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South African poet, activist awarded in Poland

A jury in Warsaw on Monday named South African writer and anti-apartheid activist Breyten Breytenbach as the recipient of the 2017 Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award, named after the anti-communist Polish poet and philosopher.

“I’m pleased that this year the jury has chosen a poet who combines great talent with the attitude of an uncompromising man who sides with the oppressed,” said Katarzyna Herbert, the widow of the poet who died in 1998, as she announced the winner.

Born in Cape Town in 1939, Breytenbach left South Africa for Paris in the early 1960s after becoming an opponent of apartheid.

He married in France but since his wife was of Vietnamese descent, he was unable to return to South Africa where mixed-race marriages were illegal.

Breytenbach however did return to his homeland in secret to engage in the anti-apartheid struggle, but was discovered and sentenced to years in prison for his activities.

French President Francois Mitterrand helped to secure his release in 1982. He then returned to France where he became a citizen.

Breytenbach has published some 50 books, including “The True Confession of an Albino Terrorist” and numerous volumes of poetry, written mainly in his native Afrikaans.

The 2017 edition of the Zbigniew Herbert Award will be presented in the Polish capital Warsaw on May 25.

Nominated for the Nobel Literature Prize in 1991, Zbigniew Herbert was a potent symbol of Poland’s struggle for national independence against the oppressive intentions of its neighbours to the east and west.

He joined the Polish resistance against Nazi German occupation in 1939, and became a persistent thorn in the side of Poland’s Soviet-sponsored communist leadership after World War II.

His best-known work, “Pan Cogito” (Mr. Cogito), was published in 1974. A leading critic said of the work, a reflection on the conditions of the intellectual living in a world without freedom, that there was “no poetic testament in Polish literature that was so bitter, and yet so full of hope.”