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RIP Andre P Brink

Lifestyle Section - Opinion

  A South African literary giant and anti-apartheid activist has fallen. André P Brink died on Friday night on a KLM flight from Europe, where he had accepted an honorary doctorate in literature from the UCL Louvain-La-Neuve University in Belgium. His wife Karina Szczurek was at his side when he died. When the news broke of his untimely death (he was 79), social media channels burned bright as tributes poured in  from all over the world, reflecting on his prowess as an intellectual, academic, poet, author and activist – who singlehandedly turned  frikaans literature on its head.

I wish to convey, our heartfelt condolences to his family and members of the academic and literary communities. May his soul rest in peace.” Arts and culture minister Nathi Mthethwa said: “He was one of those distinguished writers who used his pen to fight apartheid. He made the idiom ‘the pen is mightier than the sword’ so true. His death is a great loss to South Africa.” A press statement from the department’s Sandile Memela on Monday said: “He was a true cultural activist, a legend and icon who used his talents to promote human rights.” Aside from this reference to his activism – he was a leading light in the Sestigers (Sixtiers), a group of Afrikaans writers that included Breyten Breytenbach and Ingrid Jonker, who publicly attacked apartheid, and two of his novels were banned for dealing
with the contentious issue of love across the colour line and the apartheid regime’s oppressive racial policies – the ANC and government have been strangely silent. It’s not as if his activism wasn’t understood and known – on September 27 2006, then President Thabo Mbeki awarded him the Order of Ikhamanga (Silver) for his “excellent contribution to literature and fighting for a just and democratic eociety”.

Pretty much every tribute since his death extolls his activism and the extent to which he endured the opprobrium of the Afrikaans community for challenging apartheid, so why this reticence on the part of government and the ANC? In July 2006, André’s daughter, Sonja, and her husband Graham invited my wife Elspeth and I to join them for a late evening drink at a popular Somerset West eatery. They had just returned from a reception at the French Embassy in Cape Town, that they had attended with André and Karina. Just 15 minutes after we met up, five heavily armed men walked into the restaurant and proceeded to relieve all of us of our possessions. Sonja and Elspeth were both punched in the face for “being cheeky” when they did not have to hand what was demanded of them – a mobile phone and wallet respectively.
Another patron was beaten to within an inch of his life with a bar stool for resisting.

After emptying the safe, the robbers locked us in the storeroom and fled. The perpetrators were never caught. Eight months later, after an escalating incidence of visits to the emergency room for apparent anaphylactic shock, Sonja was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder, and she spent 12 months in therapy.

It was only after Sonja wrote an open letter to then safety and security minister Charles Nqakula, demanding to know why incidents of this nature remained unpunished, that André put pen to paper, and wrote of his disillusionment with how the society he had fought to bring about, had so enormously impacted the life of his only daughter.

His criticism was pointed and specific, so much so that he was criticised publicly by Breyten Br ytenbach for turning his back on those for whom he had fought during the apartheid years. He relented to some extent in the face of this counter-criticism, when upon receiving the Order   If Ikhmanaga, he said: “Within a family there are fights like the one I'm having with government, but this award gives me a feeling of warmth and that you belong where your people are.” But the die was cast. He had dared to criticise the ANC.

In 2010 he came out publicly, directly criticising Jacob Zuma for the Protection of State Information Bill and the proposed media appeals tribunal, insisting that the proposals recalled “the worst of the apartheid regime.” Writing in the New York Times on September 11 2010, he said: “His (President Jacob Zuma’s) proposed legislation betrays a dangerous attitude toward the word, written or spoken.

It has been said that the prime function of the word is to interrogate silence; but if silence becomes sequestered beyond the reach of words, of language, of the press, of literature, that space becomes inhabited by lies and distortions, pretences and subterfuges and inadequacies of all kinds. “Those of us who lived through the previous regime, which relied so heavily on censorship for survival, know it doesn’t work that way. “How a government that owes its very existence to its faith in the indivisibility of freedom can now so easily betray that faith is beyond belief.

It is not just an act of foolishness, but of apocalyptic arrogance.” For the second time (and like so many others who fought against the oppression of apartheid), André Pierre Brink paid a heavy price for criticising the regime: ostracism, and that ostracism appears to have endured to this day. RIP André Pierre Brink. Those for whom consistently speaking truth to power is paramount, will always remember you.

Written by Norman McFarlane You are reading RIP Andre P Brink articles

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