He was aboard a flight travelling from Amsterdam to Cape Town on Friday night when he died.
Brink was returning from a Belgium university where he received an honorary doctorate.
Brink was a leading member of the Sestigers, a group of independent-minded Afrikaans writers who clashed repeatedly with the establishment.
His works were repeatedly banned, and he was an outspoken critic of censorship, which he said was being used in South Africa not to protect religious or moral beliefs but as an extension of a repressive political apparatus.
Brink was born in Vrede, in the Orange Free State, in 1935. He studied at Potchefstroom University and completed MAs in English and Afrikaans there.
He followed this with postgraduate research in comparative literature at the University of Sorbonne in Paris.
France, he said in later years, became his “second homeland”.
In 1961 he joined Rhodes University’s department of Afrikaans and Nederlands as a lecturer, and was awarded a D. Litt by the university in 1975.
In 1980 he became head of the department, and in 1991 moved to the University of Cape Town as head of English.
Brink’s first Afrikaans novel, Die Meul Teen die Hang (1958) was followed by some 40 other publications, including novels, plays, travelogues and literary criticism, in Afrikaans.
After his Kennis van die Aand, which dealt with a love affair across the colour line, was banned in 1974, he began writing in English as well.
His novels in English include Looking on Darkness (1974), An Instant in the Wind (1976), Rumours of Rain (1978), A Dry White Season (1979), A Chain of Voices (1983), The Wall of the Plague (1984), States of Emergency (1988), An Act of Terror (1991), The First Life of Adamastor (1993) and On the Contrary (1993).
Rumours, set in South Africa on the eve of the Soweto uprising, was banned by the department of Customs and Excise, then approved by a publications committee. Then the publications directorate appealed against the committee decision, and the Publications Appeal Board finally approved the work.
A Dry White Season, which deals with death in detention, was refused by an established South African publisher who said he feared “problems with the publications board”, and was subsequently issued in Afrikaans by a private publisher and sold semi-clandestinely on a subscription basis.
The book was banned and then unbanned in 1979, and Brink was threatened with prosecution for statements he had made in the book about the police.
Brink was continually watched by the security police, his phone tapped,
and his mail intercepted and occasionally stolen.
His books have been published in 28 languages. He has also translated some 70 works from English, French, German and Spanish into Afrikaans.
He received the CNA literary Award three times: in 1964 for Ole, in 1978 for Rumours of Rain (also shortlisted for the nooker prize) and in 1983 for A Chain of Voices.
“Even in chains, the many voices of the writer must continue to speak,” he said in accepting the prize.
He was shortlisted for the Nobel Prize for literature in 1982. The prize went to Latin American author Gabriel Garcia Marquez in that year.
He was also awarded the British Martin Luther King Memorial prize in 1980, the French Prix Medicis Etranger for foreign literature in 1980, and was made a chevalier of the France’s Legion of Honour — the country’s top civilian award — in 1982 in recognition of his contribution to French literature.
All his novels have been translated into French and have been best-sellers in French-speaking countries.
In 1992 he was made a Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Brink has been married and divorced three times.