Prominent poet denounces crime in SA

A well-known émigré South African writer has unleashed his pen against crime and corruption in his homeland in a United States magazine, prompting a rebuke from Nelson Mandela’s office.

In an open letter to Mandela in the December issue of Harper’s magazine, Breyten Breytenbach described horrific attacks on relatives and others in South Africa, saying they are evidence of “a society in profound disarray”.

And the poet, memoirist and one-time anti-apartheid activist charges that Mandela is doing little more than raising funds for his charities from celebrities “who treat you like some exotic teddy bear to slobber over”.

In a statement on Wednesday, the Nelson Mandela Foundation’s CEO said he shared Breytenbach’s “sense of horror at the brutality of the crimes he describes, though not necessarily the overall implication that our situation is irredeemable”.

Achmat Dangor took particular issue with Breytenbach’s depiction of Mandela, who is 90 years old, retired and increasingly reluctant to take a public role. Mandela has left it to his foundation to continue his development and aid work — and to fend off those who would exploit his name and reputation.

Dangor said Breytenbach depicted Mandela “as descending into frivolity while the country burns. In fact the opposite is true.”

Dangor said Mandela “has used that world stage, yes, often in glamorous surroundings and in the presence of celebrities to make some profound calls upon his fellow country people — and the world — to act, against Aids, against poverty and inequality, to resist oppression and injustice. And most importantly, for others to take responsibility, to show leadership and to be courageous in that leadership.”

Dangor called on Breytenbach to return to South Africa and help build the country.

Mandela “did not choose to be an icon”, Dangor said. “We South Africans turned him into one, perhaps so that we can absolve ourselves from taking responsibility for our own destiny.”

Breytenbach had been an outspoken critic of apartheid who served seven years in prison for treason, convicted in 1975 for assisting Mandela’s then-outlawed African National Congress in its sabotage campaign against the apartheid government.


Breytenbach left South Africa for Paris after his release from prison in 1982. He remained active in the anti-apartheid cause in exile, but has made his life abroad.

Breytenbach is perhaps best known for his account of his imprisonment and the events leading to it — Confessions of an Albino Terrorist. — Sapa-AP

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