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Literary awards to South African dissidents spur controversy

TWO important literary awards and a controversial political book have caused a cultural flutter among members of South Africa's ruling white minority. One reason is that both literary prizes have gone to political dissidents who have served jail sentences for their opposition to the government.

The first prize-winner is poet Jeremy Cronin, who landed in prison for seven years after distributing ''inciting'' pamphlets for the banned African National Congress. He has won South Africa's highly regarded Ingrid Jonker Prize for a book of poems entitled ''Inside,'' a collection that includes love poems addressed to his young wife, who died while he was in prison.

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He was not allowed to go to her funeral. One of the reasons given by the prisons department at the time was that, ''although the department has much sympathy,'' it was not practical to allow him out of prison temporarily because special security arrangements would have to be made ''and this involves additional personnel.''

But Cronin writes in English, and the far more controversial prize-winner is Brzyten Breytenbach, who is joint recipient of the latest award by the Central News Agency, a major national book and magazine distribution company.

Breytenbach won his prize for a collection of Afrikaans poems which were also written in jail, during a nine-year spell after he was convicted of plotting against the state during a bizarre trip to South Africa from his home in Paris.

Breytenbach has aroused controversy for years. One of three sons of a highly respected Afrikaans family, he early became celebrated for his scintillating poetic talent. But he shocked the establishment when he fell in love in Europe with a young Vietnamese girl and married her.

This condemned him for years to a form of exile, because he might have been liable to conviction under South Africa's ''immorality act'' if he had brought his wife back home and lived with her here. Such a marriage would transgress laws enacted to protect the racial ''purity'' of whites.

Nonetheless, exile or not, Breytenbach continued to write in Afrikaans and continued to astonish the Afrikaans literary world with his talent.

It has surprised no one that he should have won the CNA prize - even though it is embarrassing for the establishment that the work was written by somebody who had been sent to jail for political offenses.

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But he has shocked his Afrikaans followers by publishing in South Africa, almost simultaneously with winning his latest prize, a full-length book about his prison experiences - in English.

Entitled ''The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist,'' it is the hottest literary potato to appear in this country in a long time, because it deals with subjects that are normally considered taboo here: conditions in South Africa's prisons, for example, and the interrogation methods of the political police.

As a result it is widely expected the book will be banned, and few, if any, bookstores have stocked it or display it.

It has received wide publicity, nonetheless, especially in the Afrikaans newspapers that are generally government-supporting.

One of the reasons for the attention is, not its literary merit or even its political content, but the very fact that it has appeared in English rather than Afrikaans, something that has caused concern that Breytenbach may in the future spurn his home language.

The country's biggest Afrikaans newspaper, Rapport, devoted almost a whole page to the book, headlining its main report, ''Is Breyten finished with Afrikaans?'' and declaring that Breytenbach's ''love-hate'' relationship with Afrikaans appeared to have reached a crisis point with the publication.

There could be sound practical as well as political and emotional reasons for publishing the book in English, however. If it is banned now, the book could still be distributed overseas in a language that is understood around the world.

But if it had been published in Afrikaans, which is virtually unknown outside South Africa, a seminal work by Afrikanerdom's most controversial and perhaps most talented writer could have been obliterated almost without a trace by a government ban.

It is an irony not overlooked in literary circles here, though, that this important Afrikaans author should decide to publish in English a book of such considerable significance mainly to Afrikaners.

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