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Breyten Breytenbach: Dís waaroor dit gaan, Prof

My antwoord op die skrywe van prof. Lis Lange, viserektor, wat, dapper, in die bres getree het vir prof. Jonathan Jansen, rektor, na aanleiding van ’n opmerking wat ek in die verbygaan gemaak het oor die titel van prof. Jansen se boek, Kennis in die Bloed, tydens my voorlegging aan die Konvokasie van die Universiteit Stellenbosch, is in Engels. Ek het die indruk dat sy vir my in Engels geskryf het en dat die brief toe vertaal is, en verkies om kortpad te vat in my antwoord. Ek is nie seker of sy Afrikaans magtig is nie. Die ernstiger saak wat aangeroer behoort te word en wel oor taalruimte gaan, is die taalbeleid waarvoor die Universiteit van die Vrystaat gestel gaan word soos voor ’n fait accompli. Dis miskien nog nie nou duidelik nie, maar deur Afrikaans onder die mat te vee gaan prof. Jansen en sy taakspan hulle eie menslikheid vermink. Dit getuig van ’n kortsigtigheid en lafhartigheid wat hulle sal moet saamdra as toonaangewend van hulle openbare loopbane.

Dear Professor Lange,

breyten breytenbach Foto:

Thank you for taking up the cudgels for Professor Jansen. (I believe your letter was translated – with a slip or two. For instance, mens vel ’n oordeel, nie fel nie, even though the verdict may be fierce at times. Would it not be easier if we were to trade the skin of our interaction in English?)

Before touching on the cause of your concern, I would like to query your description of my thinking as eng (it must have been something like “narrow minded” or “restricted” in the original).

Bit of a shortcut? I would have thought that, with age, it is clear that I lean over backward – perhaps to make up for the stoop brought about by looking for the way – in an attempt to accommodate the complexity of positions and convictions encountered here. The words that come to mind, I admit, are rather “blustering” and “blathering”, sorry to say. But surely, it is not because we may disagree in our assessments of what we see around us that my thinking has shrunk? Still, who knows? Perhaps the eng road is the obligatory passage to becoming amply Engels?

It may be slightly displeasing to know that my passing reference to Professor Jansen’s book, Knowledge in the Blood. Confronting Race and the Apartheid Past, was not in any sense the subject or the focus of my submission to the Convocation of Stellenbosch University. The theme I tried to speak to was the nature of the space, ideally one of dialogue, in which conversations about languages at tertiary institutions of education takes place.

The passage in question suggested that the regrettable Nazi-like uttering of the vice-chancellor of your university (as inferred in the title of his book) carries the assertion that racism is in the blood of the whitish Afrikaner. I asked, rhetorically, whether this could be the case. For are we then not alluding to an “impure race”? Why not deduct that the cockroaches ought to have yellow stars pinned to their safari jackets to facilitate identification? And I concluded my little aside by saying that to be racist in any form or expression does not mean that one is exercising one’s freedom of speech: racism is not an opinion but a crime.

You’ll agree with me, Ms Lange, that the references resonate with unbearable historical events where segments of mankind driven by mad ideologies always positing the elimination of the Other showed the worst we as a species are capable of. To stigmatise people, to essentialise them as group is to initiate a perception that would deligitimatise their existence.

To ascribe to them generalised characteristics and attitudes – even if you wrap your approach in an academic cloak by suggesting that this “troubled knowledge” afflicting white Afrikaner youth, the ostensible subject of the professor’s study, is transmitted through . . . “the family, the church, cultural associa­tions and the peer group” – must, as logical conclusion and inevitable inference, become the populist discourse of exclusion that we risk again in this country. (In Rwanda the Tutsis were called “cockroaches” by those in power in order to prepare the conditions for an ethnic cleansing. And we should react with indignation to what is being done­ to the Kurdish people in Turkey and to the Palestinian people occupied in the Bantustans­ imposed by Israel. Because we know. We’ve been there.)

I am NOT saying this is what Professor Jansen propounds. But the axiomatic assumption suggested by “knowledge in the blood” (and note that there was no question mark) reeks to me of the implication that there is a category of the ‘born guilty’ that needs to be studied and understood and converted because they carry in the blood, genetically therefore, the taint of racism.

It is, of course, the same blood that Professor Jansen and I have coursing in our veins and that we share with mankind – if you’ll allow this whitish pot to call a similarly whitish kettle black . . .

It would seem that the extra mile of diversity and thus allowing students to develop to the fullness of their possibilities, is about to be sacrificed as an ersatz solution to much more serious systemic inequality.

Given the level of willful intolerance in this country – now presented as “pragmatism” and “making up for past injustices” – against the backdrop of a a cadredom of robbers who have stolen power in the name of a people’s struggle for justice and dignity, and this in an environment where there’s neither political probity nor ethical guidance, I think the title of Professor Jansen’s book and the discourse of exclusion purveyed by it, is an opportunistic but poisonous brown herring drawn over inflammable ground.

It should be reasonable to expect of a person with academic and pedagogical responsibilities and reknown not to inflame a situation already fraught with the generalised ressentiment of a generation left in the lurch by rapacious “leaders”.

Let us be clear – even if expressed in Globish: I abhor Apartheid and the evil wreaked by it – the killing, the torture, the mass removal of people, the humiliation and the indignity, but also the relativist morality and the stunted imagination and the racism it engendered. Yes, we are still living with the consequences.

But equally fiercely I’ll oppose and fight with all the cultural means at my disposal (including language) this reactionary Majoritarianism which is the continuation­ of the spirit and even the realities of Apartheid by other means – this politically correct smarminess that comes with the notion that salvation, nation building, progress, anticolonialism­, the regaining of agency, progress . . . are posited on the elimination of the Other.

We just cannot deny the hybrid nature of our history and present reality. We will have to practise the complicated and never-ending dialectic between the specifities of diversity and the encompassing values that make a true mending of our wounds possible. We are obliged to bring to life the political, economic, social and cultural art of saam-mekaar-andersmaak.

Of more immediate concern are the decisions apparently about to be made – or already made – about language policy at your university. It would seem that the extra mile of diversity and thus allowing students to develop to the fullness of their possibilities, is about to be sacrificed as an ersatz solution to much more serious systemic inequality.

This “pea-under-the-cup” situa­tion, I submit in all sincerity, is what the Vice-Chancellor ought to be applying the broadness of his mind and the amplitude of his proven empathy to.

But the dice are rolled, are they not? The good professor, in his essentialist view of “the Afrikaner”, seems to be of the opinion that people who support the retention of Afrikaans as a language of tertiary education will not be motivated by the constitutional principle of language rights but, in reality, by the defence of “race” and “culture”, “racialised claims of supremacy”, “ethnicised claims for protection” and “keeping blacks out of white schools”. Other than being gobsmacked by the derivations of this knowledge in the blood, I’d like to suggest to the professor that this must be a textbook case of serving unadulterated male bovine manure on the platter of political expediency.

Today I heard the news that Algeria – another example of how a “national liberation movement” fired by once-noble idealism and a quest for justice attempted to centralise a diverse country by doing away with doubt and opposition and questioning, only to plunge their people in a bloody civil war – has decreed that Berber will henceforth have the same rights and recognition as Arabic. One presumes that this includes the right for Berber to be taught and used as a means of communication, even in the universities!

Now why would South Africa decide to go the opposite, reactionary, outdated, self-negating way of trying to impose the hegemony of the imperial tongue? As if that would somehow hide the real problems that we avoid facing at our peril!

Sincerely

  • Breyten Breytenbach soos hy dit aan haar rig, sodat weens vertaling geen misverstand ontstaan nie. – Redakteur

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