Between a Rock and a Hard Placeby Sean O'Toole / 22.05.2009
The biographies of the three Breytenbach brothers – alphabetically, Breyten, Cloete and Jan – offer a strange narrative of place, this place, South Africa. Fame and infamy are their collective lot. Breyten we all know: he is one of the literary figureheads of the alternative Afrikaans movement. “Plant my op ‘n heuwel naby ‘n dam onder leeubekkies/ laat die sluwe bitter eende op my graf kak in die reën,” goes the famous line from his 1964 poem ‘Bedreiging van die siekes’. (If none of these words ring, or even make sense, shame on you.) Jan is equally interesting, for entirely different reasons. Not quite Kurtz from Jospeph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Jan nonetheless shaped, managed and directed a whole army of darkness, being the acknowledged founder of the South African Special Forces and chief commander of 32 Battalion, the apartheid state’s barbed spear in its battles in Namibia and Angola. For his part, Cloete, now 75, straddles that difficult place between: he is a photojournalist, a visual poet, principally of war, but also the prosaic, the ordinary. His ode of the latter is contained in his book, The Spirit of District Six, first published in 1970. Excerpts from this book, which has been reprinted many times, are currently on show at Long Street’s Gallery F, including this fine picture of youth, of its strange rituals of adventure and misadventure, of causing kak and simply being stout. Cloete snapped the picture on one of his many rambles through District Six when he was a news reporter for Die Burger and Cape Times. Unlike some of the other photographs in his book, which over time have taken on the character of nostalgic kitsch, this picture remains pin sharp in its description of what was, as opposed to what is – a toothless smile on the periphery of New Cape Town.