Maverick Life


Breyten Breytenbach — Prisoner of consciousness, my hero

Breyten Breytenbach — Prisoner of consciousness, my hero
Breyten Breytenbach arrives at the High Court, May 1977. Image: Rapport

Breytenbach had offended the apartheid rulers and now he was their prisoner. They were going to roll out the red carpet in the form of a show trial with the Judge President of the Transvaal Provincial Division of the Supreme Court (PM Cillié) presiding — in André Brink’s words, ‘like a fat, pink blancmange pudding’.

I was ferrying foreign sailors and local ‘ladies of the night’ around Durban’s nocturnal streets in an Eagle taxi when I first came across Breyten Breytenbach’s name in the headlines of a Sunday newspaper. In February 1973, he addressed the University of Cape Town’s Summer School and what he had to say caused displeasure in the upper echelons of the ruling Afrikaner elite. He was a poet, I read, a Sestiger, who lived in Paris. The government had granted special permission for his wife, Yolande — who was Vietnamese and therefore classified by the apartheid government as non-white — to accompany him on a visit to South Africa and how had he repaid their magnanimity? By making offensive public statements — in English, nogal — such as: “Apartheid is the law of the bastard”. 

That’s when I knew I wanted to meet him.

From what I’d read, I realised he and André Brink were friends. Brink had lectured me at Rhodes and, as I’d got to know him fairly well, I wrote to him, said I’d like to meet Breytenbach when I eventually got to Europe and asked if, when the time came, he’d give me an introduction. Driving taxis was part of my strategy for getting to Europe. Obviously, I needed to earn the money but I also secretly hoped that when my grandparents discovered I was, albeit indirectly, aiding and abetting the crime of prostitution, they’d reach into their deep pockets and help me get there. They did.

In December 1974, while I was preparing to direct a student production of Brink’s play Pavane at the University of Cardiff’s Sherman Theatre, the two leading actors and I decided to spend Christmas in Paris. Barbara — who was English — had a car, Roberto — from Buenos Aires with an Italian father and a French mother — spoke French, and I, a former taxi driver, had the chutzpah to say driving around Paris on the wrong side of the road would be a piece of cake. Some cake.

Brink had written to Breytenbach about my impending visit, so he was expecting my call. He suggested we move into Hotel Senlis. It was close to his apartment in Rue Malebranche and was where Brink stayed when he visited Paris. When we checked in, I found he’d left a note at reception suggesting we meet the following morning at Café Le Soufflot.

I’d arrived early and — speaking English with a French accent — was doing my best to make an excitable waiter understand I was there to meet someone, when I caught sight of a figure silhouetted against the Panthéon. As he strode across Rue Soufflot in calf-length Spanish boots, a wide-brimmed black hat and a long mustard-coloured duster coat, I could hear the swelling strains of Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack to Once Upon a Time in the West. Breytenbach certainly knew how to make an entrance.

He seemed an impossibly romantic figure when he shook my hand and flashed me a broad smile. We drank café au lait and, in his soft-spoken and engaging manner, Breytenbach asked me about myself. Brink had obviously briefed him because he told me he knew this English girl, Joanna, who ran an English-language theatre group. She wanted to put on an Athol Fugard play. Maybe I could direct it. Breytenbach was happy to set up a meeting. Was I interested? I was very interested.

Then he said he had to go and drop off or collect something from Orly Airport and, if I had nothing better to do, why didn’t I come along for the ride? I definitely had nothing better to do. We climbed the circular, wooden staircase to his top-floor apartment and collected his car keys. Before leaving, he insisted on playing me something on an old plastic reel-to-reel tape recorder. I was confused when I heard “Die gezoem van die bye”, Des Lindberg’s version of Big Rock Candy Mountain. At the time, I snobbishly regarded it as kitsch, but Breytenbach listened intently and smiled a faraway smile. In years to come, I’d smile the same sad smile as I listened to Lindberg singing Sixteen Rietfonteins

While he negotiated the Parisian streets in his red Citroën deux chevaux, Breytenbach told me about Peter Blum’s poem “Oorlewendes” (Survivors) and how exiles always stare into water, looking for their lost country of Atlantis. He was the first exile I’d met. When I asked him if he’d ever go home, he replied, enigmatically, “We all go home in the end.” I’m not sure what he did at Orly. Perhaps he was delivering or receiving clandestine communication for Okhela, a project that would fatefully take him back to South Africa and into prison sooner than I could have imagined. 

Breyten Breytenbach circa 1974. Image: Supplied

Note from Breyten Breytenbach 22 December 1974. Image: Supplied by the author

With Breyten Breytenbach's Deux Chaveau in Rue Malebranche, December 1974. Image: Anthony Akerman

With Breyten Breytenbach’s Deux Chaveau in Rue Malebranche, December 1974. Image: Anthony Akerman

Breytenbach and I met Joanna on Christmas Day and I proposed directing People Are Living There for her Association Théâtrale Anglophone during my Easter holiday. Before I left for Cardiff, Breytenbach gave me a copy of Lotus, a book of Zen love poems he’d written for Yolande under the nom de plume Jan Blom and inscribed it “in memory of Atlantis”. Although I wasn’t planning to return home, I hadn’t yet burned my bridges. But it seemed like Breytenbach had already marked me out as a fellow exile.

Anthony Akerman's copy of 'Lotus', inscribed by Breyten Breytenbach with the words “in memory of Atlantis”. Image: Anthony Akerman

Anthony Akerman’s copy of ‘Lotus’, inscribed by Breyten Breytenbach with the words “in memory of Atlantis”. Image: Anthony Akerman

During rehearsals in Paris, I’d occasionally meet up with him and be introduced to people like the exiled writer Lewis Nkosi. I needed a show for an “Africa on Stage” event at the Sherman Theatre and he put me in touch with Mayibuye, an ANC cultural group in London — which included Ronnie Kasrils and the late actor John Matshikiza — and through them I met Conny Braam, head of the Dutch Anti-Apartheid Movement (AABN). I talked to her about staging an Athol Fugard play in Amsterdam and she liked the idea. Breytenbach and Yolande attended the opening night of People Are Living There at the Théâtre du Tertre on 6 May. I didn’t see him again for another eight years.


When Braam invited me to Amsterdam, I called Breytenbach. He said she was the perfect person to put me in touch with people in the Dutch theatre. I later discovered Braam had also phoned Breytenbach to ask whether he could vouch for me. She picked me up at Schiphol Airport on 6 August. The temperature in Amsterdam was 30°C and long-legged girls were riding bicycles in short skirts. I thought I’d died and gone to heaven. 

That evening we had a braai and I was introduced to Breytenbach’s Dutch translator. Adriaan van Dis had offered me a room in his apartment until I found something more permanent. What I didn’t know — although Braam and Van Dis did — was that while I was enjoying the long summer evening and acquiring a taste for Grolsch, Breytenbach was wandering around the streets of Hillbrow speaking English with a French accent. He’d shaved off his beard, passed himself off as Christian Galaska at the South African embassy in Rome, had a visa stamped in his false French passport and caught an SAA flight to Jan Smuts. It all went off without a hitch. If it seemed too good to be true, that’s because it was. He’d been betrayed, he later said, before he left Paris. 

On a late August afternoon, I was writing a personal letter on an electric Olivetti in the Anti-Apartheid Movement office, when the phone rang. The only other person there was a staffer named Kier Schuringa. He picked up, listened, mumbled indistinctly and hung up. Then he turned to me and said, “Breyten has been arrested in South Africa.” Schuringa filled me in on a need-to-know basis. While I was trying to take this in, I remembered our drive to Orly and Breytenbach saying, “We all go home in the end.”

The following day the news of Breytenbach’s arrest broke in the South African media. He’d been arrested on 19 August by the Security Police as he was about to board a flight to Rome. He’d been detained for a week and nobody knew. Nobody, that is, except the authorities and his wingman, who’d also entered the country illegally and was operating underground.

Breytenbach’s mission was surrounded by confusion and, inevitably, misinformation. People now realised why prominent Nusas leaders had been arrested the week before Breytenbach’s arrest was announced. The press had a field day and some papers circulated salaciously speculative rumours of an affair he was said to have had with an air hostess. But why would he have done that when everyone knew the Special Branch recruited air hostesses as honeytraps?

Breytenbach was a well-known figure in the Netherlands and his arrest made front-page news. Support committees sprang up and the Anti-Apartheid Movement spearheaded a campaign for his release. I decided translating some of his poems would also draw attention to his plight. Breytenbach’s poetry hadn’t yet appeared in English and a left-wing British literary magazine called Fireweed agreed to publish my translations. I began with “Brief uit die vreemde aan slagter” (Letter from Exile to Butcher), a poem about the torture and murder of political prisoners, dedicated to Balthazar — Prime Minister BJ Vorster’s first name. It had been published in Amsterdam in a collection of poems called Skryt (1972) and had subsequently been banned in South Africa.

Breytenbach’s wingman was Berend Schuitema. In 1971, he’d founded the Dutch Anti-Apartheid Movement together with Braam and fellow South African Alfred Tshabangu. Apparently, Breytenbach sought Schuitema out and soon they were united in a common purpose. Schuitema was a man of action and Breytenbach clearly felt the need to do more to bring an end to apartheid than writing politically committed poetry. 

Berend Schuitema, Amsterdam. Image: Anthony Akerman

Berend Schuitema, Amsterdam. Image: Anthony Akerman

Okhela, aka Atlas, is the organisation they started, inter alia, to counter the ideological stranglehold of the South African Communist Party over the ANC. Although Oliver Tambo had secretly met Breytenbach in Paris and had given the initiative his blessing, he said the ANC would disavow them if they were caught. 

That’s exactly what happened. Breytenbach was charged with offences under the Terrorism Act. If found guilty, he faced a minimum prison sentence of five years. The maximum sentence was the death penalty. 

Before long, speculation about Schuitema began circulating. Rumours — no doubt emanating from the Security Police — suggested he’d betrayed Breytenbach. If he hadn’t, why hadn’t he been caught? Where was he anyway?


I walked into the AABN offices one morning and found Braam, Schuringa and Fulco van Aurich in a state of shock. Schuitema had just been there, words had been exchanged and an electric Olivetti had been hurled against the wall. I thanked my lucky stars I hadn’t been around, but Breytenbach had told Schuitema about me and it wasn’t long before I got a message to meet him at Café de Prins on Prinsengracht. 

Schuitema greeted me warmly and bought me a beer. I remember being shit-scared of him that day. He was tense, had slightly reddish hair and piercing blue eyes. He didn’t say how he’d made it out of South Africa, and I didn’t ask. But I’d have believed him if he’d told me he’d run barefoot across the Botswana border carrying a dead impala over his shoulder. He felt terrible about Breytenbach, he said, and wanted to get him out of prison. I didn’t know how he was going to do that and I’m not sure he did either, but he wanted my help. 

I said I also wanted to help Breytenbach and had already started translating some of his poems. Schuitema stared at me long and hard. Translating poetry wasn’t the kind of help he had in mind. He was starting The Breytenbach Commando and was looking for recruits. Was I in? That wasn’t the career path I’d imagined my life taking. I wanted to be in the theatre, not on commando. Mindful of what had happened to the electric Olivetti that morning, I tactfully persuaded Schuitema that it really would be better for all concerned — including the Struggle — if I stuck to translating Breytenbach’s poetry. 

A stage production based on Breyten Breytenbach's prison poetry directed by Anthony Akerman, August 1983. Image: Anthony Akerman

A stage production based on Breyten Breytenbach’s prison poetry directed by Anthony Akerman, August 1983. Image: Anthony Akerman

Breytenbach had offended the apartheid rulers and now he was their prisoner. They were going to roll out the red carpet in the form of a show trial with the Judge President of the Transvaal Provincial Division of the Supreme Court (PM Cillié) presiding — in Brink’s words, “like a fat, pink blancmange pudding”. Breytenbach’s friends and supporters breathed more easily when Attorney-General Percy Yutar said the State would not ask for the death penalty. Breytenbach’s conspicuously passive defence team appeared to have been drawn from circles close to the government and one of the only two witnesses who appeared for the defence was his Security Police interrogator, Colonel Broodryk, who said the accused had collaborated with the investigators and was repentant.

After the judge pronounced a guilty verdict, Breytenbach read a statement out in court. He said his actions had been misguided and he apologised to Vorster for the “insulting poem” addressed to him, adding that there was no justification for it. If this was part of a bargain in exchange for a lighter sentence, it didn’t work. Although Breytenbach had entered a guilty plea and the prosecution had asked for the minimum sentence of five years, Cillié — who’d defended the Nazi Robey Leibbrandt during World War II when he was charged with planning to assassinate Prime Minister Jan Smuts — sentenced Breytenbach to nine years. He was denied leave to appeal and was held in solitary on death row next to the gallows.


What the hell had just happened? To many political activists who’d wanted a defiant Struggle hero, Breytenbach was suddenly a pariah. Brink, who helped defray Breytenbach’s legal costs with the profits from his novel ’n Oomblik in die wind (published two weeks after the trial ended), was present for the final two days in court. He wrote emotionally about what had happened to a friend he loved — “more than I love my own brother” — and sent me a copy of Breytenbach’s statement. After I’d read it, I couldn’t stop wondering what they’d done to him. At the time, it was anybody’s guess.

In 1977, he was once again charged with offences under the Terrorism Act. The indictment was based on incriminating tape-recorded conversations with a prison warder who’d been planted by the Security Police. Although many of the charges may have seemed absurd and fanciful, Breytenbach’s attorneys understood the serious nature of the indictment and briefed advocates Ernie Wentzel and Johann Kriegler. After he was acquitted on charges of terrorism and planning an escape, Breytenbach was briefly detained with the other (white) political prisoners in Pretoria Central Prison before being transferred to Pollsmoor. He was given special permission to write, possibly because the authorities had decided his poetry was important to Afrikaans literature. John Brand — a schoolfriend of mine who’d been an associate with Breytenbach’s firm of attorneys at the time of the trial — assumed responsibility for looking after Breytenbach’s interests and regularly visited him in prison. Brand was also at Jan Smuts Airport to see him off when Breytenbach and Yolande flew out of the country on Sunday, 5 December 1982.

Cosmo Pieterse, Breyten Breytenbach and Anthony Akerman in 1983 at Poetry International. Image: Anthony Akerman

Cosmo Pieterse, Breyten Breytenbach and Anthony Akerman in 1983 at Poetry International. Image: Anthony Akerman

Anthony Akerman, Breyten Breytenbach on stage with Vernie February reading a poem at Poetry International, 1983. Image: Leo van Velzen

Anthony Akerman, Breyten Breytenbach on stage with Vernie February reading a poem at Poetry International, 1983. Image: Leo van Velzen

When I saw Breytenbach in Amsterdam the following month, I was almost as old as he’d been the day he came into Café Le Soufflot and found me speaking to the waiter in English with a French accent. He seemed well and was as gracious and charming as he’d ever been. During one of his first public appearances, a Dutch journalist asked how long it would take for him to get over his prison experience. Breytenbach looked at him, gave him a sad, faraway smile and said, “I’ll never get over it.” DM/ML


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  • Jane Crankshaw says:

    What a marvellous story of and by those that fought for freedom for all South Africans in their own way. And what a pity the memories of that fight is so easily forgotten by those politically connected people today!

  • Danial Ronald Meyer says:

    INTERESTING snippet from the annuls of South Africa’s struggle history, Anthony Akerman. On your encounter over those bygone years with the iconic Breyten Breytenbach. Much appreciated.

  • Johan Buys says:

    As with many South African families, a fascinating angle to consider is his brother founded the Recce force. One family, two contrasting and high achiever sons.

  • David Bristow says:

    Sho! I was in Paris over Christmas 1974. Very different circumstances though – fleeing army call-up. Taken from plane to hospital (army veterans’) with what turned out to be bacterial meningitis. Memories of Paris a bit of a blur. Eventually had to scuttle back home and face the music. In my dreams I will meet BB there …

  • Vijay Gajjar Gajjar says:

    Brings back memories of the diverse anti-apartheid efforts in the 1960’s, when few people at home even knew of the ANC’s role in exile. For me the article resonated even more, seeing pictures of Cosmo Pieterse and Vernie February, both of whom had been my teachers at Trafalgar High School and played a significant role, with the many other teachers of different political groupings, in influencing us politically and inspiring many to join the struggle in our own ways. One of our senior students, Basil February, was reportedly killed in action against the apartheid forces.

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