Harper's Finest — December 8, 2013, 11:48 am

Breyten Breytenbach’s “Mandela’s Smile” (2008)

Notes on South Africa’s failed revolution

Harper's Magazine cover, December 2008In the December 2008 issue of Harper’s Magazine, Afrikaner poet Breyten Breytenbach, who spent seven years in South African prisons for his anti-apartheid activities, wrote an open letter to former South African president and Nobel laureate Nelson Mandela, who died last week at age ninety-five. In the letter, published on the occasion of Mandela’s ninetieth birthday, Breytenbach recalled the promise of the democratic revolution Mandela heralded following the demise of South Africa’s apartheid system, and asked what had gone wrong since then, given Mandela’s still-formidable influence on their country.

“I must tell you this terrible thing, my old and revered leader,” Breytenbach writes, after raising several recent high-profile instances of violence and racism in the country. “If a young South African were to ask me whether he or she should stay or leave, my bitter advice would be to go.”

In his missive, Breytenbach unfolds his deep feelings for South Africa and for Mandela, and wonders, ultimately, how his friend views his legacy and his enduring influence:

I will never know what goes on in your mind, or what that shield of a smile behind which we try to advance should tell us. I have no idea how the experiences you went through changed your intimate landscapes. Maybe you only thought of yourself as the instrument of a particular historical moment? What do you hear when all is quiet— the dancing feet of your warrior tribesmen on the green hills of Qunu so disfigured by soil erosion? The acclamation of the world?

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