Gifted band of Breytenbach brothers


Gifted band of Breytenbach brothers

Colonel Jan died on Sunday. MAX DU PREEZ looks at his life and those of his famous siblings, Breyten and Cloete.


CAIN and Abel, sons of Adam and Eve, did not get along. Cain later killed Abel.

In 1554, Queen Mary I of England imprisoned her half-sister, Elizabeth, daughter of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn, for allegedly committing treason.

That's how far one has to go back in history to find famous relatives fighting each other.

Not the Afrikaners though; with them it happens quite often.

General Christiaan de Wet hated his brother, General Piet de Wet, until his death because he believed the Boer War was fought for nothing then went on to fight with the British.

General Constand Viljoen was chief of the old South African Defence Force (SADF); his twin brother, Abraham, was a leftist theologian who had discussions with the ANC before it became fashionable.

Lees hierdie artikel in Afrikaans:

And then there are Jan and Breyten Breytenbach.

Colonel Jan Dirk Breytenbach died last weekend at the age of 91. He was probably the most famous soldier of the old SADF since World War 2.

Breyten, Afrikaans's greatest poet, infiltrated South Africa in 1975 disguised as Christian Jean-Marc Galaska. He was a founding member of the militant anti-apartheid organisation Okhela.

Shortly before that, he had called South Africa a terrorist state at a UN meeting and pleaded for greater support for the liberation movements. Brother Jan was at that moment on the ground in Angola as one of the commanders of the SADF's Operation Savannah.

Breyten was sentenced to nine years in prison but was released in 1982 after fierce domestic and foreign pressure, after which he returned to France.

Jan supposedly declared at the time: “My brother trains the terrorists, then I shoot them dead." I don't know how true that is, but it sounds like Jan's kind of humour to me.

Jan and Breyten had another famous brother, Cloete. He was one of South Africa's best photographers and a writer and photojournalist with many books to his name.

Cloete and I worked together several times, including during a visit to Botswana in 1976 to meet some of the Soweto students who had fled after June 16. We even caused a bit of embarrassment together in a hotel in Gaborone after drinking too much. Cloete died in 2019 at the age of 86.

Cloete made a name for himself internationally with his photos of Chris Barnard's first heart transplant in 1967, of the Yom Kippur War in 1973 and of the war in Angola. But his best photographs were, in my opinion, of District Six and the forced relocation of people to the Cape Flats. He gave my wife a large print of one of these soulful photos that now hangs in our lounge.

Hans and Kitty Breytenbach, once from Bonnievale and later from Wellington, were clearly excellent genetic material. Jan was the eldest son, then came Cloete, then Breyten, then Sebastiaan, then Rachel. Basjan, believed to be a formidable intellectual, died in 2010.

I met Breyten briefly via Frederik Van Zyl Slabbert but got to know him better after the Dakar safari of 1987. Our friendship was bumpy, especially after the negotiations for a democratic settlement began to get under way in 1990. He was too cynical for my liking, but later I understood better when he identified himself in an interview with the philosopher Régis Debray's statement: “I'll be a communist until my party comes into power, and at that point I'll immediately become an anti-communist.”

I got to know Jan a few years ago when Breyten's institute on the island of Gorée organised a discussion there with, among others, a few generals from Africa. Those generals hung on his every word; he was their brother.

When I remarked that he had been a soldier for longer than I had been alive, Jan's quick reply was: “Hell, but you're quite arrogant for such a young man." I was foolish enough to say that I, like him, had received my initial military training at the Army Gymnasium, albeit 18 years later. I could see how he had to keep himself from retorting with a severe insult, but he went no further than: “We clearly wasted our money on you." I had to agree with him. I preferred not to mention that after my basic training I had refused to do any further military service.

After that we got on well. Jan was good company, even though we were political opposites.

I never asked Breyten about his relationship with his brother the soldier; after all, the two were at the extremes of the political spectrum in the 1970s and 1980s. What I did see on Gorée were brothers who loved each other and got along well, but that was long after the war was over and when we were already a democracy.

It's rather exceptional that three brothers from a modest Boland family were not only talented but shrewd, opinionated and strong personalities.

Of course, as a military correspondent who had earlier reported on the war in Namibia, Angola and the old frontline states, I knew full well who Colonel Jan “Bruinman" Breytenbach was.

After all, he was the father of the elite Recces, 1 Reconnaissance Commando, as well as commander of the infamous/famous 32 Battalion and 44 Parachute Brigade. He was Mr Guerrilla War, a true “soldier's soldier", an officer who liked to be on the ground in the heat of battle. (He spent five years in the British Army early in his military career.)

From my days in Namibia, I remember that Jan had a reputation for not tolerating racism, at least not in the units under his command. I had a long friendship with the leader of the FNLA in Angola, Holden Roberto (I was madly in love with his beautiful wife, the sister of Mobuto Sese Seko), and was therefore in contact with some of his people in Angola and Namibia. These people saw Jan as a kind of god, because some of their soldiers became part of 32 Battalion after Operation Savannah.

The respect and love those former soldiers had for Jan became clear after his death. Some of them referred to his steel grey eyes “that would look right through you".

One of the officers who served under him in the Recces, Colonel Steph Naudé, tells in a video — one of many about Jan — about the time he had to drive PW Botha, Magnus Malan and Pik Botha around on the Namibian northern border. The conversation turned to who should be honoured with a medal, and the three politicians agreed it should not be Jan. Naudé says he began reaching for his pistol and strongly considered killing the three politicians then and there.

But it would not do to not also state that Jan Breytenbach played a large part in maintaining the apartheid state, the destabilisation of our neighbouring states, and the delay of independence for Namibia.

One of the military operations Jan was proud of was the SADF's attack on Cassinga in Angola on May 4, 1978. Jan and his senior at the time, Constand Viljoen, landed in Cassinga by parachute, and Jan's unit was responsible for much of the combat. Jan describes it in one video as a “very nice op" and says how much he enjoyed it.

But the battle of Cassinga is remembered very differently by Namibians. More than 600 people died in that attack. While the SADF maintained that it was an operational base, Swapo says it was mostly a refugee camp, with a small military presence. Photos of the mass graves at Cassinga show the bodies of many women and children.

The truth probably lies between these two positions. But Cassinga has since become a major part of the existential narrative of Namibia as a nation.

In 1996, Jan addressed a large meeting of former soldiers in Pretoria in which he railed against the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The TRC wanted to drag his name and that of his accomplices and their units through the mud, he said, but he was proud of what they had  done and had nothing to explain or to apologise for.

“We fought for a just cause,” he said to loud applause, and he was not going to apply for amnesty at the TRC: “Se moer!”

We broadcast his speech as part of the Special Report on the TRC. 

He remained a maverick until the end. He played a large part in bringing to light the slaughter of elephants and rhinos in southern Angola by Unita and elements in the SADF, as well as the illegal trade in ivory in which SADF officers participated.

Of the four Breytenbach brothers, only Breyten, 85, is now left. May he remain with us for a long time to come.

♦ VWB ♦

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