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South African poet, activist collects prize in Poland

South African writer and anti-apartheid activist Breyten Breytenbach received the 2017 Zbigniew Herbert International Literary Award, named after the anti-communist Polish poet and philosopher, at a ceremony in Warsaw on Thursday.

“Staying true to your ideals is a challenge, but the life of this year’s laureate demonstrates that it is worth it to be faithful,” said Katarzyna Herbert, the poet’s widow.

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 so-called 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 jailed.

French President Francois Mitterrand helped 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.

Breytenbach read his poetry at the Warsaw ceremony and also spoke of his affinity with Zbigniew Herbert’s work.

Nominated for the Nobel Literature Prize in 1991, 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 died in 1998.