In the late summer of 1997, Andre Brink traveled to Dakar, Senegal, for a reunion of the mostly Afrikaans-speaking writers and politicians who, 10 years earlier, had participated in a landmark meeting with then-exiled members of the African National Congress. The contrast between the two events was telling: Whereas the 1987 conference incited the South African press to vent official outrage, the second meeting drew only a brief mention in the papers. While returning members of the first delegation were met by security police waiting to confiscate passports, the new South African authorities hardly noticed the second group's absence. “The mental, political, and moral electricity” of the first conference, which, Brink maintains, set the stage for the disintegration of apartheid, was replaced by a “singular flatness,” and in some cases “a degree of bitterness and viciousness” on the part of the Afrikaners. Few of the original ANC participants could take time off from their government jobs in Pretoria.
Amid official proceedings of truth and reconciliation, in a climate in which Mandela is feted in an 80th-birthday celebration that brings South Africa to a standstill, in which all the information that wanted to be free and a good deal of it that didn't bombards the South African public daily, Brink has compiled a collection of his essays from 1982 to the present. Considered individually, each essay in Reinventing a Continent: Writing and Politics in South Africa highlights a moment on the long road to freedom. In sum, the collection offers a clear-eyed interrogation of what it means to be a writer – particularly an anti-apartheid Afrikaner writer – in the democratic nation South Africa has become since the 1994 elections. The book begins with Mandela praising the Afrikaners “who dared to challenge the powerful structures of their own ethnic group to proclaim allegiance to the ideal of a greater South Africa.” It ends with Brink recognizing that those selfsame Afrikaners need to find new ways to feel useful. “It was sad,” Brink writes of his compatriots at the 1997 conference, “if not downright unsettling, to note how deeply many of them were suffering what one commentator called the pain of a phantom limb.”
Not that apartheid was pleasant for white people, especially those who opposed the racial-segregation policy that had held official sway from 1948. In a 1993 essay, “Literature as Cultural Opposition,” Brink recounts his terror when the Publications Control Act of 1974 was enforced: “I was personally subjected to interrogations, house searches, the confiscation of books, manuscripts, notes, even of typewriters; attempts were made to sabotage my car and to set my house on fire, and there were endless threats to kill members of my family or myself.” Black writers had it worse: “Many of them literally placed not only their freedom but their very lives at stake by continuing to write, and to read their stories, recite their poems, perform their plays.” Factual reporting in the newspapers was limited to one or two official stories, or nothing at all; fictional interpretations of factual events, such as Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter and Brink's A Dry White Season, were banned.
Oppression had its privileges, however paradoxical. “The most murderous action of censorship – banning a book – turned out to be wonderfully counterproductive,” Brink writes. “The very knowledge of a ban imposed, or to be imposed, created a feverish interest among readers and would-be readers, resulting in a hectic clandestine circulation of precisely those books the regime was most scared of.” Toward the end of the 1980s, when under an official State of Emergency the security police all but abandoned efforts to suppress imaginative writing, South Africa experienced “a volcanic explosion of creativity”; fiction, plays, even poetry, drew audiences to rival state-controlled television. “Never before in South African history had the word carried so much weight,” writes Brink. “Never before had writers acquired such notoriety and such importance; never before had literature contributed so immediately and so forcefully to the social and political debate.”
But as violence in the streets began to overwhelm state hegemony, words were already beginning to lose that weight. In Reinventing a Continent, Brink reprints an open letter he wrote to President D.W. Botha in 1986. “Where do I stand as a writer in this State of Emergency? I know very well where I stand: The very act of committing to paper this open letter to you is a crime . . . You have muzzled journalists. The 'facts' may not be reported except in bland or mutilated forms of your choice. But fiction has a way of recording a truth deeper than fact . . . If need be, we must now emulate our Russian colleagues and resort to samizdat.” Brink's writing here has a grandstanding quality about it, as if he was taunting Botha's security police to action – as if it was actually disappointing that Botha had lost interest in banning books. “I have no illusions about what a writer can do, physically,” Brink sneers provocatively. “But neither should you have illusions about a writer's impotence.”
Brink doesn't deny harboring such sentiments. As early as 1990, when F.W. de Klerk displaced the ailing Botha and released Mandela from prison, he was admitting, “It is one thing to die for liberation: it is something entirely different to live with freedom.” In July 1993, he attended a conference in Salzburg and observed in writers from other countries whose authoritarian regimes had just crumbled, the same bizarre ambivalence. “Almost every evening, when the formal discussions of the day were over, we found ourselves confessing that we actually missed the good-bad old days of repression and censorship, dictatorships and closed societies and samizdat . . . suddenly, 'there is nothing to write about anymore.'”
Or, at least, nothing that urgently needs to be written. Back in 1990, Brink had expressed dismay that the international audience for black writers and poets seemed to be so limited. Now he must add that his own category of white writers find themselves part of an increasingly irrelevant elite. It was one thing to admire Afrikaner poet Breyten Breytenbach for his political resistance while his words remained a secret; the seven years he spent in jail made him a hero among the people. But even Breytenbach's 1994 memoir, Return to Paradise, is an obstinately melancholy document of a writer who recognizes that he remains an outsider in what he calls “The New Sarth Efrica.”
“When it becomes difficult to define something in its own terms, it can be useful to describe it in opposition to something else,” Brink writes in an essay on the history of Afrikaners that explains with lucid sensitivity how the same ossified ethnic group could produce both the architects of apartheid and its most vociferous opponents. Afrikaners, “the white tribe of Africa” circuitously descended from the Dutch who arrived in the 17th century, defined themselves in opposition to the British, who annexed Afrikaner land for minefields and ran the settlers off their farms, and in opposition to blacks, whom they subjected to forced labor or with whom they maintained an uneasy coexistence. By the same token, leftist Afrikaners defined themselves in opposition to the right-wing Afrikaners' political system; writing was at least in part a way of redeeming oneself from shame by association. The system's end, then, means nothing less than inventing themselves anew.
In a gift shop on touristy Cape Point, at the very southern tip of Africa, you can buy post-card images of the cell Nelson Mandela once occupied on Robben Island, now a popular tourist destination. The most characterless chain bookstore in the most generic of shopping malls, the Victoria and Albert Waterfront devotes shelves to Brink, Gordimer, J.M. Coetzee, Richard Rive, Njabulo Ndebele and Breytenbach. This in a country with no electricity in 60 percent of its schools, no homes for 2 million of its families, 41 million people speaking 11 languages, over half of whom can't read in a single one. The shifting significance of the word puts all of South Africa's writers in a predicament not unlike the one Rosa Burger faced in Burger's Daughter, after the death of the Communist parents whose struggle once defined her life. Rosa's world is at first stripped of meaning, but after an extended period of ambiguity she finds that “the old phrases crack, and meaning shakes out wet and new.”
Gordimer's masterpiece is nearly 20 years old now, but its lessons continue to resonate in the heady cacophony of a free society. “A culture of resistance can become a habit like any other,” Brink concludes. “A literature which becomes used to asserting itself only in the face of menacing opposition may in the long run dissipate all its energies in expressing what it is against rather than what it is for.” South African fiction, having long carried the burden of conveying missing information, has been freed by an uncensored media, he asserts. What remains is to figure out what to do with all that freedom.