Yesterday I attended a debate at the University of Pretoria on Antjie Krog’s book, “Begging to be black”.  The book was reviewed by Klippies Kritzinger, Jurie le Roux and Rodney Chaka, this was followed by two rounds of questions from the audience with further responses by the presenters.

In the book Krog converses with a diverse group of interlocutors.  The historic figure Moshoeshoe, a black student, her comrades, her family (husband,children,mother),other African authors and scholars from Australia and Germany. She places her body in different geographies ranging from South Africa, Germany and Lesotho. These conversations and places help her towards a certain becoming; a “long conversation” on what it would mean for her, a white female, to become part of a majority black South Africa.  In the process Krog deconstructs her whiteness.

This process of questioning or interrogating or confronting whiteness feels like agony because it destroys deep foundations of certainty and sensibilities of superiority amongst other things.  Doing so (as Krog did through the book) leads to an unsettling of cemented identities and opens ways towards a new kind of becoming – or not.

Klippies Kritzinger noted that for him the title would be more satisfying if it read, “begging to be African”.  I agree with him.  In fact Krog’s title reminded me of one of Steve Biko’s essays entitled, “Black souls in white skins?” – which is well worth the read.

As a white male I’m on a journey to become African.  This encompasses what Klippies called a “spirituality of becoming”. Becoming an interconnected African by deconstructing my racialized white identity. This opens the space for becoming a person with a diversified hybrid identity.  For me this includes being a Jesus follower, South African, male, white, husband, father, friend, lion’s supporter 😉 amongst other things.

The surprise of the morning was when Jurie le Roux presented his review of the book.  He branded it as a typical Afrikaner book because it is yearning for a wholeness or un-brokenness that is impossible; a naïve search for meaning, which he described as an Afrikaner flaw.  This he attributes to the Afrikaner’s lack of appropriating “the ideas and thinking of the Aufklaring or the Enlightenment”.

Le Roux’s critique on Krog (who is having a dialogue with her Africanness/blackness) is that she hasn’t been in dialogue with Europe enough!  He further described the book as an emotional preek (sermon). At the end of his review – he writes that,

To read Krog’s book is another way of experiencing hell, Sartre’s hell as expressed in his play, ‘No Exit’. The existential idea that ‘Hell is other people’ is the underlying theme throughout this 1944 play.  To be incarcerated in Sartre’s hell implies the encapsulation in the humiliating views of the other; to be tortured by the misconceptions, misreadings of other people.  Put differently: it feels as if you can’t win because Krog has decided what it means to be white, to be a male, to be an Afrikaner.  There is no way out! There is however, an exit which can be called intellectual resistance: the scholarly undermining of the existing paradigm, the scientific formulation of new words, concepts and a new discourse.”

Le Roux’s strong reaction against the book is a reaction I’ve noticed among quite a few fellow whites.  It is a reaction that finds it very difficult to interrogate whiteness. Because white culture is the norm we find it hard to even see “white culture” and we are therefore uneasy in critiquing it.  So instead of facing whiteness in dialogue with Africans, the confrontation is sidestepped by “intellectual resistance”.  A formulation of new words, concepts and discourse that will probably be formulated by white males of European descent (again) …

Le Roux also mentioned Lyotard’s suspicion of meta-narratives to which Kritzinger asked, “why should Africans listen to Lyotard?”

Reggie, who wrote a review of Krog’s book asked why there aren’t any females reviewing the book.  He also noted, insightfully, that the best work being done on “whiteness” in South Africa are females (Krog, Steyn and van der Westhuizen).

In Melissa Steyn’s book “Whiteness just isn’t what it used to be” she notes that,

“As the privileged group, whites have tended to take their identity as the standard by which everyone else is measured.  This makes white identity invisible, ‘even to the extent that many whites do not consciously think about the profound effect being white has on their everyday lives’. In sum, because the racialness of their own lives is edited out, white people have been able to ignore the manner in which the notion of race has structured people’s life opportunities in society as a whole” p.xxvi

This sentiment was echoed a few times by white respondents who wanted to move the conversation beyond race “because there is no black or white”.  We whites can afford this kind of talk because the dominant culture of whiteness(es) still prevail. Rodney Chaka noted this dynamic and referred to the work of Tim Wise in the USA and the excellent book “why are all the black kids sitting together in the Cafeteria?

Where le Roux wants Krog to converse with Europe, Steyn notes that, “In the case of postcolonialism, it is the Western colonial master narrative, with all its assumptions of the superiority, special entitlement and unique destiny of European peoples in relation to their colonial others that has been ruptured (though not erased).

Ugandan scholar Emmanuel Katongole in a potent essay called, “Postmodern illusions and performances” noted that, “ … there is nothing radically new or liberating within this postmodern reinvention.  Rather, it represents a heightened (modernist) determination in the destruction of whatever is local, particular, or different.”

He also stated that,

“In spite of its declared sensitivity to difference and otherness, postmodernism is still so much caught up in this modern predicament and failure by Western culture to accept and respect tastes and habits, in general, ways of life or rationalities which are different from her own way of life.”

Krog’s book is a valuable conversation helping those who are open to becoming a part of Africa … and the debate was a raging success … thanks Cobus for the invite!  Would love to hear some other perspectives!