Scary Barbie rides again: Breytenbachstill calls the shots
'I have the heart of a little girl," Glynnis Breytenbach used to say. "In a jar on my desk."
There aren't any organ-containing receptacles on Breytenbach's desk today: just a bag of jellied sweets, to which she encourages guests to help themselves. She also offers wine. Given that it's 2.30pm on a weekday in parliament, and that she's imminently due in the National Assembly to hear Deputy President Cyril Ramaphosa speak, it's possible that this is a joke. Breytenbach's sense of humour is dry and often caustic.
The book Breytenbach has just written with journalist Nechama Brodie, Rule of Law, is peppered with this mordant humour. That's one of the features that makes it an unexpectedly riotous read, despite its dry title. Another is its candour.
To give just one example, Breytenbach refers to the accommodation complex for MPs in Cape Town as a "shithole".It's been three years since Breytenbach took up a post as a DA MP, after being effectively forced out of her role as a prosecutor at the NPA on seemingly trumped-up charges.
The NPA's case against her is still ongoing, due to return to the courts in October, so she can't discuss it. In her book, she explains matters in characteristically succinct terms. Breytenbach asked the NPA to reinstate charges against former crime intelligence head Richard Mdluli. "Four days later I was told that I was being suspended, for made-up shit."
As you may have gathered, Breytenbach's vocabulary has a blue streak a mile wide. "I swear like a sailor," she admits cheerfully in her office in parliament. "I do so as, and when, it pleases me."
That may be one of the reasons a number of her former legal colleagues expressed concern over her entry into the snake-oil world of politics. Breytenbach is many things, but a diplomat is not one of them. "My eyes can spell 'fuck you' a thousand times over," her book records. She refuses to be thought of as a politician. "I'm a lawyer," she says firmly.
Breytenbach's contrarian strain runs deep. The Kimberley-born daughter of a railway clerk father and a mother who worked as a bookkeeper for Mark Shuttleworth's great-uncle, she describes herself as congenitally defiant. As a teenager, she set the cat among the pigeons at her all-girl high school by rocking up on a motorbike as soon as she was legally able to. Later in her life, when three bikers attempted to force her car off the motorway shortly after her NPA suspension, she would respond by simply driving into one.Little wonder that a lot of people find Breytenbach scary. When you put this to her, she is openly delighted. "I'd like to think so!" she roars. "I spent 26 years building up this image. People should shit themselves."
Breytenbach herself is hard to scare. "I fear nothing," she says. "Except sharks and locusts."
Fearlessness is a desirable quality in both a parliamentarian and a prosecutor. Rule of Law charts a career in the NPA characterised by a desire for justice above all. In the early stages of her journey as a criminal prosecutor, Breytenbach took on a lot of cases involving children - despite not particularly liking children, she notes.
In one case, where the children in question were covered with the marks of abuse, Breytenbach was told she was not allowed to call them as witnesses. Her solution? She submitted the children as evidence: Exhibit A and Exhibit B. Case closed.
She says that she was not particularly politically aware growing up, although she admired the sole Progressive Party MP, Helen Suzman. Breytenbach's political awakening was to come as something of a baptism of fire. From 2000, she began to experience the first tentacles of political interference at the NPA.When she was prosecuting Trevor Abrahams, the CEO of the Civil Aviation Authority, on corruption and fraud charges (which were eventually withdrawn), Breytenbach was told he should be granted bail - despite being an obvious and literal flight risk.
That was the beginning of what Breytenbach witnessed as a steady decline in the independence and integrity of the NPA. Yet, despite everything, she still maintains trust in South Africa's criminal justice system.
"I've been a prosecutor for my entire adult life, and I believe we have a fair legal system," she says. "I believe in the system."
These days, Breytenbach is on the outside of that system - but keeping a beady eye on it as the DA's spokeswoman on justice and correctional services. She openly admits that being an MP can be "soul-destroyingly boring", but shrugs: "It's a good platform for helping people."
Serving as MP for her "constituency area" - one of the regions the DA allocates to its MPs - in Pretoria brings its own rewards and challenges. In her book, Breytenbach recounts her frustration with people who call her day and night asking her to fix relatively trivial domestic problems.
On one occasion, she was phoned at 2am by a woman complaining that her tap was leaking. Breytenbach told the woman she would ensure that an emergency unit of the council water department was immediately dispatched to address it, and instructed her to wait outside her house to let them in. Then she turned off her phone and went back to sleep.
When I bring up this anecdote, Breytenbach looks mildly horrified. "Fuck, is that in there?" she asks, referring to the book. She clarifies that she values constituency work for the opportunity it gives her to "meet the most amazing cross-section of people", and finds it "humbling".Unusually for a politician, Breytenbach really doesn't seem like she needs much humbling. She is self-deprecating to a fault. She resisted producing a book, she says, because she "found it astonishing that anyone would be interested in reading it".
Notably absent from Rule of Law is any mention of Breytenbach's personal life. She says it would have been too boring to include. The only loved ones who receive repeated shout-outs in her book are her three dogs. Framed pictures of the hounds are dotted around her office. Two are named after famous tennis players and one after a brand of instant coffee: Rafi, Keiko and Frisco. Breytenbach clarifies that she adopted Frisco with his name as a going concern.
Breytenbach's story contains many examples of her coming up against a professional glass ceiling as a woman - and smashing straight through it. She became a fraud prosecutor, for instance, over the objections of the male head of the unit, who said he would never permit a woman on his team.
But Breytenbach doesn't want to be called a feminist. "I believe in absolute equality of everything," she says. "I don't believe that women should be singled out for special treatment. I've never felt that I needed any favours as a woman." She refers to women's rights advocates "burning their bras" as "corny", and asks rhetorically: "What crap is that?"
Moments before this, Breytenbach has warned the male photographer that he risks having his camera "shoved up his nostril". She's joking - I think.
"I am told that, on the Cape Flats, they refer to me as Advocate Barbie," her book records. "But with a certain amount of fear. It only works with the fear."
'Rule of Law: A Memoir' by Glynnis Breytenbach with Nechama Brodie, is published by Pan Macmillan (R275)