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An Hour with the Renowned South African Poet,
Writer, Painter and Anti-Apartheid Activist Breyten Breytenbach

StoryDecember 26, 2008
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Breyten Breytenbach is one of South Africa’s most famous poets. He’s also an award-winning writer and painter, and well-known as an anti-apartheid activist and outspoken advocate for justice around the world. The exiled poet was born to an Afrikaner or white South African family in 1939. He moved to Paris in the early 1960s and became deeply involved with the anti-apartheid movement. In 1975, Breytenbach returned secretly to South Africa under a false passport. He was arrested, charged with terrorism and imprisoned for seven years. One of his most famous books based on his experience in prison is called The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist. Today, Breytenbach divides his time between New York University, where he teaches creative writing, and the Goree Institute in Senegal, West Africa. [includes rush transcript]

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StoryNov 26, 2008Poet and Anti-Apartheid Activist Breyten Breytenbach on South Africa’s “Failed Revolution”
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Breyten Breytenbach is one of South Africa’s most famous poets. He’s also an award-winning writer and painter, well known as an anti-apartheid activist, outspoken advocate for justice around the world.

The exiled poet was born to an Afrikaner or white South African family in 1939. He moved to Paris in the early ’60s and became deeply involved with the anti-apartheid movement. In 1975, Breyten Breytenbach returned secretly to South Africa under a false passport. He was arrested, charged with terrorism and imprisoned for seven years. One of his most famous books, based on his experience in prison, is called The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist


Today, Breyten Breytenbach divides his time between New York University, where he teaches creative writing, and the Goree Institute in Senegal, West Africa.

I talked to Breyten Breytenbach earlier this month in New York and asked him to paint a picture of contemporary South Africa.

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Well, I think one needs to preface, whatever one says about South Africa, one tends to forget that enormous advances have been made since early ’90s. You know, to bring down apartheid, the system of discriminatory laws, segregation, it was a huge task. We’ve come a long way since then, but not necessarily heading in the right direction entirely.

    The situation at the moment is that we are heading for national elections in very early in the new year. The majority party, which is the ANC, which at the moment has a two-thirds majority, will be appointing a new president. That is the constitution, South African constitution. The president is not elected by popular vote. We’ve just now had a split within the majority party, a breakaway group. They call themselves the Congress of the People. Their very name is being disputed in courts by the African National Congress, who says that Congress of the People is something so associated with the African National Congress party, nobody else should be able to use it. One doesn’t quite know yet whether there’s going to be a significant opposition, because really there is no opposition to the African National Congress.

    We had a major meeting, a conference of the ANC last year at Polokwane, at what point — that was when Jacob Zuma was selected as the new president of the ANC, and thereby he will become the new president of South Africa. That’s also when the decisions were made to destitute Thabo Mbeki from power.

    But the more interesting thing that happened there was, I think, a shift that a lot of people had been pleading for for quite a while, a kind of an activation of the — what’s normally referred to as the second phase of the South African revolution, the first one having been national liberation and bringing down the apartheid laws, racist laws. The second one ideally would have been moving towards a social, socialist revolution in a rather old-fashioned way, or rather, in ways that we became accustomed to from the twentieth century. In other words, for all practical purposes, a one-party state, with the political party — with the political power seated in the party and not in parliament or in government. And there’s a strong movement in that way. That’s probably part of the reason why you had a split within the ANC.

    I think the split that happened is a good thing, in that it opens to new democratic space, confrontation of ideas, a new debate which had been absent for quite a while. It also probably will mean that the ANC, the rump ANC — they will still win the elections — may be held more accountable, because there’s been a huge problem ever since the ANC came to power. In fact, what has happened, I think I mentioned last time, is that we’ve had a growing gap between the rich and the poor. We’ve had what some people called a boardroom revolution, in other words, senior cadres for the ANC being taken into the capitalist boardrooms and becoming very rich in the process. But it really has not affected the daily lives of the majority of South African people.

    We have an implosion of some essential institutions in the country, public health, to some extent public education, to some extent security. There’s been something like about 10,000 very localized acts of uprising all over the country over the last number of years, and people don’t normally know this. This has normally taken the form of people in a particular small village or township blocking the roads, complaining about the fact that the local officials are not delivering on the services, on municipal services, burning tires in the streets, kicking out the ANC officials, etc. So there’s a huge kind of a popular dissatisfaction with the track record of the ANC.

    But I think, again, one should bracket that by saying that perhaps if one came to the country, the first thing that strikes one, from outside, if you know the rest of the continent, particularly, is how very vital and very alive the country is. Johannesburg is a huge metropolis. All the essential infrastructural features that you’ll expect to find in, say, the Western world, you’ll find in South Africa: roads and airlines, etc., etc., electricity most of the time. But it is accompanied by a very robust and, to some extent, a very lawless daily activity. Crime is a huge problem in the country.

    We have not really achieved that which Nelson Mandela set out to do, in other words, building a new nation based on the reconciliation concept. I think that there’s been a kind of a fallback from that intention with the coming to power of Thabo Mbeki, so that what you have is a kind of a falling back into the component elements of the South African society. You have the resurgence of racism to a large extent. The people who were the beneficiaries of the previous regime, the apartheid regime, tend to withdraw behind gated communities, if they can afford to do so. There’s a huge exodus of competence. Something like 27 percent of people who have university education have left the country. And this is something that the country can very badly afford. And you have — concurrently to that, you have the arrival of very, very large numbers of people from elsewhere in the continent, because, of course, South Africa is the El Dorado and with attentions that that bring. So, South Africa is, at the moment, in a very fragile transitional period where I think we are realizing that, in fact, people were happy too soon. We thought we were out of the woods, and we’re not out of the woods at all.

    AMY GOODMAN: Breyten Breytenbach, you also talk about the plight of children.


    AMY GOODMAN: You talk about the games of children —


    AMY GOODMAN: — even at school.

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Yes. Yes, this is really, really a huge problem. I think that — you know, South Africa has always been a construct, right from the very early times on. When the first colonials went, they tried to create a colonial state. Afterwards, there was an attempt to make of it a colony, a British colony. After that, the apartheid state. Now we have a liberated South African state. But South Africa has always been premised on, to a large extent, social and political engineering. In other words, people move — huge numbers of people move across the country. People went to the north to the Gold Reef to work, for instance.

    And with that came, of course, a breakup of many traditional structures, particularly family structures and family values, as well. So you have, together with this kind of a turnover population and a hybridization of cultures, you also have a distinction of traditional values, to a large extent. So you have many of the old laws and customs that are being questioned by the younger generation.

    We also have a generation of young people who grew up in the late apartheid years, when the slogan was “Liberation before education.” So we literally have a whole generation of young people, younger people, who have not been socialized, who have not been educated, particularly.

    We then have also all the young people who came back from exile, from the camps, who have been trained militarily and for whom jobs were not found. A lot of the very bad crime that we see in the country, in fact, is sort of perpetrated by groups of ex-MK people and other young people from within the country who take to arms and take to robbing, because that’s the only way they can possibly survive.

    And I think, with that, with a very hurried and a very complicated attempt to integrate the schools, there’s been a deterioration in the educational system. People try to flee — as you see in other parts of the world, and I’m sure you see it in this country, as well — flee the poor areas to try and get into better schools. And that doesn’t necessarily always work very well.

    So you’ve had — if you read all of this together — the bad economic situation, the bad security situation, the incompleted educational integration system — I think all of these are the underpinnings of the plight of the children in South Africa.

    AMY GOODMAN: The issue of AIDS.

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: The issue of AIDS. One out of five people in South Africa live with HIV/AIDS. And for a long time, this has been denied by the government for complex reasons. Unfortunately, none of these valid.

    We are now, finally, looking at the possibility of perhaps doing something about it. We have a new Minister of Public Health, Barbara Hogan, who is an excellent person. She’s just taken over as Minister of Public Health. And I think there’s going to be a real attempt made.

    But it is calculated that probably something like 30,000 people died, who should not have died, because they were not being given the medicines that they should have been given, the antiretrovirals, for instance, because the government just denied the very existence of HIV/AIDS. They fought a very stupid battle against big pharmaceutical companies, which under most circumstances would be a valid one, claiming that AIDS is, you know, a Western invention, it’s an attempt to genocide of the African population, and the pharmaceutical companies are poisoning the population.

    So we’ve been distracted by secondary considerations, when the real issue was what do we do to try and make it possible for people who are afflicted with HIV/AIDS to get the necessary medicine. How do we prevent the transfer of HIV/AIDS from mothers to children, for instance? That was a huge issue in the country. And how do we talk about this illness in such a way that it is not stigmatized and people are not excluded from society? Because that still is a big problem, too.

    AMY GOODMAN: Do you think progress has been made?

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: I think there’s a growing awareness. I think that South Africa is only really now starting to feel the economic consequences of that, because it is affecting huge, huge sums of people. People in the country tell me that they spend one or two days a week just going to funerals. You know, this is a huge, huge concern, obviously.

    And with HIV/AIDS, of course, come a whole slew of other things, such as tuberculosis, for instance, which is very widely spread in the country, or pneumonia. These days, people become vulnerable. People don’t — as we say in the country, you do not die of HIV/AIDS; you die of whatever illnesses you become vulnerable to, because of the repression of the possibility to resist it.

    So — but I think, yes. I think it is from within a community. This is something I think is very important to remember. There’s a Treatment Action Campaign, TAC, which was a revival of something which is very powerful within the recent South Africa history, and that is the notion of civics, we call them, in other words, civil society organizations, associations, which group themselves to fight for the protection of the population and to fight the unjust laws. And the interesting thing is that this TAC, which is a very powerful civic now, is actually issued from the liberation movement. The liberation movement government had great difficulty dealing with the TAC, because these were their very own people who were trying to hold them to account.

    I think the new minister is going to be interacting very closely with the civics, with civil society organizations. And I think she’s going to be very systematic in trying to do something about the problem.

    AMY GOODMAN: Breyten Breytenbach, I wanted to move from South Africa to Zimbabwe and what is happening there.


    AMY GOODMAN: Mugabe, the revolutionary leader who took over in the early 1980s, still there.

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Yes, yes. I was talking to a friend of mine who lives in South Africa, a wonderful African intellectual called Achille Mbembe, a few days ago. He was here in New York. He’s from the Cameroon originally. And we were saying that what needs to be done — I know it’s going to be a very painful chapter to open, but there’s been enough time now. What needs to be done is to assess the track record of liberation governments in Africa: South Africa, Zimbabwe, Eritrea, obviously, Guinea-Bissau. All of these — Mozambique, Angola. In all of these instances, we had — Algeria, a very interesting case in point also — where liberation movements came to power as the vectors of modernity and of justice, of social and economic justice, and the regain of dignity of the people.

    And somehow — and that is, I think, what we need to look at. It’s going to be a long and a complicated and a painful process. Somehow, we’ve seen that the liberation movements didn’t find it within themselves, probably because of the ideology, maybe also because of the many years of struggle and underground activity and having to remain very closely bonded together. They didn’t find the means to be able to open the ranks to a newer generation coming in. They didn’t seem to be able to consider the notion that we could have internal democracy and we should move to a second phase. We’re no longer in a liberation struggle. Perhaps it’s far more complex than that at the moment.

    And I think if you read together with that the fact that in many of these countries, such as Algeria, for instance, and in the case of Zimbabwe also, unfortunately, very rapidly, you had power abuse, and you had corruption at the very highest levels. What one should remember in the case of Zimbabwe is that around Mugabe you have a close number of senior officials and particularly senior military people who are very, very deeply tainted by corruption. You know the war, the Zimbabwean forces going into the Congo, for instance, at the time, a few years ago, to defend certain mines, etc. All of that led to huge skimming off of profits, in the same ways that happened with Uganda, when it comes from the eastern Congo. And I think it is — there’s a kind of an attempt to block any solution to the crisis in Zimbabwe, because they know that they’re going to be held responsible.

    But the fact is that Zimbabwe, to the moment, is literally at the verge of imploding totally. Water has been cut off in Harare, because they don’t have the chemicals necessary to decontaminate the water. You know, there’s a cholera outbreak, which has now flown into South Africa, of course. Nobody knows exactly how many people died yet. But this is directly related to a deterioration of the water sources.

    For the first time in Zimbabwe now, members of the army, of the defense forces, are starting to run amok in the town — in the streets of Harare, because they’re not being paid, so they’re trying to help themselves. And this is unfortunately the kind of thing, this kind of breakdown, where the government is entirely dependent for its power on its military means and on its police means, and if they no longer have the means to be able to pay those people, then of course people run wild. This has happened, unfortunately, in many parts.

    Now, South Africa is profoundly to be held to account for not having been able to do anything about it. South Africa is the big neighbor in that area. All of Zimbabwe’s electricity is generated in South Africa, for instance. South Africa — Zimbabwe cannot import or export if it doesn’t go through South African ports. South Africa has a political relationship. If Thabo Mbeki’s government had stood firm and done what was necessary, because they could do so — they had that relationship with Mugabe — I think we would have seen a totally different picture by now.

    I’m not sure what’s going to happen next. I think it’s going to take a massive international effort, even if we get beyond Mugabe, to try and rebuild that country, which is, by the way, potentially a very, very rich and a very strong country. It used to be considered the breadbasket of southern Africa and is now in the situation where, if it hadn’t been for international agencies, people won’t have food to eat. So this is really, I think, unfortunately, a textbook case of a ruling elite that has destroyed, for whatever narrow-minded purposes and hanging onto ill-gotten gains, the life and the existence of their own people.

AMY GOODMAN: Breyten Breytenbach, well-known South African activist, artist, painter, jailed in South Africa under apartheid. We’ll return to this interview in a minute. You can get a copy of the full hour by going to democracynow.org. Stay with us.


AMY GOODMAN: We return now to the exiled South African poet, anti-apartheid activist, Breyten Breytenbach. I asked him to talk about AFRICOM, the US Africa Command.

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Well, one is encouraged to see that not a single African country is willing to host the AFRICOM headquarters on their territory. I think I may have briefly alluded to it last time. One must keep in mind that, unfortunately, even now — and I think, unfortunately, it’s probably going to continue under the Obama administration — it would seem that the two major sources of interest when it comes to the African continent for the United States is security, the way they interpret it, in other words, how to counteract the possibility of Islamist influence in Africa.

    And, of course, when one looks at Somalia, and when one looks at what’s happening in Mali, to some extent in southern Algeria, what’s happening in Chad, in the Sudan, these are real concerns. But I think these concerns are misread. I think, for instance, that breaking down, bringing down the Islamic government in Somalia has opened up a hornet’s nest, which is now coming to sting everybody else, because it was not an al-Qaeda government. I think there’s a total misunderstanding of the influence or role or presence of Islam in Africa, which is not a radical religion. That’s not the way we experience it in the continent at all. But any case, security seems to be the one, which has as a direct consequence the confirmation in power of the dictators in Africa, because these are the people who can collaborate with the American security forces.

    And the second one, of course, is the access to natural resources, particularly to oil. Same effect. In other words, you’re not concerned about developing society. You’re not concerned about democracy. You’re not concerned about women’s rights. You’re not really particularly concerned about the health problems either, although some work has been done in that field. So, AFRICOM, I think, should be seen within that context. I know I’ve read that and I’ll say that they would be as interested in developing democracy and health services, etc., as they would be in maintaining security or assuring American security interest. But I don’t think that’s going to be the case.

    AMY GOODMAN: The pirates off of Somalia, what context do you put them in?

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: You know, somehow, in some odd way, one has to nearly — one has to nearly admire, as happened a few days ago, when you have two small little skiffs trying to catch a huge passenger liner. You know, this is an act of such recklessness. I think what happens — obviously what we are seeing is a consequence of Somalia being a totally ungoverned country for the last decade now.

    AMY GOODMAN: Can you give us some context? I think in the United States we hardly have a sense of the rest of the world, let alone Africa.


    AMY GOODMAN: But the trajectory of Somalia?

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Somalia had a longtime strongman called Siad Barre, who was brought down by an internal uprising by democratic forces, who were not originally necessarily religiously motivated, people who objected to a very, very long military regime that had been there. There was some moment of opportunity, I think, if the outside world had engaged these democratic forces who overthrew Siad Barre, that one could have helped them —

    AMY GOODMAN: Siad Barre, long supported by the United States.

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Long supported by — long supported by the United States.

    AMY GOODMAN: And the West.

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Of course, yes. You know, this is, we’re talking now, we’re talking of the tail end of the so-called Cold War, when any regime in Africa who will position himself against Soviet Union influence or Chinese influence would therefore be considered to be a friend of the United States. And the classical case is Mobutu, who was an absolutely bloody dictator in the Congo, and he was kept in power essentially by United States power, because he was considered to be our man. And we had the same thing happening when the Angolan civil war can be read in the same spectrum. So, instead of supporting the forces for democracy —-

    And, by the way, if I may just jump sideways, a more -— even a more painful case, was going to become more so as we move on in history, would be Algeria, where there were real democratic forces emanating from the liberation movement, from the FLN at that time, that the West just turned their backs on, because these people were socialists. The [inaudible] defining line in Africa, unfortunately, for a long time, during a civil war and even after there was, was not whether you were being dictatorial or not, whether you were socialist or not, and the West would do anything possible to prevent a real indigenous socialist-inspired government to come to power, any case.

    In the case of Somalia, then it deteriorated into internal civil war. Somalia is essentially — and that, under most circumstances, would be an interesting thing to look at — is made up of tribal allegiances and regional allegiances. And one could imagine that if one had some kind of a federal system, you would have a lot of local autonomy. In any event, there has not been a stable government ever since.

    When it was established a little bit more than ten years ago, the United States imagined, you’ll remember, the notion that al-Qaeda was established in the Sudan and to some extent in Somalia, as well, to bring down that government. They used Ethiopia as a proxy agent to do so. Ethiopia duly invaded Somalia, overthrew the religious council government and has not been able to keep the country down ever since. And, of course, you’ve had literally running fights going on all the time. Mogadishu is not governed at all. I mean, it depends on who’s got the most arms and what kind of a bit of territory that you could control.

    And I think what happens on the coast, these people — and it’s important to remember, the livelihood of people on the African coast have been destroyed entirely. You know, you have it on the west coast, this huge, massive outflow, people desperately trying to get into Europe in these small skiffs, in cayucos

    and in [inaudible] who make it to the Canary Islands. These are fisher folk, mostly. These are people who used to be able to live from the sea. The seas have been emptied by foreign fleets, just fishing, dragging, whatever the words are, out of the sea — China, particularly, Taiwan, to a large extent, Spain, etc.

    The same thing happened on the east coast. These pirates are people who, under other circumstances, ten years ago, fifteen years ago, would have been fisher people. So they had the skills for going to sea and, you know, going out to these big boats. I believe that they claim, to some extent, that there’s no reason why Somalia should not be getting some of the benefits of these huge tankers and others going up and down their coast. If it had been a duly established state, you would have had a customs department that would have been able to gather some money, as most countries do, for boats going through their territory waters or docking in their ports, etc. So there’s a kind of a strange, wild attempt by individuals or individual small organizations to actually make these tankers and these others pay.

    What one sees also, I think — and this is a very interesting configuration — that in all of the world now — and I think what happened in India a few days ago is another indication of a similar phenomenon — it is possible for small organizations of highly motivated and well-armed people to move in under the radar screen and really wreak havoc and cause chaos for the countries concerned and for the international community. The West, Western influence, and their client states in other parts of the world are going to have to face a kind of a generalized guerrilla warfare against them more and more so.

    I think people are — people have been pushed beyond the limit of tolerance and of acceptation. People know what’s happening in the world. They know that they are poor as compared to those who are living better off. People know that their rights are being taken away. Very early on in the book of Barack Obama, in the Dreams from My Father, he identifies this very clearly, that when people are pushed, particularly younger people, are pushed to the outer regions of being normal citizens with normal rights, there’s a kind of a nihilism that takes over. There’s a kind of despair. You take your refuge in whatever certainty you can find. It may be religious. It may be ideological. But the fact is that people know that they can disrupt the big machinery, the globalized world. Mind you, Wall Street is doing its best to disrupt it anyway, just by imploding, as it were.

    AMY GOODMAN: The difference is they’re being helped. They’re being bailed out.

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Exactly, they’re being bailed out.

    AMY GOODMAN: At all costs.

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: And they are not the — yes, and there’s talk of fixing the system and not of recognizing the fact that the system is the problem.

    AMY GOODMAN: China in Africa. I could have said China in the United States, considering how powerful China is for this country —


    AMY GOODMAN: — without people knowing it. But what is its presence in Africa?

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: It is significant. In fact, it is enormous. In a country like Angola, you probably have close to a million Chinese people there. China has been instrumental or has, over a very short period, over the last five to ten years, become a real presence in Africa. And in the first phase, it seems to be very much bolstering the regimes in place. There’s no political agenda, it would seem. It seems to be very much a way of assuring the access, again, to oil, particularly, which is why they are so close to the Sudan and which is why it’s a problem when it comes to Darfur. They seem to be rebuilding presidential palaces. They also seem to be involved in rebuilding essential infrastructure, like railroads and roads and things like that. It’s a curious return after the 1960s, when China was very present in a number of African countries at the time of Mao, but when it had real ideological and political contents. The railroad, for instance, from Dar es Salaam to Lusaka — I remember I was there at the time — was built by Chinese laborers. It was, you know, the railroad of peace. It was within a context of the competition between the Soviet Union and China, also between the West and the socialist bloc. But at the moment, it does not have that connotation.

    I know that Western powers are very nervous about China, because China is obviously a huge competitor for African markets. And it is true that in the case of Dakar, which is where I live most of the time, it is a problem. For instance, the small traders in Dakar, about a year ago, went on a general strike to complain or to protest against the fact that nearly all the products you buy in the streets now in Dakar are Chinese-made products, not necessarily adapted to African needs. You see thousands of young men walking up and down the streets of Dakar trying to flog, you know, watches and plastic this and plastic that, that are cheap, that are affordable.

    And, you know, the consumerist madness that’s taken over the world, this is what globalization is about. It’s the infection, spreading the addiction to consumerism, be it in terms of information, be it in terms of what you think you can afford to buy, etc., trying to be part of the world in that way, trying to wear the same jeans as everybody else does.

    But, so China is visibly physically present in terms of its produce, and that is a problem, because it’s pushing out of the market the African — the nascent African economies. In the case of South Africa, you have on the sidewalks literally people, hawkers in the streets of Johannesburg, Chinese people and African people fighting one another for sidewalk space. So it is a pressure.

    The bigger one, of China acquiring the support or the good will of African governments by huge investments, apparently with no strings attached, in the case of Nigeria, for instance, certainly in the case of Angola, in the case of South Africa, as well. All the South African ministers — all the African ministers of foreign affairs went for a meeting in Beijing to meet with their Chinese counterparts. China has an enormous institute working in trying to analyze and study African markets and African development, etc., something that no Western power has, by the way. The Chinese diplomats speak African languages. You know, this is something that’s happening right at the moment.

    AMY GOODMAN: Breyten Breytenbach, Susan Rice —


    AMY GOODMAN: — the incoming UN ambassador, and the Vice President-to-be —


    AMY GOODMAN: — Joseph Biden, both want military — have in the past called for military intervention in Darfur. What are your thoughts about that?

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: I don’t think — I don’t think it is a good idea for American military intervention anywhere in the world. I think it’s counterproductive. I think it — even if it may be well-intentioned, as it would be in the case of Darfur, because I’m not sure that it could be related to very direct American interest, although Sudan is a very big player in the African continent. But I would not think that American military intervention, be it in Afghanistan or anywhere in Africa or anywhere in Latin America, is something that should be on the agenda at all.

    I think that America needs to learn two things, if I may say so. And I know that one should not say these things, because this is a huge and a complex society. If we could break the syndrome of addiction — of addiction, of being addicted to eternal progress, to be addicted to the notion of borrowing, of being able to spend yourself out of any hole, of being addicted to this notion that America is paradise on earth and everybody who is powerful enough to be able to buy into that has the right to actually do so — that would be a wonderful gift, I think, to the rest of us. I think we need to revisit this whole notion of globalization. We have to look at it very carefully. We have to see that this has nothing to do with the good will to the world. This has to do with the expansion of international capitalism. And I think we really have to see to that. That is the crisis. That is the essential crisis.

    Second one is, I think the United States has to come to the point where it recognizes it does not have a messianic role in the rest of the world. This is not — this is counterproductive. What’s happened in Iraq is totally counterproductive. You cannot impose democracy anywhere.

    Now, to return to Darfur, obviously, it’s a desperate situation there. I would say that I would use whatever influence I have and whatever means I can put at the disposal of African initiatives to try and bring peace there. This is something that has to happen. It is possible. It’s a long and a complicated process, because Africa feels very defensive towards the rest of the world. So you cannot force them to take notice of what’s happening there. But we know. And I think there’s enough people who know that. And you can do that, by the way, by strengthening civil society organizations who are really very heavily concerned about what’s happening on the continent.

    If I may step back for a minute, there’s a big picture that’s emerging in Africa. Africa is rapidly moving to the point where we’re going to have to reconsider the viability of the nation-state concept, when it comes to the African continent, because governments are falling apart. These are plundering elites, as in the case of Zimbabwe, and as is the case with Senegal, for that matter, who use the notion of sovereignty, of national sovereignty and of national independence to be able to plunder and pillage their own people. African armies don’t fight one another; they fight the civilian population.

    But you have — parallel to that, you have developing a network, a continental network of civil society organizations, women’s organizations, children’s organizations, the youth, cultural organizations, human rights organizations. Those really, to a large extent, now produce very essential services. One should invest in these organizations. That’s the way it should happen. But, of course, it’s a complicated thing, because you are then denying this club, this very well fed, comfortable club, international club of rulers recognizing one another. And I think that is the road to follow.

    I think that the possible solution is going to be a long-term one, when it comes to Sudan, when it comes to Darfur — how do you strengthen the possibility of civil society organizations to be involved, to be active, to be on the ground, African organizations? Give them the means. Give them the support to be actually doing so. And if you can twist people’s arms politically, do that, as well. But intervening militarily is disastrous. It’s disastrous. It will not do any [inaudible]. And this is literally a case where the collateral damage far outweighs whatever good could possibly come from it.

AMY GOODMAN: Breyten Breytenbach, the well-known South African poet, activist, painter. This is Democracy Now!

If you’d like a copy of today’s show, you can go to our website at democracynow.org. Back in a minute.


AMY GOODMAN: South African singer Miriam Makeba, and we’ll hear a speech she gave at the United Nations in 1963 in a moment, but first we return to Breyten Breytenbach, here on Democracy Now!

, democracynow.org, the War and Peace Report, the exiled South African poet and anti-apartheid activist. I spoke to him when he was in New York earlier this month.

    AMY GOODMAN: We’re speaking on a day when there are funerals for two Palestinian teenagers; where Gaza is under siege; where the head of the UN General Assembly, the Nicaraguan Miguel d’Escoto Brockmann, has called for sanctions against Israel for the siege of Gaza, and where he compared South Africa, apartheid South Africa —


    AMY GOODMAN: — to Israel —


    AMY GOODMAN: — and what it’s doing in the Occupied Territories. You’ve warned against, at least in the past, that kind of comparison. Why?

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: For the simple reason that I think that we owe it to ourselves to see things as they are. If we’re going to be effective in our means of opposing injustice — and what is happening in the Occupied Territories is a massive injustice — I think this is probably, I would imagine, probably the most important, although it’s not the largest, maybe not the most consequential one in terms of loss of human life, and maybe not even in terms of the danger of regional conflagration, but this is the essential problem that the world has to face, the Palestinian-Israeli problem, the one of the Occupied Territories, the one of state terrorism, you know, the one of the extinction of the Palestinian people, because this is where it’s heading. This is literally a disappearance of a people. And I do think that this is the core issue that informs nearly everything else that happens in the Middle East.

    I think if you can find some kind of solution there, if you can find a way out there, if you had the moral imagination — and, by the way, I would plead for a one-state solution and not for a two-state solution. I do think that we’ve seen the means, the moral means of the parties concerned, as has happened elsewhere in the world, as has happened in South Africa, to be able to live together, even if it’s a very complicated thing and even if you’re going to have to gerrymander all kinds of structures to be able to do so, federal, whatever the case may be. But you have to do that. You cannot have this attrition going on. You cannot have this ongoing warfare with its strain of racism and cruelty and indifference and alienation, etc., including the alienation brought about to the young Israeli people who are involved in that.

    I was there. I happened to go there. I was lucky to spend a few days there. And people asked me the question, “Does this remind you of apartheid?” And, of course, it is. The premises are very much the same. You have essentially economic exploitation. Now, this is about stealing. This is about stealing land. This is about stealing means. This is about exploiting people. That’s the backdrop to it. And then racism. These are the two essential ingredients that we had in South Africa, as well. And then, to think that you can solve it by segregation and by having, you know, second-class citizens — in other words, some people have less rights than the other people have — these are the ingredients of what apartheid was. So, in that sense, yes, it is.

    But I would not — you know, I think it’s a shortcut that blunts our potential instruments at understanding the specificity of what’s happening, just to call it apartheid, in the same way as I always objected to people saying apartheid was a form of Nazism. Of course, it is in many ways, but, you know, it is trying to piggyback on an easy concept instead of doing the hard work of trying to dig into it and understand and make it clear what are the historical origins of this and in which way is it like that system that you compare it to and in which way is it different from it.

    I found that what I saw in the Occupied Territories, in some ways, worse than apartheid. There was an intimacy to the cruelty. There was a proximity, maybe because the territory is so much smaller. There was a kind of a wantonness in the destruction, you know? I saw the Sakakini Cultural Center, for instance, in Ramallah after it had been sacked by Israeli occupation forces, something which I don’t think we saw quite in the same way in South Africa.

    AMY GOODMAN: So what do you think has to be done? I mean, you have the lame-duck prime minister who’s been convicted on corruption charges —


    AMY GOODMAN: — now saying — Ehud Olmert saying that Israel should pull out of the Occupied Territories. But he is still the prime minister.

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Well, of course, he’s still the prime minister. But let us see what are the possible levers that could — the United States has never exercised pressure on the Israeli state. And we know that through direct and indirect subventions and forms of financial support, this is what makes it possible for the Israeli military regime to continue doing what it is doing there. I think one should start there. I think that it should be conditional. I really do think it should be conditional.

    One should start perhaps with the outer edges, which surely should be possible to do, to dismantle the settlements. This is illegal. By international law, this is illegal. The court in The Hague has declared it illegal. The United Nations has declared this illegal. Surely, it must be possible to do so. And surely, it must be possible to exert enough pressure on the Israeli government, whatever Israeli government there is, to dismantle it. These are their people. This is not something they should condone.

    What’s happening in Hebron at the moment, you have a few thousand people living in the heart of the city, surrounded by hundreds of thousands or tens of thousands of Palestinian people, and the Israeli army protects these people who are squatting the land of the Palestinians. I mean, this is madness, utter madness.

    I think that has to be done, and again, partners have to be found. The progressive forces, and very often these would be forces from within civil society, need to be strengthened. There are wonderful attempts being made. There’s a richness of history of people from within Israel, for instance, working across the border, Israeli-Palestinian civil society organizations trying to help people to plant and to harvest and to survive, or something like that, you know, resisting the settlers, resisting the occupation army. These things need to be strengthened. That needs to be understood.

    But the essential thing, the essential moment here, I think, in history, is the recognition of the fact that Israel exists thanks to the support of the United States, not the international community as such, but the United States. The United States has, in one particular instance — it really has within its means to make a difference there. And if it were to do that, I think this would be the beginning of a whole new interaction with the Middle East, with the rest of the world. I think, you know, this is taking the sting out of bin Laden immediately, I would imagine. It’s very simplistic, what I’m saying, but I do think that’s part of it.

    AMY GOODMAN: My last question, Breyten Breytenbach, Barack Obama campaigned on the slogan of change. What change would you like to see America represent?

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Well, obviously, one would wish, first of all, for the necessary change to come about within this country, which I think people don’t know enough about from outside, the huge discrepancies, the huge numbers of people living below the poverty line, you know, the decay of so many communities, the schooling system, the justice system, the fact that there’s capital punishment, which is utterly completely obscene, utterly so, utterly so. The United States, together with China, with Iran and a few other rogue regimes are still practicing this horrifying, brutal and brutalization of all of society by executing people. So, one would like to see things like that.

    But then I would return to the changes, when you’re seen from outside, that I think are important. And I think perhaps some things will start moving in that direction. The mere notion or the mere wish to be more collegial and to be consulting with other people abroad and other governments abroad before doing things, that’s really a step in the right direction. But America has to — the change that has to come, it has to from within its own capacity, because it has the Constitution, it has the institutions that can make it possible, withdraw from where it is as a rogue state at the moment.

    You cannot have torture. You cannot have extraordinary rendition. You cannot have that, because not only are you doing it to the people concerned — and you’ve done it to them to such an extent that probably some people cannot be released from Guantanamo, because probably then the whole world will see that they’re zombies. They’ve been broken entirely. And how many of the people have even been able to be found guilty for anything?

    But this cannot exist, not only because of what it does to the people, but because of what it does to the whole world, the international community. You’re introducing an agent of distinction of public international morals and of ethics. You know, this is poison. This is real poison. What has happened — what has happened — the breakdown of the Kyoto, for instance, Agreement is poison. The breakdown of the ban on mines, for instance, land mines and things like that, this is poison instilled, introduced, which gives license to all kinds of other people all over the world to just break the law, you know, and go in there and kill.

    So, America, by doing that, by becoming exemplary, by living up to its own ideals, by living up to its own better instincts, I think that is already a change that’s going to be so potent, so enormous, so strong.

    And then, I do think — there are two other things that I mentioned are going to be enormously important. It is not America’s duty to be the cop of the world. It cannot do so, because it’s not doing so for the right reasons. It has not been doing so for the right reasons. There’s no way you’re going to be able to convince anybody anywhere in the world that America went into Iraq to establish democracy. You know, this just doesn’t hold, so, neither, for that matter, if you go back in history, whether it was Nicaragua, or whether it was Grenada, etc., etc., or the stupid exclusion of Cuba. I mean, these horrific effects of trying to imagine you can impose your will — and it’s not even your will; it is your interest — on the rest of the world, that has to change, because if it does not change, we’re going to inherit a world that we have at the moment, one of ongoing warfare. We cannot have that. We cannot do that. You know, this is not an option.

    And the second one is, I think really, really, people are going to have to revisit this notion that capitalism is the solution for all of the world’s ails. It’s not working. It is not working. I mean, I think what we’ve seen now recently is a very graphic illustration of the complete disconnect between speculative fluff money based on nothing and what’s actually happening on the ground. It’s not linked to real products, not linked to real people. That connection has to be broken. That system of institutionalized greed has to be broken down, has to be seen.

    What comes in its place is going to be long and complex. One has to look at Sweden. One is going to have to look at Europe. One is going to have a look at Africa. There are other alternatives to this. The alternative is not communism and capitalism, for Pete’s sake. The alternative is democracy, as opposed to capitalism. And I think it can be done. I think it’s going to be complex. And I think one should, if Obama is headed that direction, and I wish and I pray that he is headed in that direction, and I hope he doesn’t depend on too many people whom he’s trying to make it work for him, who may not have the same agenda that he has, but if that is the case, I think he should be supported in all possible ways.

    AMY GOODMAN: Breyten Breytenbach, thanks so much for being with us.

    BREYTEN BREYTENBACH: Thank you. Thank you.

AMY GOODMAN: Breyten Breytenbach, exiled and jailed South African poet, writer, painter and anti-apartheid activist.

As we end today’s show with Miriam Makeba, one of Africa’s best-known singers, a champion of the fight against apartheid during three decades in exile. Miriam Makeba died at the age of seventy-six on November 9th. She had been in Italy for a concert. She was known as Mama Africa, was the first black South African musician to gain international fame.

This is an excerpt of a speech she gave at the United Nations in 1963. As a result of this public testimony against apartheid, her South African citizenship and right to return were revoked.

    MIRIAM MAKEBA: I ask you and all the leaders of the world, would you act differently? Would you keep silent and do nothing if you were in our place? Would you not resist if you were allowed no rights in your own country because the color of your skin is different to that of the rulers and if you were punished for even asking for equality? I appeal to you and to you, to all the countries of the world, to do everything you can to stop the coming tragedy. I appeal to you to save the lives of our leaders, to empty the prisons of all those who should never have been there.

AMY GOODMAN: The late, great South African singer Miriam Makeba, speaking out at the United Nations against apartheid in 1963. We close today’s broadcast with a song she performed in 1966. It’s called “Khawuleza.”

    MIRIAM MAKEBA: “Khawuleza.” “Khawuleza” is a South African song. It comes from the townships, locations, reservations, whichever, near the cities of South Africa, where all the black South Africans live. The children shout from the streets as they see police cars coming to raid their homes for one thing or another. They say, “Khawuleza, Mama!” which simply means, “Hurry, Mama! Please, please don’t let them catch you!”

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Poet and Anti-Apartheid Activist Breyten Breytenbach on South Africa’s “Failed Revolution”

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