Simon Barber
Simon Barber

A response to Breytenbach

Just read Breyten Breytenbach’s piece in Harpers. If you don’t have anything nice to say, shut up, is not a piece of advice I’ve generally taken. But this time I’ll make an exception and talk about another poet, the American Carl Sandburg, and his ode to Chicago, where he worked as a reporter. If you have ever heard Chicago called “hog butcher for the world” or “city of the big shoulders”, it’s because of Sandburg’s poem.

But here’s the real meat of the piece and the bit that always gets me thinking about South Africa and about how we could use a Sandburg.

They tell me you are wicked and I believe them, for I
have seen your painted women under the gas lamps
luring the farm boys.
And they tell me you are crooked and I answer: Yes, it
is true I have seen the gunman kill and go free to
kill again.
And they tell me you are brutal and my reply is: On the
faces of women and children I have seen the marks
of wanton hunger.
And having answered so I turn once more to those who
sneer at this my city, and I give them back the sneer
and say to them:
Come and show me another city with lifted head singing
so proud to be alive and coarse and strong and cunning.

They tell us a lot of terrible things about South Africa, and a lot of them are true, but come show me another country “with lifted head singing so proud to be alive … set vivid against the little soft” countries. We may not yet be “piling job on job” like Sandburg’s Chicago, but this is one vivid place.

  • Judith

    A wonderful response, we truly live in a most amazing country. We now can make use of our strengths to drive us all through our challenges to beneficial outcomes.

  • Llewellyn Kriel

    Hi Simon, I’ve also blogged on this issue, though from the unhappy, disillusioned and increasingly despairing side of the fence.

    I have still not read Breyten’s article. If you have it in emailable form, I’d be grateful for it at [email protected].

  • Craig

    That could easily be written about Harare too I guess

  • Chopperlion’s take on Breyten:

    Breytenbach urges youth to flee SA, but old should stay and be slaughtered

    Former literary light and trainee French intellectual Breyten Breytenbach has urged young South Africans to flee the country while they still can. However he offered no advice to older citizens, who should apparently stay behind and be slaughtered until the country is empty and needs to be repopulated with a super-race of Franco-Afrikaner poets.

    Rest of article here:

  • brigs

    It would be nice, to read the actual piece in harpers, exept after half an hour of searching, I’ve not found the compleate artical anywhere exept haprers and I have to pay a fortune to read the thing.

  • brigs,
    not sure if this is one hundred percent correct, but it seems consistant.

  • Durban Dave

    Anyone wanting to read the whole Harper’s essay can download it here:

  • PM

    Wow. It is a powerful piece, and very disturbing.

    But…I think that there is a lot of Breyten trying to justify his own choices here. He is throwing up his hands and saying that there is nothing to be done, no one individual can make a difference, therefore make choices on what is best for you, noit what is best for SA, because you can’t do anything about SA. Which, to me, sounds like the kind of advice, in hindsight, which wouold serve to justify Breyten’s choices from the past.

    I think that Breyten is getting old and is concerned about how history will view him and his “efforts”. This is an affliction that is common among poets, who have inflated senses of self importance….

    (pardon my cynicism)


  • Izak de Vries

    Well written!

  • Glenn Harpur

    I agree with Simon’s sentiments. South Africa’s like the ocean–not always pretty but always deeply beautiful and affecting.

    We know there are massive and shameful problems, but we need a whole picture of SA, our past, and both the present good and bad in order to understand and help our country.

    People who harp on and on about SA going the same way as Zim and the rest of Africa need to look at things from more than one side. Take Mbeki’s resignation as an example. Put aside what you may think about the Mbeki/Zuma factions and look at it this way: 1. Unlike what happens in so many other African countries, our president stepped down in a dignified way–no threats of violence, no actual violence–not even a suggestion of the civil war that seems to break out at even the suggestion of regime change in countries north of us. 2. In a very short space of time (was it about a week?)a new president was installed according to, and subject to relevant laws. Due process was observed–again, there was no violence, and unlike other places on the continent, there was no indication that anyone was thinking of simply installing a military leader “until things could work themselves out”. 3. A new party has been allowed to form, and while there has been name-calling and some threats of violence, the leader of the ruling party and others have come out in defence of Freedom of Association. Bear in mind also that our first democratically elected president stepped down voluntarily and it becomes clear that there is much hope for the Beloved Country.

  • david

    I think most people, including the author of this blog, forget that Breyten Breytenbach went to prison fighting apartheid.

    like many other liberation figures, he is looking at his country and thinking: Did I make all that sacrifice for this?

    They have earned the right to say that. To say things that we can’t. To say things are not as good as they should be.

    We on the other hand, haven’t earned the right to call them shallow men or to question their integrity.

  • brigs

    I’m not so sure,He seem’s a man troubled by personal afflications, most certainly, but also I feel, he does make a point. Our country has come a long way from the place we intended it to be.We should take a moment, to consider a well timed warning; not to flee as I believe running away solves nothing, but to do something about the issues our country faces. We can instill Love where there has been hate, we can still change the view of those arround us. I do not believe we are a lots cause, But we need to listen, learn and make changes instead of buring our heads in the sand, and saying what great wheather we have here. I truely believe what is amiss is ourselves. While the artical is awash with perhaps unfounded crisisisms I believe brytenbach is chritisizing the proccess more than, the man himself. With all due respect, Leaders need to learn to raise up men behind them who can effectivly carry the manel for the next generation instead of bikkering over the spoils of power and money. In sort, he does make a very eye opening point.

  • vlad

    So many of us who have lived in South Africa over the past decade have been waiting for someone with a ‘credible background’ to say these things which so badly need to be said.

  • PM

    David_-yes we can criticize them–we can critize Zuma, who also went to prison for fighting apartheid, as well as Boesak, and plenty of others. They do not get a free pass, nor does the ANC–and if we follow your advice, then SA will end up in the crapper.

    The fact that they were right about one thing means that we owe them respect for that same one thing. When they are wrong about something else, we (as citizens)have a duty to call them to account. We also have a duty to express conflicting opinions–and that was how too many failed during apartheid–by not disagreeing when the leaders of SA were wrong.

    After all, too many apartheid era leaders got a free pass because they had been heroes during the Boer War, etc. Heroes of the past do not get a free pass during the present and into the future. That attitude will send SA on the path of Zim, following a Mugabe…..

    Criticism is good and healthy, whether done by you, Barber or even Breyten. Too much deference is bad, even of Madiba (and Breyten gets points for that).


  • Sbu


    I am both saddened and ashamed by Breyten’s letter of complaint, and that he had the nerve to drag Madiba’s precious name in his attempt to rest his own ghosts to peace.

    Breyten accuses Madiba of forsaking the struggle, whereas he is the one guilty of that crime. Yes, he did go to prison for fighting against apartheid, but that is all we can say about him. He is guilty of fighting one battle and forsaking the entire war, whereas Madiba fought till the end of his physical strength. Unfortunately, no amount of condemning, writing against (no matter how credible the writer) or complaining about South Africa’s problems will solve them, even if Madiba’s name forms part of the literature! Breyten as a former comrade should know this. South Africa does not need distant cynical writings, nor does it need gloomy bloggers from Sydney and Chicago to build this country, we need active soldiers in full uniform against poverty, racism and inequality to make this country a better place for all.

    This is still the same South Africa that Breyten went to prison for, the difference is that, comrades like Breyten have tasted the benefits of comfy writing careers from international coffee shops, and they have chosen the beautiful aromas of Paris coffee instead of risking their lives for a better life for all, and he has the nerve to accuse Madiba of such, I am shamed to even think he is South African!

    If he is looking to set the stage for his next book (Which would probably be about South Africa’s descent to anarchy), he should rather write about Uncle Bob or something, not Madiba, uTata has done his part, its time for young blood to take the torch!

  • Paul Whelan

    A curious piece.

    Evasive, sentimental, offering no solution and, as its only insight, that we are all damned and daft together.