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Breyten Breytenbach

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Breyten Breytenbach
Breytenbach at the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival.
Breytenbach at the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival.
Born (1939-09-16) 16 September 1939 (age 84)
Bonnievale, Cape Province, South Africa
OccupationNovelist, essayist, poet, painter
LanguageAfrikaans, English
CitizenshipSouth Africa, France
Alma materUniversity of Cape Town
RelativesJan Breytenbach (brother)

Breyten Breytenbach (/ˈbrtɛn ˈbʌx/; born 16 September 1939) is a South African writer, poet, and painter who became internationally well-known as a dissident poet and vocal critic of South Africa under apartheid, and as a political prisoner of the National Party-led South African Government. Breytenbach is now informally considered by Afrikaans-speakers as their poet laureate and is one of the most important living poets in Afrikaans literature. He also holds French citizenship.


Breyten Breytenbach was born in Bonnievale, approximately 180 km from Cape Town and 100 km from the southernmost tip of Africa at Cape Agulhas. His early education was at Hoërskool Hugenote and he later studied fine arts at the Michaelis School of Fine Art at the University of Cape Town. He is the brother of Jan Breytenbach, co-founder of the 1st Reconnaissance Commando of the South African Special Forces against whom he holds strongly opposing political views, and the late Cloete Breytenbach, a widely published war correspondent.

His committed political dissent against the ruling National Party and its white supremacist policy of apartheid compelled him to leave South Africa for Paris, France, in the early 1960s, where he married a French woman of Vietnamese ancestry, Yolande, as a result of which he was not allowed to return. The then applicable Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 and Immorality Act (1950) made it a criminal offence for a person to have any sexual relations with a person of a different race.[1] He is the father of the French journalist Daphnee Breytenbach.


On an illegal trip to South Africa in 1975, he was arrested and sentenced to nine years' imprisonment for high treason. His work The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist describes aspects of his imprisonment. According to André Brink, Breytenbach was retried in June 1977 on new and fanciful charges that, among other things, he had planned a submarine attack by the Soviet Navy on the prison at Robben Island through the conspiratorial "Okhela Organisation." In the end, the judge found him guilty only of having smuggled letters and poems out of jail for which he was fined $50.[2]

During his imprisonment, Breytenbach wrote the poem "Ballade van ontroue bemindes" ("Ballade of Unfaithful Lovers"). Inspired by François Villon's "Ballade des Dames du Temps Jadis", Breytenbach compared Afrikaner dissidents Peter Blum, Ingrid Jonker, and himself to unfaithful lovers, who had betrayed Afrikaans poetry by taking leave of it.[3]

Released in 1982 as a result of international protests, Breytenbach returned to Paris and obtained French citizenship.

After free elections toppled the ruling National Party and ended apartheid in 1994, Breytenbach became a visiting professor at the University of Cape Town in the Graduate School of Humanities in January 2000[4] and is also involved with the Gorée Institute in Dakar (Senegal) and with New York University, where he teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program.


Breytenbach's work includes numerous volumes of novels, poetry and essays, many of which are in Afrikaans. Many have been translated from Afrikaans to English, and many were originally published in English. He is also known for his works of pictorial arts. Exhibitions of his paintings and prints have been shown in cities around the world, including Johannesburg, Cape Town, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Paris, Brussels, Edinburgh and New York City.[5]



Poetry in Afrikaans[edit]

  • The Iron Cow Must Sweat (Die ysterkoei moet sweet), Johannesburg, 1964
  • The House of the Deaf (Die huis van die dowe), Cape Town, 1967
  • Gangrene (Kouevuur), Cape Town, 1969
  • Lotus, Cape Town, 1970
  • The Remains (Oorblyfsels), Cape Town, 1970
  • Scrit. Painting Blue a sinking Ship. (Skryt. Om 'n sinkende skip blou te verf), Amsterdam, 1972
  • In Other Words (Met ander woorde), Cape Town, 1973
  • Footnote (Voetskrif), Johannesburg, 1976
  • Sinking Ship Blues, Oasis Editions, Toronto 1977
  • And Death White as Words. An Anthology, London, 1978
  • In Africa even the flies are happy, London, 1978
  • Flower Writing (Blomskryf), Emmarentia, 1979 (Selected poems)
  • Eclipse (Eklips), Emmarentia, 1983
  • YK, Emmarentia, 1983
  • Buffalo Bill, Emmarentia, 1984
  • Living Death (Lewendood), Emmarentia, 1985
  • Judas Eye, London – New York, 1988
  • As Like (Soos die so), Emmarentia, 1990
  • Nine Landscapes of our Times Bequeathed to a Beloved (Nege landskappe van ons tye bemaak aan 'n beminde), Groenkloof, 1993
  • The Handful of Feathers (Die hand vol vere), Cape Town, 1995 (Selected poems)
  • The Remains. An Elegy (Oorblyfsels. 'n Roudig), Cape Town, 1997
  • Paper Flower (Papierblom), Cape Town, 1998
  • Lady One, Cape Town, 2000 (Selected love poems)
  • Iron Cow Blues (Ysterkoei-blues), Cape Town, 2001 (Collected poems 1964–1975)
  • Lady One: Of Love and other Poems, New York, 2002
  • The undanced dance. Prison poetry 1975 – 1983 (Die ongedanste dans. Gevangenisgedigte 1975 – 1983), Cape Town, 2005
  • the windcatcher (Die windvanger), Cape Town, 2007
  • Voice Over: A Nomadic Conversation with Mahmoud Darwish, Archipelago Books, 2009
  • Catalects (Artefacts for the slow uses of dying) (Katalekte (artefakte vir die stadige gebruike van doodgaan)), Cape Town: Human & Rousseau, 2012

Prose in English[edit]

  • Catastrophes (Katastrofes), Johannesburg, 1964 (stories)
  • To Fly (Om te vlieg), Cape Town, 1971 (novel)
  • The Tree Behind the Moon (De boom achter de maan), Amsterdam, 1974 (stories)
  • The Anthill Bloats … (Die miernes swell op ...), Emmarentia, 1980 (stories)
  • A Season in Paradise (Een seizoen in het paradijs), Amsterdam – New York – London, 1980 (novel, uncensored edition)
  • Mouroir: Mirror Notes of a Novel, London – New York, 1983
  • Mirror Death (Spiegeldood), Amsterdam, 1984 (stories)
  • End Papers, London, 1985 (essays)
  • The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, London – New York, 1985
  • Memory of Snow and of Dust, London – New York, 1987 (novel)
  • Book. Part One (Boek. Deel een), Emmarentia, 1987 (essays)
  • All One Horse. Fiction and Images, London, 1989
  • Sweet Heart (Hart-Lam), Emmarentia, 1991 (essays)
  • Return to Paradise. An African journal, London – New York, 1992 (which won the Alan Paton Award)
  • The Memory of Birds in Times of Revolution, London – New York, 1996 (essays)
  • Dog Heart. A travel memoir, Cape Town, 1998
  • Word Work (Woordwerk), Cape Town, 1999
  • A veil of footsteps, Cape Town, 2008
  • All One Horse, Archipelago Books, 2008
  • Mouroir: Mirror Notes of a Novel, Archiepalago Books, 2008
  • Intimate Stranger, Archipelago Books, 2009
  • Notes From The Middle World: Essays, Haymarket Books, 2009


  • Breytenbach, Breyten (December 2008). "Mandela's Smile: Notes on South Africa's Failed Revolution". Harper's Magazine. Vol. 317, no. 1903. pp. 39–48.

In popular culture

Breytenbach is the only exception mentioned by name in the satirical Apartheid-era Spitting Image song "I've Never Met a Nice South African".[7]

The Basque rock band Berri Txarrak dedicated the song "Breyten" to him on their 2005 album Jaio.Musika.Hil.[8]

See also


  1. ^ "Breyten Breytenbach". South African History Online. Retrieved 30 July 2014.
  2. ^ André Brink (1985). "Introduction". A Season in Paradise. London: Faber and Faber. p. 11. ISBN 0-571-13491-2.
  3. ^ Louise Viljoen (2012), Ingrid Jonker: Poet under Apartheid, page 136.
  4. ^ "Breyten Breytenbach". Stellenbosch Writers. Retrieved 30 July 2014.
  5. ^ "Author Focus". Human & Rousseau. Archived from the original on 7 July 2014. Retrieved 30 July 2014.
  6. ^ "Laureate of the Zbigniew Herbert Literary Award 2017". Archived from the original on 1 December 2017. Retrieved 13 November 2018.
  7. ^ "(I've Never Met) A Nice South African - a Song by Spitting Image", h2g2, 29 March 2005. Retrieved 30 March 2024.
  8. ^ "Breyten". Berri Txarrak. 23 March 2021. Retrieved 8 March 2023.
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Breyten Breytenbach
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