It’s hard to accept that almost 20 years into a non-racial 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 Andre Brink sacrificed his privilege to challenge white supremacy. There are many other unsung literary heroes like renowned poet Breyten Breytenbach and historian Sampie Terreblanche who gave their talents to the struggle for racial justice. We should be saddened that the persecution of men of such calibre has not ceased in the Afrikaner community. A community that regards them as verraaier, traitors. These few writers are examples of the role played by highly gifted intellectuals to create a democratic society.
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 in 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 his 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 people feel that there’s nothing special about Philida’s suffering as a slave at the time.
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. These days, voices that come to Brink’s defence are very few. Many have become cynical about equality.
When we protect Brink, it’s not because we cling to fantasies of white guilt but because we understand what it means to write about slavery in a society that’s in denial about its past. In my black world, growing up in the townships, we grew up to value white comrades like Bram Fischer and Beyers Naude, among others, who abandoned privilege to become comrades in arms. 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.
Brink’s latest work is a creative reminder that literature is part of the struggle against forgetting. South Africans, especially whites, suffer from historical amnesia. Many don’t know that slavery existed, and continues to exist, in this country. Creating a non-racial society includes helping many white folks to come to terms with the history of this beautiful land that, to quote Alan Paton, man cannot enjoy. And black people must stop internalising white racism by keeping quiet when people like Brink, Breytenbach or Terreblanche are persecuted for telling the truth. This is the greatest gesture of patriotism that a creative intellectual can give.
We must not allow ourselves to be blinded by the reality that there was a 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. If the ideas he presents towards enriching our history and self-understanding are 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.