It is easy to interpret the martyrs of the title as black South Africans, the fanatics as their Afrikaner oppressors; but...


MARTYRS AND FANATICS: South Africa and Human Destinies

It is easy to interpret the martyrs of the title as black South Africans, the fanatics as their Afrikaner oppressors; but nothing so simple is intended. (Little is simple here.) Dreyer, a (white) South African dissident of long standing, begins this collage of conflict with the case of Afrikaans poet Breyten Breytenbach--who, radicalized and caught up in clandestine, Communist-linked activities abroad, was betrayed on a 1975 return to South Africa and, in custody, not only confessed but apologized. Both martyr and fanatic, was he finally--not unlike all Afrikaners--a victim of self-delusion? Then, to trace the roots of the South African condition, Dreyer adverts to the coming of the Europeans; their contemptuous subjugation of the local Khoikhoi; their outright slaughter--as ""subhuman predators""--of the Bushmen; and the case of black Eva, who, raised in a Dutch household, could live in both worlds and ultimately was at home in neither. After giving birth to several half-white children, she died at 31, apparently of alcoholism: to Dreyer, she is ""the ur-mother of the Coloureds of the Cape."" The section is structurally chaotic; theoretically shaky (in that Dreyer gives a South African coloring to near-universal manifestations of racism); but humanly convincing--illustrative of the sense of ""lessworthfulness"" inherited not only by Eva's descendants but by all non-whites. Dreyer's next focal figure is black spokesman Sol Plaatje (1877-1932), astute, conciliatory, stonewalled--whose story spans the Boer War and the British betrayal of the blacks; the 1913 Natives' Land Act, which closed most of South Africa's farmland to blacks; and, of utmost importance to Dreyer's scheme, the first Communist distortion of white radicalism: the 1922 strike against the employment of blacks in skilled capacities in the mines. Thereafter, the linkage between Communists and Africanists becomes focal and hideously fascinating. To quote: ""Racist violence and intransigence were the only things that could supply the morally bankrupt CPSA with credibility. They had, accordingly, to be provoked wherever possible."" ""The blood of the martyrs. . . is also the seed of international funding. . ."" ""A South Africa in orbit would give the Russian bloc a dominating position in the production of a whole range of vital strategic nonfuel materials. . ."" And each of these allegations, internally developed, also applies, one realizes, to the Breytenbach case. Obscure at times, but compelling in its particulars and its implications.

Pub Date: July 1, 1980


Page Count: -

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Review Posted Online: N/A

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 1, 1980