Some days it is just hard to accept that almost 20 years into a nonracial society, persecution of creative intellectuals who are pro-black can still be such a powerful and dominating force in society, especially in literature.
I remember how leading Afrikaner writer André Brink sacrificed his privilege to challenge and change white supremacy. There are many other unsung literary heroes, like renowned poet Breyten Breytenbach and historical writer Sampie Terreblanche, who gave their talents to the struggle for racial justice.
We must be saddened that the persecution of men of such calibre has not ceased within the Afrikaner community they come from, which regards them as verraaier – traitors.
These few writers are examples of the role played by highly gifted creative intellectuals to create a new society that will be nonracial, just, equal and, above all, democratic.
It was in the 1980s that Brink released his powerful work, A Dry White Season, that not only heightened radical political commitment among the youth in the townships but, in its own way, revealed that some whites were opposed to apartheid. Creators of such highly political work that opposed apartheid were persecuted, especially within the Afrikaner community. It looks like this tendency has not stopped.
Brink was marginalised and persecuted because he revealed the shortcomings of apartheid ideology. He imagined a just and equal society through his writings. Recently, he was awarded a Jan Rabie scholarship to write a historical novel on the life of a slave woman, Philida. But there has been a sustained attack on his integrity as a writer simply because in a post-apartheid society he continues to focus on subjects that some Afrikaners prefer to bury. He is being persecuted because some people, like writer Rian Malan, feel that there is nothing special about blacks suffering under apartheid. The likes of Malan would prefer that Afrikaner writers erased and forgot colonialism, slavery, and apartheid that are responsible for the divisiveness and the lack of peace in this beautiful land.
Some white people still long to live in a society where perpetrators of the worst crime against humanity can be left alone to enjoy their privileges and freedom, where writers like Brink can leave them alone in their own laagers. But we cannot leave Brink alone and vulnerable, surrendering to the persecution of one of the most gifted and committed writers to come out of this country. These days, voices that come to Brink's defence are very few. Most folks in this society have become cynical about nonracism, equality or justice, so convinced that it is just a pipe in the Constitution that can never become a reality.
Clinging to fantasies
Those of us who promote social cohesion still cherish the vision of the society that writers like Brink advocate in their writings. We need to cherish and protect writers who wish to capture and reflect the tragic history that we come from. We have to sustain the resilience and commitment of creative intellectuals who believe in a just and equal society. When we protect Brink, it is not because we cling to fantasies of white guilt but because we understand what it means to write about slavery in a society that is in denial about its past.
In my black world, growing up in the townships, we grew up to value white comrades like Brink, Breytenbach, Terreblance, Braam Fischer and Beyers Naudé, among others, who abandoned privilege to become comrades in arms for a just society. Through them, we have come to know that it is possible for a white to commit to unconditional nonracialism. Sharing that struggle, we came to know intimately that, irrespective of your position, status or class, you can be a truly committed comrade. When it comes to a man like Brink, that commitment was first made through his mind and heart, and later realised through the quality and content of his literary works.
Over the years, our love and appreciation for men like Brink, Breytenbach and Terreblanche – who not only write honestly about our history but speak truth to power to realise a non-racial, just and equal society – has deepened. They have helped to take us away from that time where every white was presumed guilty for supporting apartheid and wished to rewrite history through erasure and forgetting. Brink's latest work Philida – about a slave woman in a farm in the Western Cape – is a creative reminder that literature is part of the struggle against forgetting. South Africans, especially whites, suffer from historical amnesia.
The work is a magnificent contribution to helping educate ourselves for critical consciousness in ways that enable us to appreciate where we come from. Not too many people know that slavery existed, and continues to, in this country.
The process of creating a nonracial society will include helping many white folks in coming to terms with the history of this beautiful land that, to quote Alan Paton, man cannot enjoy. Afrikaners must begin the process of self-healing through unlearning the tendency to be permanently in denial about what happened in this country. And black people must stop internalising white racism by keeping quiet when someone like Brink, Breytenbach or Terreblanche is persecuted for telling the truth about our history. We all have to transform our minds and hearts about who we are and where we come from.
There are some outstanding Afrikaner writers who have used their amazing creative talents for nonracialism, justice and equality. Many of these have been persecuted in their parochial communities. But they have always believed in the transformative power of literature or creative arts. This is the greatest gesture of patriotism that a creative intellectual can give: to write truly according to conscience.
We must not allow ourselves to be blinded to the reality that there is a lot of brouhaha over the awarding of the scholarship to Brink because of what he represents. The fact that he enjoys a successful writing career should not be used as an instrument to discriminate against his talent. It should not matter that a scholarship has been awarded to him despite the fact that he has a fat bank account. The equal and just society we want means that no person will be discriminated against because he is rich or poor. If the ideas that he presents towards enriching our history and self-understanding are the considered the best by an independent panel, he earns every right to be given the scholarship.
A creative intellectual must be judged by what he has to offer the country. It has absolutely nothing to do with how much he has in the bank or his status in society. There shall be equality and justice among all writers in the land.
Sandile Memela is the Chief Director for Social Cohesion in the Department of Arts and Culture. He writes in his personal capacity.