"Whiteness," says Breyten Breytenbach, 45, Afrikaner, "has become a negative fixation for me."
He is the author of "The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist" and charmingly confesses that he is neither an albino nor a terrorist. "There's an elaborate elusiveness involved," he says. "It's a convoluted reflection of reality in South Africa."
In town to promote his book, Breytenbach crosses and recrosses legs sheathed in black denim jeans bought in Paris, where he lives. He also wears boots with little leather straps, a jacket and tie, and a severely trimmed salt-and-pepper beard reminiscent of a more romantic protest era in America.
He hasn't lived in South Africa since 1960, except for 7 1/2 years spent in prison for "terrorist acts," a euphemism for political activity. He is a poet and was one of the best-known writers in Afrikaans before he gave up his native language for English. In 1975 he was charged with, among other things, organizing white militants for the overthrow of apartheid.
The book is an account of his incarceration and what led up to it, including clandestine meetings, sinister tails and a list of names and addresses that he ate in a urinal before his arrest. Yet it contains little of the social fabric of life in South Africa -- and considerable sloganeering.
Breytenbach talked it into a tape recorder after his release. The machine was Metamucil to his muse.
"The name you see under this document is Breyten Breytenbach," the book begins. "That is my name. It's not the only one; after all, what is a name? I used to be called Dick; sometimes I was called Antoine; some knew me as Herve' . . . " Those are not aliases, but poetic allusions.
"What did your face look like before you were born? What did you look like before you or your father or your mother were born? . . . Will it be possible one day to know where you come from, and therefore where you are, and therefore where you're headed, and therefore . . . "
And, "Freedom is not knowing where to stop."
"True Confessions" is less a treatise on race and revolution, as implied by the title, than the somewhat self-conscious life of a white native son recollected in enforced tranquility. He uses an imaginary interlocutor referred to variously as "Mr. Interrogator," "Mr. I" and even "Mr. Eye." Half the names in the narrative are invented.
"There's some playfulness," Breytenbach says, smiling. "It has always been a literary device with me, changing names and identities."
His book is a curious addition to the prison genre, and to South African prison literature in particular, because the author was isolated both from blacks and from the horrors of political retaliation. He was not tortured or even badly mistreated, and didn't see anyone who was. His knowledge of the suffering of black prisoners is based upon their accounts.
Breytenbach writes of his incarcerators: "They are killers down to the last man! They torture and they kill, again and again. Sometimes you see them in the daylight, caught in the glare of another inquest after a 'death in detention.' See their dark glasses, their ill-fitting suits, the faintly laughable haircuts. Do you feel the menace? Do you get the message? Watch it -- they kill!"
Their treatment of him, however, was more ham-fisted than brutal. They kept him in solitary for two years, but allowed him to write and to receive two family visitors a month. Despite his attempts to empathize with the underclass, Breytenbach was treated as a "mister," a prisoner with a sense of his own identity.
His interrogator asked that Breytenbach dedicate a book to him, and brought his niece to the prison so Breytenbach could autograph her book of his verse. The chief investigator took him home to Saturday dinner, for more autographing.
"I had a far easier time than the black prisoners would have had," Breytenbach says. "I have no guilt about that. I don't wish it had been worse."
Tears ran down the face of the warden when Breytenbach was mysteriously released nearly two years before the end of his sentence. Breytenbach doesn't know how to deal with all this. He has good reason to hate the South African authorities, and includes in that condemnation a brother who is a commander of antiguerrilla forces, but some ambivalence creeps through.
The same can be said of Breytenbach's current view of South Africa's future. "No one is saying the whites will be driven into the sea," he says of the effects of possible black majority rule.
Later, he says, "Whites have a lot to fear from black rule. They have reason to expect blacks to do to them what they're doing to blacks now . . . There will be some vindictiveness, perhaps even revenge."
He is married to a Vietnamese woman, which kept them out of South Africa since mixed marriages are against the law there. Breytenbach took part in anti-Vietnam protests in Paris in the 1960s. He and his wife were granted a three-month visa to visit South Africa in 1973. "I took part in politics there," he says. "That was badly received. I had problems with the security people."
They told him not to come back. Two years later, with money donated by European trade unions, he did go back to make contacts in the South African labor movement, using a fake French passport, despite the fact that he was a minor celebrity at home, and carrying a political manifesto that was found by the police.
The manifesto is included in "True Confessions." It's a "draft proposal presented for militants for comment," and contains several pages of theory about the desirability of socialism over capitalism. It concludes with the exhortations: "UNITY THROUGH STRUGGLE!! STRUGGLE FOR POWER!! ALL POWER TO THE PEOPLE!!"
"It was a bit silly," Breytenbach says of the false passport and the manifesto. "That sort of activity builds its own field of reference. Your perception becomes impaired."
His perception of his imminent arrest wasn't much better. Although he knew he was being followed, Breytenbach kept names of contacts in his pocket, along with a scrap of paper bearing the inscription, "Revolution is a practical art." It was written in French, but the security police got the idea.
Breytenbach calls one of them, in "True Confessions," "Amoral. Living on cold hatred. Perfectly dishonest . . . Embodying the Afrikaner suicide urge." He attributes to this urge white South Africans' fear of violence at the hands of a black majority. "The pessimists," he says, "are in danger of self-fulfilling prophecy."
Did the same urge lead Breytenbach to get arrested? "I think you can make too much of that," he says.
Seven years in prison was not what he expected. The authorities promised him a lenient sentence if he would offer no defense in court and would apologize to Prime Minister John Vorster for calling him "butcher" in a poem. "I would have agreed to anything to get out of prison," Breytenbach says.
He complied and ended up in solitary with a nine-year sentence. Later he was tried again for conspiring to blow up a monument to the Afrikaans language, a notion of which he approves, at least in theory.
Breytenbach says liberals in South Africa speak of a "Jericho reaction" to apartheid (" . . . the walls come tumbling down"). "They have a Calvinist sense of doom," he says. "Violent options perceived by the liberal movement won't work. The government is too strong . . . This is my imperialist side coming out, but our problems are so common -- rich and poor living together, different ethnic groups coexisting. We're going to really contribute to mankind."
He foresees a civil rights struggle similar to that in the United States 20 years ago, with churches and labor unions offering strong support. "Nonviolent protest, not armed struggle. It will not be 'an African situation.' Diverse cultures established by law have coexisted there for a long time. Your average South Africans -- brown, black or white -- have been rubbing shoulders for so long that we have worked out, in spite of ourselves, a kind of accommodation."
America and other western powers could bring down apartheid if the leaders were willing to bring sufficient pressure, Breytenbach says. Otherwise, Americans are out of the picture. "South Africa has been seen here in the arena of the East-West struggle. South Africa has done everything it can to keep up that impression. They would be very sorry to see the Cubans leave Angola because that would remove some of the evidence."
America is a strong cultural influence, he says, but individual Americans have no influence with the opposition in South Africa, as the recent visit of Sen. Edward Kennedy indicated. "And they don't see the president Reagan standing on his head trying to do something. They see him standing on his head pretending to be trying to do something."
The apparent success of "True Confessions" pleases the poet and the polemicist. "As a writer, I'm happy," Breytenbach says. "As an African, I'm happy because it will interest more people."
He adds, ambivalently, "I would like to see a unified state in South Africa, one with no racism and a majority government. We'll get there, but it will be very bloody."