew me from my column, so they thought I was a hell of a funny person and we established very hearty relations . . . The security police wouldn’t take me with a pinch of salt, but for some people in positions of power, I remained acceptable, and that gave me room to manoeuvre.”
Years after white rule passed into history, he occupies a similarly ambiguous position with regard to political power in South Africa. He is a respected writer with some access to the powerful, but also a slightly marginal figure in a country where black intellectuals have a better chance of holding the government to account. In his memoir he often speaks of himself as a heretic, but a heretic needs an orthodoxy to transgress. Isn’t it a rather passive, reactive role? “Yes,” Brink says “I think that has characterised quite a lot of my life – not necessarily starting and instigating things, but reacting to them. And there’s so much constantly to react to in the world in which we live, and in a country like South Africa, that can become a full-time occupation. But I would like to think that it isn’t always me waiting for something to happen in order to be able to react. And sometimes it becomes a matter of retaliating before you’re hit.”
Emboldened, I raise the subject of women. Large numbers of girlfriends appear in his memoir, which mentions several wives without disclosing how many times he’s been married. When I ask him, he says: “It sounds worse than it is. Well, perhaps it doesn’t. Perhaps it just sounds as bad as it is: six times. And Karina” – his younger, strikingly attractive present wife – “has always said, because she also writes, that if ever she writes an autobiographical thing she would like to call it The Sixth Mrs Brink. It makes me sound really terrible, like Zsa Zsa Gabor or Elizabeth Taylor. Not people I necessarily respect. But it just so happened that, when something didn’t work out – it wasn’t a matter, I hope, of running away – I would rather try again elsewhere than try to . . . struggle on through the mud, and wade along through a marsh. But I do think – not just think, really feel in my bones – that I have finally come home.”
Segueing from “home”, I ask about JM Coetzee, whose decision to leave South Africa for Australia is said to have caused resentment in some quarters. Brink worked with him for years at the University of Cape Town, “and learned a hell of a lot from him. I always admire writers who can pare everything down to the essential; it’s totally the opposite of what I do, and we were so different that I could very deeply respect what he was doing without feeling that I had to compete with him. Anybody can understand why somebody might reach a point when they just want to move out. And after he published Disgrace, there was such a violent reaction against him, especially from within the ANC, that I can’t blame him for deciding that he’d bloody well had enough. Although, on a very personal level,” he adds with a look of exaggerated innocence, “I can’t understand why anybody would want to go to Australia.”
Has he contemplated leaving? Or is he there for life? “I think I am,” Brink says. “It would certainly take an enormous shock to dislodge me. At this stage, it’s simply a matter of thinking that – especially after I came back from Paris the second time, when it was a conscious decision and not just my money running out – I have lived through so much in South Africa, and so much of it was bloody awful, but I’ve managed to survive that, and I wouldn’t like to go away now. If I had to move, I would love to go to France, to which I am still very passionately attached. Or even to Austria, where my wife comes from. Her parents still live there, we could have a little house on their property, it would be a marvellous existence. But the idea of spending my old age in peace and quiet – no! I don’t want peace and quiet, I want a certain sense of provocation, certainly of challenge. I’ve been conditioned to such an extent that I need at least a modicum of that.”
See online: Books – A life in writing: André Brink