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Breyten Breytenbach
Breytenbach at the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival.
Breytenbach at the 2009 Brooklyn Book Festival.
Born (1939-09-16) 16 September 1939 (age 83)
Bonnievale, Cape Province, South Africa
Occupation Novelist, essayist, poet, painter
Language Afrikaans, English
Nationality South African
Citizenship France
Alma mater University of Cape Town
Spouse Yolande

Breyten Breytenbach (/ˈbrtɛn ˈbʌx/; born 16 September 1939) is a South African writer, poet 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. 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 Hugenote 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 against whom he holds strongly opposing political views, and the late 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. ..... 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.

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.

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 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.


  • Laureate of the Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award 2017
  • Ansfield-Wolf Book Award
  • Allen Paton Award for Literature
  • Mahmoud Darwish Award for Creativity

In popular culture

Breytenbach is the only exception mentioned by name in the satirical Apartheid-era Spitting Image song "I've Never Met a Nice South African".

See also

  • Sestigers
  • Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award
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