16 September 1939: Birthday of Breyten Breytenbach, South African-French poet and painter (Source)

Writer Breyten Breytenbach at the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival – photo by © Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons (Source)

Breyten Breytenbach (/ˈbrtɛn ˈbʌx/; born 16 September 1939) is a South African writer and painter known for his opposition to apartheid, and consequent imprisonment by the South African government. He is informally considered as the national poet laureate by Afrikaans-speaking South Africans of the region. 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 Hugenoot 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 with whom he holds strongly opposing political views, and 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, due to which he was not allowed to return: The Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949 and The Immorality Act (1950) made it a criminal offence for a white 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, he 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. (Source)

Leave a Reply