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South Africa’s “Failed Revolution,” Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama
« on: 2008-11-27 01:37:32 »
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[Blunderov] A must-read for anyone interested in what the Obama presidency may be like. A fascinating interview and well worth the time.

http://www.democracynow.org/2008/11/26/a_conversation_with_south_african_poet

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.

We speak with exiled South African poet, writer, painter, and outspoken activist for justice, Breyten Breytenbach. He was jailed for more than seven years under the apartheid regime, during which he wrote perhaps his most famous book, “The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist.” His brother was the head of the special forces in South Africa. Breytenbach has written a new article for Harper’s Maggazine titled, “Mandela’s Smile: Notes on South Africa’s Failed Revolution.”


Breyten Breytenbach, South African poet, writer, painter, and outspoken activist against injustice. He divides his time between New York University, where he teaches creative writing, and the Goree Institute in Senegal, West Africa.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, the war and peace report. I’m Amy Goodman. Breyten Breytenbach is the exiled South African poet, writer, painter, outspoken activist for justice. Born to an Africaaner or white South African family in 1939, he moved to Paris in the early 1960’s, became deeply involved with the anti-apartheid movement. He married a French woman of Vietnamese descent and faced the prospect of being arrested if he returned to South Africa because of laws banning interracial marriage. After a brief visit in 1973, Breyten Breytenbach founded an anti-apartheid group with other exiled white South Africans. In 1975 he returned secretly to South Africa under a false passport. He was arreted, charged with terrorism and imprisoned for more than seven years. One of his most famous books was based on his experience in prison, called The True Confessions Of An Albino Terrorist. Today, Breyten Breytenbach divides his time between the Goree Institute in Senegal and New York University, where he teaches creative writing. He’s the author of dozens of books of poetry, essays and has won numerous prizes and worldwide recognition for his writing and painting. His latest book is called All One Horse, and his most recent essay is published in the December issue of Harpers Magazine. It’s an open letter to Nelson Mandela called “Mandela’s Smile.” Welcome to Democracy Now!

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s good to have you with us.

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Good to be here. You have a great program.

AMY GOODMAN: Thank you. Going back in time to 1975, you weren’t just caught. Your group was infiltrated, right? They knew you were in France the minute you got that visa?

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: They followed you.

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: That’s right. We were probably infiltrated. We were also working as many organizations in those years from abroad in connection with a large underground supporting organization, which was probably also infiltrated, based in France, called Solidarité. So we were in contact with people from Brazil, from Mozambique, from Angola, from the middle east, from many parts of the world where there were liberation struggles going on. I suppose counterintelligence or intelligence agencies from all of these various countries had an interest in trying to understand what we were trying to do. So it is no surprise that we were infiltrated. I was caught after about two weeks in the country, yes.

AMY GOODMAN: And that’s when they jailed you – on charges of …

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: That’s when they—as happens under those circumstances, there was a preliminary period, quite extended, about six months, of interrogation, and then taken to trial and then quite a few other people were arrested with me. These were essentially people from the National Union of South African Students, people that I had been working with and we had been working with before. Another few close friends of mine. We were about 21 people at the time. I was the only one who ultimately was charged and sentenced to nine years for terrorism.

AMY GOODMAN: Your brother at the same time, Jan —

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: That’s right.

AMY GOODMAN: Was head of the South African Special Forces.

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: You a maw. [Sic] Yes. He was—uh-huh. Yes, he was the founder of a well-known infamous battalion called the Bitou Battalian, also known as the Buffaloes, made up of remnants of various Angolan opposition movements and worked with UNITA for the South African forces behind the lines, behind the lines of contact in Angola, later on in Namibia, and in various other parts of southern Africa. He was also the commander of special forces called [unintelligible] in South Africa and one paratroop battalion. So yes, he has a very long and I suppose illustrious career as the most decorated soldier in the history of South African armed forces. Wounded 17 times. And this may be a surprise but we are very close. In fact, I invited him last year to Goree where we had quite a wonderful workshop, last year August. Looking back at 50 years of African independence and 20 years since the South African changes took place. The concept was the notion of ethics in governance in Africa. And as a military expert, as a man of experience, together with people from other parts of the continent, he contributed and I was very interested in listening to what he had to say.

AMY GOODMAN: So here you were in jail, in the apartheid jail, he is the apartheid enforcer; did you communicate during that time?

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: No, not at all. He came to visit me once when I was in prison. We have always had—he’s my oldest brother. We have always had a close family relationship despite our political differences. And he jokingly said to me, do you want me to take you out of here? I can have you sprung from jail immediately. He was the only man from my family who had the possibility that one time to actually have a contact and visit with me, in other words, we were in the same room the way we are now. It was never allowed with my parents nor my wife or any other family member. I think that probably—I’m not sure he intervened on my behalf. I think he lives by his own code of conduct, his own commitment and his own ethic. But I do think that the fact of him being such a respected person in those circles probably had the effect of protecting me to a certain degree. I know that probably some of the interrogation officers didn’t go as far as actually physically waterboarding me or doing one of these extraordinary interrogation techniques that are now being practiced in so many parts of the world.

AMY GOODMAN: Were you beaten?

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: No, I was never beaten. I had a lot of psychological – torture I suppose one would call it—I was in isolation, in fact for the first two years of my incarceration after being sentenced I was kept in very strict isolation.

AMY GOODMAN: How do you survive isolation? What do you do?

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Well, you know I was not that young when I went in and I was lucky. I had a very active internal life as well as a writer and as a painter. I think one talks to oneself and one imagines a lot of things to yourself. I’ve written about this. I think after a while the shadows in the wall becomes as intriguing as a painting by Rembrandt or Breugel. The bird sounds that one hears, maybe from time to time, nearly—could be read or could heard as sonnets. I think that had a lot to do with it. I do think that one loses sense of oneself. It’s kind of a prolonged process of questioning and re-evaluating the sense of oneself – the I, the person. And perhaps recognizing that it is futile to hang on to a certain number of concepts one had of oneself, and to let go. In other words one is trying to build some kind of a freedom that cannot be attained by those who keep you in prison. But it’s not something I would want to encourage. I think if you’re going to do that you would rather go into a monastery.

AMY GOODMAN: What was it like for you? I mean, you were released from 1975 to 1982—

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Uh-huh.

AMY GOODMAN: Mandela still in prison at Ravin [Sic] [Bl. "Robben" (from the Dutch for "seal")]Island. When he was released, where were you? And how you came to know him?

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: I actually—of course, I knew of Mandela, you know, as all of us. We were very much involved in campaigns to try to have him freed all those years. When I went back in 1973, for instance, one of the missions I had was to meet with his wife, with Winnie Mandela, who was then under house arrest. It was one of those bad, bad movie scenes where you meet on the street corner and she’s disguised as a—as somebody working as a servant in the house. I can’t remember what I was disguised as. I transmitted some money to her from abroad. So I felt an affinity and a closeness to the Mandela clan and to the Mandela family and of course, as a fellow prisoner. In fact, the first time I had contact with Nelson directly I was working in the general stores in a prison call [unintelligible] in Cape Town. He was brought back from the island on his way to another prison inland and he had to be issued with new clothes. I was involved in doing that. I had to—I had to prepare his clothes for him. I remember how furious the warder were, at any notion that he may be getting privileged treatment. You know, as they were saying—using that very pejorative term, racist term, he’s a black like everybody else. Why should he be treated differently? When he came, when he arrived in that particular prison complex the security officer, a man called Ruz, also very red-faced, walked into my cell, threw his cap on my bed and said, very angry, I suppose you’re happy now? I said why? He said your boss is here. So I knew that he had arrived in prison. When he was released we were actually in the country and it was such a moment of absolute elation, such a moment of profound—it’s not easy I think to describe to people that after all those many years when that particular plan, Nelson Mandela, came to incarnate, embody the dream of freedom and the dream of justice and to see that man walking out, he was an old man already, walking out holding his fist in the air with dignity, and with courage, and as he walked out already in control of not only himself and his immediate environment but of the situation. He was taken to Cape Town and he made his speech from the balcony of City Hall, which was—which, of course, again was another powerful moment.

AMY GOODMAN: He was held for 27 years. IN 1973, When they caught him, wasn’t the information given of his whereabouts by the US C.I.A., handed over to the South African authorities?

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: There’s always been very, very close collaboration between the United States intelligence agencies and, of course, the diplomatic services and the apartheid regime. I remember in the—would it be at the end of the 1980’s when I was here in this country for the first time for a PEN-international conference, meeting with a man named Elliot Abrams in the office of The New Republic at the time and had a flaming argument about South African policies. At that time they were promoting something called constructive engagement, I think. And of course, my brother’s own adventures in Angola, he would be able to tell you the extent of CIA and American support they had. Whether Mandela was actually shocked by CIA information I’m not sure.

AMY GOODMAN: So he comes out of prison on February 11, 1990, a moment all in South Africa and the world will never forget, and what then—how is the plan laid out for a new South Africa-–a new election, a multiracial, multiparty election doesn’t take place for another four years. We talked to Desmond Tutu, the South African archbishop came in the other day, he voted for the first time in 1994 at the age of 63.

BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: It was also the first time I voted in a South African election, at least. In the meantime, I obtained French citizenship so I voted in France, but it was the first time I voted in my country of origin. I think part of the problems was traced back to that period and that process. Mandela had probably been – well, not probably, we know that he had been not negotiating but he had been having talks with South African authorities for quite a while. The contact between Mandela and the people with him in prison as comrades is close—people like Walter Sisulu and Mbeki and others and the outside wing of the ANC and the outside underground of the ANC. It was very difficult thing. So one had—one had the coming about of the de facto three components of the African National Congress, what we call the “insiles”, the prison people, the leaders, the historic leaders, the internal underground, grouped under an umbrella organization called the United Democratic Front, people like Desmond Tutu and others and, of course, the exile organization which was the official African National Congress led by Oliver Tandel.[Sic] [Bl. "Tambo"] And I think that although it was probably, certainly—we all believed in the same objectives, the way of going about it and perhaps even to some extent the ultimate goal as to what this story was for was not necessarily shared by everybody. I think Mandela and the people around him and certainly with the agreement of all the senior people in the ANC decided that the situation could only be negotiated to work towards a national government or a government of national coalition, which is how we had for the first few years, even de Klerk and some of his national party ministers, who were the architects and defenders of the party in the new liberation government. When de Klerk and the others then left and Mandela after he resigned and when he was released at the end of his first mandate – and Thabo Mbeki took over there was a new turn, I think, in the history of South Africa. I think the breakout we see at the moment within the agency was partly—can partly be understood in terms of – nearly to some extent competing traditions. The internal wing was really the people who were responsible for bringing the party to an end. The outside ANC was far of an ideological organization and probably far more attuned to international affairs and to international alliances. The fact of the demise of the Soviet Union around about the time, at the beginning of the 1980’s when the ANC came to power probably accounts to some extent for the strategic choice that was made and that we are getting to rue now. The strategic choice was to some extent the abandonment of the freedom charter which was essentially a socialist document and opting for a free market economic system.[Bl. My bolding] So as to be able to secure the interest, the financial interests and investments of the South African governing class, economic class and, of course, with the outside community. I remember the South African ambassador in Washington telling me that when our people came up in the first period, the State Department and the Treasury people would insist that they wear ties and that they don’t address one another as comrade. This is no longer allowed.

AMY GOODMAN: We have to break. When we come back, I want to talk about this very critical letter you have written to Nelson Mandela, his piece called “Mandela Smile” and a piece you are working on now talking about Mandela and Obama. Breyten Breytenbach is our guest for the rest of the hour. Stay with us.

BREAK

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 [Sic] [Bl. "phase"] 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 [Sic] [Bl. probably un-tender"] mercies of those in power, the dictators in power. You will have a resurgent [Sic] 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 than100 years 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.

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Re:South Africa’s “Failed Revolution,” Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama
« Reply #1 on: 2008-11-29 17:41:43 »
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An interesting comparison:

Quote:
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.


I think perhaps ending apartheid was a much greater change than anything Obama implied in his campaign. I'm personally not feeling overwhelmingly optimistic given some of his initial cabinet picks. However, I think if we want to know what kind of president Obama will actually be, it would be a better indicator to see who's left in his cabinet a year in, who is heading for the exits, and especially who he replaces the first resignations with. I'm personally rather skeptical that "a team of rivals" is a stable element any more than "a team of mavericks". On the other hand it isn't strictly the contradiction that maverick team presents, and it may be a good strategy to start with. It provides the Obama administration with a lot of necessary institutional knowledge and gives him the greatest possibilities for useful alliances. However, as I say, I think once everything gets set up and under control, I think some of these rivals will gracefully bow out. Actually I'm expecting Hillary to remain - her familial love of power will keep her interested and engaged, and her star power both domestically and abroad is simply too good for Obama to pass up. Outside of her, however, its anybody's guess who will stay, who will go, and who will replace them.

-Mo
« Last Edit: 2008-11-29 17:55:43 by MoEnzyme » Report to moderator   Logged

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