About the Author(s)

Jacomien van Niekerk Email symbol
Department of Afrikaans, University of Pretoria, South Africa


Van Niekerk, J., 2016, ‘Mostly ‘black’ and ‘white’: ‘Race’, complicity and restitution in the non-fiction of Antjie Krog’, Literator 37(1), a1264. http://dx.doi.org/10.4102/lit.v37i1.1264

Original Research

Mostly ‘black’ and ‘white’: ‘Race’, complicity and restitution in the non-fiction of Antjie Krog

Jacomien van Niekerk

Received: 26 Nov. 2015; Accepted: 11 May 2016; Published: 24 Aug. 2016

Copyright: © 2016. The Author(s). Licensee: AOSIS.
This is an Open Access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.


This article analyses the role of ‘race’ in Antjie Krog’s non-fiction trilogy Country of My Skull (1998), A Change of Tongue (2003) and Begging to Be Black (2009). It explores her explicit use of terms such as ‘heart of whiteness’ and ‘heart of blackness’. Claims that Krog essentialises Africa and ‘black’ people are investigated. The article also addresses accusations of racism in Krog’s work. A partial answer to the persistent question of why Krog is so determinedly focused on ‘race’ is sought in the concept of complicity. There is definite specificity in the way Krog writes about ‘white’ perpetrators and ‘black’ victims in South Africa, but her trilogy should be read within the broader context of international restitution discourses, allowing for a somewhat different perspective on her contribution to the discussion of the issue of whether ‘white’ people belong in (South) Africa.


Meestal ‘swart’ en ‘wit’: ‘Ras’, medepligtigheid en restitusie in die nie-fiksie van Antjie Krog. Hierdie artikel ontleed die rol van ‘ras’ in Antjie Krog se nie-fiksie trilogie Country of My Skull (1998), A Change of Tongue (2003) en Begging to Be Black (2009). Haar uitdruklike gebruik van terme soos ‘heart of whiteness’ en ‘heart of blackness’ word verken, tesame met aantygings van essensialisering van Afrika en ‘swart’ mense. Ook aantygings van rassisme teen Krog se werk word ondersoek. Die herhaaldelike vraag waarom Krog so vasbeslote gefokus bly op ‘ras’ word gedeeltelik beantwoord deur die begrip medepligtigheid te betrek. Krog skryf met onmiskenbare spesifisiteit oor ‘wit’ daders en ‘swart’ slagoffers in Suid-Afrika, maar haar trilogie moet binne die breër konteks van internasionale diskoerse oor restitusie gelees word. Dit plaas Krog se bydrae tot die debat oor die vraag of ‘wit’ mense tot (Suid-)Afrika kan behoort in ’n ietwat ander perspektief.


One of the most prominent themes in Antjie Krog’s non-fiction trilogy Country of My Skull (1998), A Change of Tongue (2003) and Begging to Be Black (2009) is the question of ‘race’, a focus on the ‘black’ majority as opposed to the ‘white’ minority in South Africa. In view of the prominence of the theme of post-1994 transformation in all three books, I have coined the term ‘transformation trilogy’ to describe these texts.1 Krog writes from her subject position as a ‘white’ woman about the privileges, assumptions and complicity of ‘white’ people in South Africa, and about the fact that she experiences her ‘white’ skin as an impediment to her connecting with ‘black’ people. She also writes about the injustices which have been, and continue to be, perpetrated against ‘black’ people, and about the challenges of prejudice and pessimism which ‘black’ leaders have to face. Moreover, she explores the existence of a ‘black’ world view. Throughout, she places South Africa in a postcolonial context.

One of the challenges of analysing Krog’s approach to ‘race’ in the trilogy is her interweaving of the various components of the relevant issues. She embeds her treatment of the question of how ‘white’ people in South Africa can distance themselves from old, traditional attitudes towards ‘black’ people after the dawn of the new regime in the broader context of colonialism and of South Africa as a postcolonial society. In her trilogy, Krog explores what she calls an ‘African world view’. Sometimes she uses the term ubuntu. At others, she opts for the term ‘interconnectedness’. Krog contrasts this interconnectedness, which she argues informs ‘black’ people’s world view, with values stereotypically espoused by ‘white’ people.2 Krog is especially concerned with moral questions relating to ‘justice and equality’ in South Africa. Pragmatic considerations also find their way into her meditations on ‘race’.

In this article, I treat ‘race’ as a construct. In line with leading researchers on the subject, such as Templeton (1998), I contend that ‘race’ does not exist. I therefore put the term ‘race’ and related descriptors such as ‘white’ and ‘black’ in inverted commas to foreground the constructedness of these concepts. This critical approach has to be kept in mind in reading my interpretation of Krog’s work on ‘whiteness’, ‘blackness’ and anti-racism.3 In addition, I recognise that Krog’s repeated use of constructions in the trilogy referring to the ‘West’, by which she means stereotypical concepts connected to people living in North American and Northern European countries, is outdated and problematical. Where I refer to this construct, I therefore also place ‘West’ and ‘Western’ in inverted commas.

West (2009) and Lieskounig (2011) are so critical of Krog’s undeniable privilege as a ‘white’ woman that they deny her the right to want to understand or valorise ‘blackness’, and they experience her unmasking of the evils of colonialism and apartheid as ambivalent and hypocritical. These critics seem to want to ignore the eminently valid subject position of ‘white’ people who actively oppose racism. Paul Gilroy describes this position as follows:

They may not have been animalized, reified, or exterminated, but they too have suffered something by being deprived of their individuality, their humanity, and thus alienated from species life. Black and white are bonded together by the mechanisms of ‘race’ that estrange them from each other and amputate their common humanity. (2004:15)

Here Gilroy describes ‘white’ people who are intensely averse to any claim that their ‘whiteness’ makes them superior to ‘black’ people. The tone and content of her transformation trilogy leave no doubt that Krog belongs to the group of ‘white’ people who are acutely aware (and critical) of the ways in which their experiences and indeed entire consciousness have been limited and perverted by the racial thinking and manipulation with which they grew up, and which continued in South Africa after 1994. Krog acknowledges that this limitation and perversion have robbed her of being fully human. It is her awareness of this that leads her to ask the questions that she explores in her trilogy, and that have led her to perform certain gestures. Krog also consciously uses the subject position of a ‘white’ person who is opposed to racism in order to write about the issues she addresses; her anti-apartheid activism lends considerable credibility to her endeavour. As I shall demonstrate, I am not of the opinion that Krog is opposed to racism (and racialism) in an effort to conceal any underlying racism of her own, or to deal with ‘white guilt’. Krog’s (possible) essentialising of ‘black’ and ‘white’ cannot be ignored in a critical analysis of the place of ‘race’ in the trilogy, but I argue that other factors should enjoy just as much attention.

The article is structured as follows: firstly, in the section in which a postcolonial reading of the trilogy is foregrounded, I explore Krog’s intertextual conversation with Heart of Darkness by analysing her use of terms such as ‘heart of whiteness’ and ‘heart of blackness’. Krog’s (possible) essentialising of Africa and ‘black’ people is discussed here. Secondly, I briefly outline the arguments of critics who claim that Krog’s views are racist, and then I discuss how Krog deliberately situates her identification with ‘black’ people in the context of the Struggle. In the third section, Krog’s enduring focus on ‘black’ and ‘white’ is situated within the context of the notion of complicity, with particular reference to the complicity of ‘white’ people during apartheid and its consequences. At the same time, this notion can be considered from a broader, international perspective by using the work of Barkan. One consequence of Krog’s focus on complicity is the fact that she asks what the place of ‘white’ people in South Africa is; in this respect, her contribution can be compared with that of other white intellectuals.

The ‘heart of whiteness’ as opposed to the ‘heart of blackness’

Although she does not name Joseph Conrad or the title of his prominent novella, Heart of Darkness (1899), the novella does serve as an important intertext in Krog’s trilogy. One of many possible interpretations of the title of Conrad’s text is that the novella embodies colonial thinking about Africa as dark, underdeveloped and evil, exposing the ultimate ‘horror’ that a white European (the character Kurtz) can be affected by that darkness and degenerate completely. Chinua Achebe (1978) famously claimed that Heart of Darkness is saturated by racism, although he appears to exclude the possibility that Conrad’s aim could have been to expose the horror of colonial violence and oppression (Watts in Brantlinger 1985:363). In an argument not unlike Achebe’s, Krog alludes to the phrase ‘heart of darkness’ in her efforts to disprove ingrained prejudices against Africa; she tries to show the value of Africa and ‘black’ people and actively strives to be influenced by Africa.

Njabulo Ndebele (2009:17) also overturned one of the accepted meanings of the phrase Heart of Darkness by formulating the phrase ‘heart of whiteness’ in his well-known Steve Biko memorial lecture in 2000. Ndebele’s emphasis on the mutual connection between ‘black’ and ‘white’, and his claim that ‘white’ people have to redeem the humanity they lost when ‘black’ people were oppressed and deprived of their humanity, is similar to the passage from Gilroy (2004) which I quoted above. To be more precise: Ndebele does not simply refer to ‘white’ people, but rather to the ‘heart of whiteness’, in other words, to ‘whiteness’ as a construct, as opposed to a matter of pigmentation. In this context then, it is clear that Krog engages in an exploration of the constructed nature of ‘whiteness’ in A Change of Tongue and Begging to Be Black, and that she interrogates the nature of this construct.

Begging to Be Black adds interesting facets to Krog’s analysis of ‘whiteness’ in her trilogy. The sections of the text that deal with her 9-month long stay in Berlin mostly focus on her appreciation for German (and wider European) society, which is characterised by a state which cares for and is concerned with the welfare of the individual and by individuals who in turn are law-abiding and act responsibly. Krog (2009:127) claims that this interplay of rights and obligations is lacking in South Africa, where she says people are killed for R20, and where brass items such as the Stolpersteine (the plaques in Berlin which identify buildings from which Jews were abducted during the Second World War) would be stolen immediately (Krog 2009:159). The M19-Grunewald bus, which appears promptly around the corner at four minutes past twelve on New Year’s Eve, every year, is emblematic for Krog of the dependability and security she describes in the Berlin passages of her text. To her, this bus symbolises a certain ‘geborgenheid’ (she uses the Afrikaans word) – something between being rescued and being kept safe by people (or a God) who care’ (Krog 2009:154).

However, a few paragraphs later, Krog describes how, when she and her husband walk home after the New Year’s party, she has a strange physical experience: she feels nauseated and begins to hallucinate, seeing the thousands, millions of bodies that were killed across the centuries in European wars. ‘It felt like I was sitting in the heart of whiteness […] I could simply say over and over, ‘The horror! The horror!’ at some image, at some vision, at that thing producing the Grunewald M19 bus’ (Krog 2009:154).

Even though these opinions are not analysed further in Begging to Be Black, it is subtly implied that precisely those things which Krog appreciates about Germany – the care with which the state treats its citizens and the concomitant law-abiding and considerate behaviour of those citizens – also revolt her as part of the apparent side effects of an effective society.4 In an inversion of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Krog sees something evil, something which unleashes ‘horror’, in Europe’s ‘heart of whiteness’. This interpretation is her own creative variation on what Ndebele (perhaps) had in mind.

Although Krog gives due credit to Ndebele for the term ‘heart of whiteness’, she had already explored terminology that has to do with the word ‘heart’ in Country of My Skull (first published in 1998). Desmond Tutu’s plea to Winnie Mandela to tell the truth brings Krog to the conclusion that Tutu and the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) represent the ‘heart’ of South Africa, ‘brave – with its teeth firmly in the jugular of the only truth that matters’. And, Krog writes, ‘that heart is black’. This realisation leads Krog to an intensely emotional experience in which for a short while she feels that she belongs to a South Africa that is characterised by ‘blackness’: ‘I belong to that blinding black African heart’ (Krog 2000:338, [author’s own emphasis]).

In A Change of Tongue, Krog formulates her identification with Africa in the section in which the poetry caravan has reached its final destination in Timbuktu. During a final event, the participants drink tea with a group of Tuaregs in the desert:

Enchanted by colour and language, the smell of sand, the taste of tea, she knows that she wants to be nowhere else but here, wants to be from nowhere else but here. This continent that fills her so with anguish and love – this black, battered but lovely heart. (Krog 2003:333, [author’s own emphasis])

In this section, Krog presents Africa as a whole as a black heart, and a deliberate inversion of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness can be observed in terms of the entire continent (Lieskounig 2011:141).

Krog describes a visit to King Moshoeshoe’s grave at Thaba-Bosiu in Lesotho in Begging to Be Black. The way in which an old man communicates with a possible deity and emphasises the unity of humanity and nature leads Krog to experience the following in her body: ‘[S]omething melting into what over many years has become for me the unassuming heart of blackness’ (Krog 2009:253, [author’s own emphasis]). In this passage in Begging to Be Black, the ‘heart of blackness’ for Krog implies Africa, even though she does not explicitly state this. More specifically, the old man who is possibly speaking to Moshoeshoe and thus feels connected both to the dead and nature implies the ‘blackness’ which Krog associates with interconnection. She herself is unable to feel connected to others in this way, but physically finds herself in a space in which this is possible, and in the company of others for whom this is possible.

Krog’s repeated use of the term ‘black heart’ suggests something extremely central, which for her is seated in the notion of ‘blackness’. In a conscious inversion of common expressions which suggest that someone with a ‘black’ or ‘dark heart’ is evil, the ‘black heart’ of Africa is ‘lovely’ to Krog, and possessing it is enviable. It is also a form of figurative speech through which ‘Africa’ and ‘black’ are equated. Her use of the ‘heart’ metaphor may be seen as somewhat unoriginal and sentimental; as Leon de Kock (n.d.) writes, Krog ‘risks sentimentality everywhere’ and this is also the case in her trilogy.

Thus, in a subtle yet continuous conversation with Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, Krog deliberately uses the terms ‘black heart’ or ‘heart of blackness’ as a counter-argument for age-old conceptions about Africa as dark and unwanted. The title of the third text, Begging to Be Black, plays with readers’ prejudices and deep-seated convictions. Afrikaans readers may be aware of Krog’s statement that she would have liked to take a pill which would make her black (Smith 2003); the title Begging to Be Black indicates that she is willing to beg to be ‘black’ – although she never puts it as explicitly in the text, and consciously considers the possibilities of interaction with the ‘black’ other carefully. Critics such as Pienaar and Kozain (2009) claim that the book’s title is nonsensical, but I would suggest that they may have overlooked the broader context of Krog’s gestures.

Krog is thoroughly aware of the fact that, as a rule, in the world of racial hierarchies, ‘white’ will almost never want to become ‘black’. Krog challenges all these perceptions by suggesting that she would willingly become ‘black’. In Begging to Be Black, Krog engages with conversations in Berlin with the philosopher Paul Patton, who is an expert on the philosophy of Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari. Krog is captivated by the concept of ‘becoming-minor’ articulated by these philosophers (cf. Motha 2010; Scott 2012). In South Africa, even though ‘black’ people are the numerical majority, in Deleuzian terms ‘blackness’ is ‘minor’, as opposed to the accepted superiority and power of ‘whiteness’. Therefore Krog says, ‘I want to be part of the country I was born in. I need to know whether it is possible for somebody like me to become like the majority, to become ‘blacker?’ and live as a full and at-ease component of the South African psyche’ (Krog 2009:93).

‘Becoming-minor’ for Krog entails the valorisation of ‘blackness’ within a society in which this is not an automatic gesture. This valorisation may, however, often border on essentialism.

When, during their discussions in Berlin, Patton warns Krog that she may be engaging in essentialism (Krog 2009:93, 122), he is implying that Krog sees all ‘black’ people as similar and that she accepts there is an essence to ‘blackness’ which all ‘black’ people share. Krog denies these accusations, but there undeniably are very strong elements of essentialism in her endeavour to understand and valorise ‘blackness’. For example, when Krog (2009:203) insists that she observes an almost ‘superior way of being human’ in ‘black’ people, and that ‘blackness or a black world view’ are the source of ‘something remarkable’ (2009:206), she suggests that these special qualities are something shared by all ‘black’ people.

Krog takes this essentialism even further by equating ‘black’ people and ‘Africa’ to one another. Even though she differentiates between southern Africa and the rest of the continent with regard to ubuntu, there are other moments in the trilogy when Krog experiences Africa in essentialist ways, as Lieskounig (2011) shows. In the section in A Change of Tongue in which Krog celebrates her awareness in the desert of how much ‘this continent that fills her so with anguish and love’, she definitely reduces the whole continent with all its diversity and complexity to an essence, ‘an unquestionable and abstract entity completely drained of all historical reality’ (Lieskounig 2011:141).

Krog’s representations of ‘black’ people and ‘Africa’ in A Change of Tongue are problematic to Lieskounig (2011), who frequently suggests that they boil down to racism or at least to essentialism. For instance, in A Change of Tongue, Krog constantly depicts ‘black people’ as being physically more attractive than ‘white people’. Krog tends to treat ‘Africa’ in a generalising manner and to seek a timeless beauty in it; ‘Africa’ functions as a stand-in for ‘black’, as it were. With reference to ‘black’, she is searching for beauty, timelessness and the extraordinary. The central issue I want to explore is whether she is actually engaging in unproductive stereotyping and even racism, and whether all these phenomena should be interpreted as gestures by means of which Krog wants to valorise ‘blackness’ by attributing attractiveness and other positive characteristics to it.

Motha (2010) makes short shrift of the criticism of essentialism levelled against Krog. He argues that her ‘project of “becoming black” eschews any essentialist meaning of being black/white, colonial/postcolonial’ (Motha 2010:289). If one was to follow Motha’s approach, the whole issue of essentialism could be avoided by maintaining that Krog is not dealing in stereotypes and essences, but has her sights on a much more comprehensive goal in trying to understand ‘blackness’. One possibility of such a reading is the deduction that Krog (2009:185) wants to offer a corrective for a humanist point of view which denies all differences between people when she insists that one is cheating oneself if one views ‘black’ and ‘white’ people as the same.

Some critics have sought to expose Krog as a ‘white’ person in whom a deep-seated racism endures (see Lieskounig’s insinuations above) and who does not want to distance herself from her ‘white’ privilege. Her interlocutor in Berlin, Patton, verbalises the question which underpins the accusations by some of these critics: ‘Are you not trying to understand blackness […] in order to keep an ingrained racism more sensitively and subtly alive?’ (Krog 2009:93). Helene Strauss (2006:189), for instance, claims that Krog’s very wish to take a pill which would make her ‘black’ is underpinned by privilege.

West (2009), in her wide-ranging project to apply the theory of critical whiteness studies to ‘white’ South African writers, aims to expose Krog’s A Change of Tongue:

Despite her searing indictment of conservative white (Afrikaner) attitudes and her astute apprehension of a current crisis of whiteness which is marked by a sense of white displacement, her project is nonetheless often undercut by her own perhaps unexamined assumptions. (pp. 101–102)

One of the examples West (2003) analyses is a conversation between Krog and ‘black’ colleagues in A Change of Tongue. Krog asks why ‘race’ has become the only debate in the new South Africa:

[…] Nobody talks about class, or human rights, accountability, how to prevent abuses, how much of the past is already part of the present, collective guilt, moral choices, the definition of ‘perpetrators’ – the only thing we hear is race, race, race. As if my identity is ‘white’, and I’m not allowed to be more than that! (p. 272)

West (2009:89) rightly points out that the list of ‘additional issues’ which Krog mentions above is an excellent summary of Krog’s entire project in A Change of Tongue. Krog concerns herself with moral issues, with the question of collective guilt and complicity, and the nature and definition of ‘transgressors’. However, in my view, West is mistaken when she claims that these issues may be equated with ‘race’ in South Africa and that Krog’s argument thus collapses on itself. West (2003:274) further describes Krog’s words as a ‘knee-jerk response’ to the problematics of integration as outlined by one of her colleagues, and calls this an example of ‘liberal white anti-racist rhetoric’, which seeks to shift the emphasis from ‘race’ in order to conceal just how much the ‘white’ subject benefits from the concept of ‘whiteness’. I contend that this reaction by Krog truly is not the predictable automatic response of a ‘white’ liberal. I suggest that it is a well thought-out struggle with the limitations concomitant to racial thinking which underscores the importance of ‘moral questions’ for Krog. West (2009:90) reads a need into Krog’s words, a need to revive the categories ‘individualism’ and ‘humanism’ ‘in the face of strong evidence that these ‘Western’ constructs have lost much of their credibility […]’. In light of the trilogy as a whole, it can certainly be claimed that this statement by West is simply wrong: Krog is explicitly opposed to ‘Western individualism’ and even humanism in her trilogy; a considerable part of her project entails the rejection of these ‘Western’ notions and the exploration of an Africa-specific interconnection. As West (2009:89) points out, it is indeed ironic, in light of Krog’s clear preoccupation with ‘race’ in the transformation trilogy, that Krog asks, ‘Why has race become the only debate?’ (2003:121) – after all, Krog describes herself as ‘fixated on skin’. But at the same time, I disagree with West that Krog has a ‘particular’ preoccupation with ‘whiteness’.

Liberal critics in post-1994 South African studies seem to be so sensitised to examples of racism that they do not interpret Krog’s gestures properly. Some fail to take into account her entire biography, including her proven involvement in the Struggle. Critics such as West and Lieskounig are fully cognisant of the basic premises of whiteness studies, including the fact that ‘white’ privilege can endure in subtle ways and that even sworn anti-racists at times do not wish to distance themselves from that privilege. Their accusations of Krog are convincing, albeit based on incomplete analyses.

On the one hand, Krog seems to draw stark dividing lines based on skin colour when she labels herself or others as ‘too white’ to be allowed to feel part of Africa (cf. Krog 2003:300), when she makes the essentialist claim that ‘black’ people possess a superior kind of humanity or seemingly unproblematically equates ‘Africa’ and ‘blackness’. On the other hand, a complete analysis of the trilogy has to take into account those instances when Krog specifically identifies with ‘black’ people, South Africa and Africa, as well as the way in which this identification changes and shifts over the course of the trilogy.

In the section in A Change of Tongue in which Krog sees Nelson Mandela’s face on a T-shirt for the first time, she is surrounded by ‘a wall of black faces’. She refers to ‘us’ when she describes her and the other ‘black’ spectators’ reaction to the T-shirt: ‘This man who is still forbidden has come to show us his face and speak to us directly, here in Kroonstad’ (Krog 2003:170, emphasis added). Lieskounig (2011:141) reads a ‘seemingly innocent use’ of ‘us’ into this section; furthermore, he is indignant about what he sees as Krog’s lack of awareness of the gigantic chasm which separates her from the ‘black’ victims of apartheid: her use of ‘us’ ‘unmistakably claims a common bond between a representative of white Afrikaaner (sic) privilege, power, domination and subjugation, and the victims’ (2011:142). Even though he does not say so in so many words, Lieskounig considers Krog to be naïve. He believes that Krog (as in her passionate embracing of Africa) once again disregards history (Lieskounig 2011:142) and naively lays claim to community with ‘black’ people. He similarly interprets Krog’s version of a toyi-toyi in West Africa as a scandalous appropriation and mocking imitation of ‘one of the most historically and politically charged manifestations of resistance of the black majority during the apartheid regime by a member of the very group responsible for the racially based oppression’ (Lieskounig 2011:139).

Lieskounig disregards Krog’s personal history and context to some extent. Krog displays her anti-apartheid credentials5 in the trilogy by referring to the years during which she taught at a ‘coloured’6 school in Kroonstad, by referring to the ‘coloured’ church she and her family attended, to her involvement in protest marches and rallies (she apparently toyi-toyied in protest in the past), or, as in the quote above, by referring to her presence along with other opponents of apartheid on the pavement behind ‘Greg’s Muti Shop’ (Krog 2003:170). In this passage, she refers to one man who bends forward and shouts ‘Ha-laa-la’ (a cry of jubilation) as a ‘comrade’ (Krog 2003:170).

In her trilogy Krog does not deny her association with Afrikaners as implementers of apartheid; she clearly presents herself as a ‘white Afrikaner beneficiary of apartheid’ (Schaffer & Smith 2006:1579). However, it is unjust of critics to turn this acknowledged complicity and association against Krog to deny her the right to feel connected to the ‘black’ people with whom she participated in Struggle activities as well. As I have already pointed out, West and Lieskounig deny Krog the right as a ‘white’ person to agitate for the rights of ‘black’ people. They also overlook the fact that Krog is not, and was not, unique in doing so; many ‘white’ women took a prominent part in the Struggle. The resistance movement in the 1980s was explicitly non-racial in nature, and ‘white’ people such as Krog were not excluded from Struggle activities on account of the colour of their skin.

In this context it was arguably easy and natural for someone like Krog to use the term ‘us’ in a way that is no longer possible after 1994. At the same time, post-1994 ‘nation building’ presupposes that there is a new South African nation that constitutes a ‘we’ which any citizen is free to invoke. Krog does this in her conversations with Patton in Berlin, when she identifies herself completely with South Africa and Africa. For instance, she says: ‘I am not pleading that the West accommodate us; I am pleading that we understand ourselves, and not look back on ourselves in an utter non-understanding imposed on us from elsewhere’ (Krog 2009:238). She also says: ‘[…] you don’t hear us through our own voice. You only hear us through your voice’ (Krog 2009:156). In these statements, Krog does not side with ‘white’ people, who, according to her do not have access to certain insights and abilities which black people possess; she is part of Africa, part of the ‘us’ which stands in opposition to the ‘West’ and cannot be comprehended by the ‘West’. This phenomenon underscores the complexity of Krog’s subject positions in her trilogy.

A rejection of racialism is contained in those moments when Krog unambiguously identifies herself with Africa, or when, as she did during the Struggle, she and the ‘black’ opponents of apartheid form a united front. Krog’s defence that she is ‘trapped’ if she always has to be judged in terms of her ‘race’ (2003:274) suggests the need for a regime in which the ‘race classifications’ of apartheid are discarded. These moments are fleeting, however, and the more lasting impression that her trilogy leaves is one of a continued anti-racist preoccupation with ‘race’.

As mentioned above, ‘race’ in South Africa is undeniably interwoven with apartheid, and consequently with privilege as opposed to discrimination. This is one of the central issues which concerns Krog in her trilogy. She reduces a number of questions to being an issue of ‘black’ versus ‘white’, as the issue of complicity is of enduring significance to her, as I show below.

I also briefly want to posit that Krog’s insistent focus on ‘race’ stems from her avoidance of post-racialism, which, ‘rather than expressing the end of racism, conceals within its conceptual erasure of race the driving mode of contemporary racist articulation’ (Goldberg 2015:152). In postcolonial, post-apartheid South African society, for a ‘white’ intellectual to claim that ‘race’ should no longer be a determining factor (or is no longer a determining factor) amounts to disingenuous efforts to ‘individualize responsibility’ (Goldberg 2015:62) and ‘erases the very histories producing the formations of racial power and privilege’ (2015:101). Krog’s project is the exact opposite, as she seeks to unearth and analyse those ‘histories’ of ‘racial power and privilege’.

‘Race’ and complicity

Krog (2009:157) experiences Berlin as a city that is constantly concerned with ‘guilt’7: Berlin ‘reeks of unlodged guilt […] different layers of grief emanate from Berlin’. She can scarcely imagine that similar remembrance (such as the memorials or Stolpersteine in Berlin) of the victims of apartheid could ever take place in South Africa: ‘[Injustice] is walking around, mortally wounded, poor or corrupted, the perpetrators and the victims. The shame belongs to a colour – that colour is the reminder’ (Krog 2009:159).

Even though as shown above Krog herself realises the limitations of a simplistic reduction of the South African situation to ‘black’ as opposed to ‘white’, she arrives at the general conclusion that ‘white’ was complicit in apartheid as a whole and that ‘black’ as a whole was the victim of apartheid – she ‘reifies the stances of victim and (white Afrikaner) perpetrator-beneficiary in terms structured by the past’ (Schaffer & Smith 2006:1579). According to Krog, these realities are unlikely to disappear soon from post-apartheid society. For this reason, the issue of complicity and responsibility has to be addressed. I investigate the connection between ‘race’ and complicity in Krog’s work firstly by briefly referring to Mark Sanders’s Complicities, but also by referring to the work of Elazar Barkan, which helps place this gesture by Krog in a broader, international perspective.

Sanders’s thorough investigation of the complex question of complicity during apartheid in his seminal book Complicities: The Intellectual and Apartheid (2002) informs this article. Murray (2009) applies Sanders’s arguments to Country of My Skull, while Scott (2012) applies them to both Country of My Skull and Begging to Be Black.

The premise for Sanders’s study was inspired by the wording of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) report, which explicitly refers to the so-called ‘little perpetrator’ in each of us. The TRC was concerned with the ‘exceptional perpetrator[s]’ (Sanders 2002:3) of the apartheid regime and the victims of their crimes, but the ultimate goal of the exemplary testimony given before the Commission was to make the entire population of South Africa aware of the ‘little perpetrator’ in themselves. This ‘little perpetrator’ possesses the potential to commit the same crimes as the ‘exceptional perpetrator’. Thus, the TRC wanted to make people aware of their own willing or indirect complicity in the perpetuation of the apartheid system. By admitting that that ‘little perpetrator’ exists within one, one can develop a sense of responsibility which will ultimately lead to a ‘heightening of personal responsibility, which, paradoxically, would mean not washing one’s hands but actively affirming a complicity, or potential complicity, in the ‘outrageous deeds’ of others’ (Sanders 2002:3). Such a sense of responsibility ‘would, in the best of possible worlds, make one act to stop or prevent those deeds’ (Sanders 2002:3–4).

In keeping with the notion of ‘the other’ which Sanders invokes, he provides another, more comprehensive definition of complicity:

Complicity, in this convergence of act and responsibility, is thus at one with the basic folded-together-ness of being, of human-being, of self and other. Such foldedness is the condition of possibility of all particular affiliations, loyalties and commitments. In the absence of acknowledgement of complicity in a wider sense of foldedness with the other, whether welcomed or not, there would have been no opposition to apartheid. (2002:11)

Country of My Skull bears the following dedication: ‘For every victim who had an Afrikaner surname on her lips’. This dedication certainly embodies Krog’s particular complicity as an Afrikaner in the excesses of the apartheid regime; her intimate association with Afrikaners is clearly verbalised in Chapter Eight (Krog 2000:121). Murray claims that, in contrast with metaphysical guilt as universalised by Jaspers (see Sanders 2002:6), ‘Krog deals with the issue of complicity from a much more localised position in that she addresses the specific anxieties of the Afrikaner’ (Murray 2009:7). Thus, Krog’s narrator ‘[affirms] her foldedness with the perpetrators of apartheid abuses’ (Murray 2009:9).

Apart from the fact that the TRC hearings briefly reappear as a motif in A Change of Tongue and Begging to Be Black, Country of My Skull is not the entirety of Krog’s meditations on issues such as complicity, guilt and responsibility. In all three texts she explores the structural violence of the apartheid era and the complicity of ‘white’ and ‘black’ people in the exploitation and oppression of ‘black’ people before, during and after apartheid. This awareness of complicity underpins Krog’s meditations on transformation and identity.

Sanders repeatedly refers to his formulations ‘folded-together-ness of being’ and ‘human-being’, although for Sanders these terms cannot be separated from complicity, and consequently, from guilt and responsibility. Even though the connection with the other often boils down to an unwelcome, intimate relationship with the oppressor, there is a remarkable resemblance between Sanders’s ‘larger foldedness in human-being’ (2002:19) and the ‘interconnectedness’ which Krog explores in Begging to Be Black.

This article is not specifically concerned with the concept of ‘white guilt’. In whiteness studies, ‘white guilt’ is regarded with suspicion: ‘White guilt […] remains a suspect; if linked to politics it remains more often than not a guilt politics aimed at relieving the subject’s own discomfort, a political narcissism’ (Hook 2011:30). I am not of the opinion that Krog’s meditations on issues such as complicity, responsibility, or the legacy of colonialism can be reduced to a manifestation of ‘white’ guilt. She is not the ‘white liberal’ (who narcissistically tries to compensate for her own guilt), so often attacked by researchers in critical whiteness studies.

Rather, I claim that Krog’s concern with complicity and guilt should be viewed within a broader international perspective. In The Guilt of Nations, Elazar Barkan writes about the fact that restitution has become a ‘trend’ (2000:318) and a ‘global movement’ (2000:319) – ‘[c]ontemporary international discourse underscores the growing role of guilt, mourning, and atonement in national revival and in recognizing the identity of a historically victimized group’ (Barkan 2000:XLI). He adds:

On the one end of the spectrum is the guilt of non-suffering in the face of those who do suffer […] The fact that another is suffering as a result of human action and that one either ignores it or notices but does nothing is cause enough to be guilty […] On the other end is the guilt based on one, or one’s ancestors, causing the conditions of another’s suffering […] Guilt is a potentially powerful mechanism for transforming daily sentimentality and universal humanitarianism into a political agenda. The move to publicize private feelings, as performance and a display of individual pain, has become part of the agenda for victims’ rights. As a cultural phenomenon, performative guilt […] has ceased to be related to a specific political act and steps outside rational discourse. (Barkan 2000:316)

In her trilogy, Krog is clearly concerned with guilt based on ‘one, or one’s ancestors, causing the conditions of another’s suffering’. The difference between the usual connotations of ‘white guilt’ and Barkan’s ‘performative guilt’ is subtle, but Barkan claims that in a ‘post-civil rights postcolonial society’ (2000:316), there are increasing groups of people who embrace the label of ‘victims’ and there is increasing international pressure to make restitution for the suffering of victims:

From the perpetrator’s perspective, restitution and apologies are part of the growing cultural trend of performative guilt. The cost of admitting guilt (especially on the home front) and the difficulty of conceding that one’s identity is mired in crimes of injustice may be somewhat eased by the international trend to validate the ritual of public confession and legitimized by the recognition of the egalitarianism of imperfection. (Barkan 2000:323)

By this, I am not suggesting that complicity, guilt and restitution are empty concepts to Krog, or that the injustices committed during apartheid are relativised by the ‘egalitarianism of imperfection’ of human rights offenders worldwide. Rather, Krog is making her readers aware of issues that are of great interest internationally (as in the case of Berlin outlined above) and she implicitly asks what effect international discourses of penance have on South African society. By writing in English, Krog is consciously contributing to this debate. Researchers such as Sanders interpret Krog’s English non-fiction as itself a form of ‘reparation’ (Sanders 2007:140). Krog herself does not characterise her texts as such, and for the purposes of this article, it is more interesting that Krog’s reference to penance becomes an important international gesture that allows the trilogy to break free from the much-maligned South African exceptionalism.

Garman points out that the success of Country of My Skull can be attributed in part to the ‘enabling global context’ (2015:116) – the occurrence of truth commissions worldwide (2015:116–118), the rise of confession (2015:118–121) and the ‘transnationalising of the public sphere’ (2015:121–122). Krog can participate in and benefit from a broader transnational perspective on restitution precisely because she has written her trilogy in English.8 Ever since Country of My Skull, English has been Krog’s ‘language of narrative compromise’ (Jacobs 2004:157), which demonstrates her desire to adapt and transform.

Barkan uses ‘restitution’ as an umbrella term which includes restitution, reparation and apology.9 In Country of My Skull, Krog points out that in the two years at its disposal, the TRC never succeeded in establishing a proper policy about material reparations (2000:364). In A Change of Tongue, no mention is made of reparations amidst Krog’s explorations of post-1994 society, which reflects the fact that discussion of the issue has ceased completely since 1998. What is left is a public discourse on restitution, especially in terms of land.

During the conference they attended in Istanbul, Krog listened to Patton’s presentation on the possibility of a treaty between the Australian government and the Aborigines, and noted the following: ‘What is meant by justice? What would constitute a just settlement to the unfinished business of colonization?’ (2009:208). Patton speaks of the ‘act of ‘recognition as reconciliation’ and feels that after the official apology made by the Prime Minister to the Aborigines, talks on ‘reparation’ could begin at last. Krog sees clear parallels between South Africa and Australia as ‘white’ settler societies, but feels that the South African situation is more complex than the Australian one: ‘It somehow seems to me that it is easier to say sorry when you are in power and in the majority. It is very confusing with us. Instead of white people being asked to pay back, they were asked to step back. Instead of being taxed, they’re being blamed’ (2009:210).

Interestingly, in the above quote, Krog does not respond to apology exclusively as a form of restitution; she immediately takes the cognitive leap to reparation. When Krog and Patton take their leave of one another and thus conclude their series of conversations, the issue of what ‘white’ people in South Africa ought to do in order to bring about true reconciliation is addressed once more. Krog wishes Patton luck with Australia, which has at least already made an apology. Patton replies: ‘And good luck with [your country], which doesn’t know how’ (Krog 2009:269). Krog suggests that it is a complex issue for the ‘white’ minority in South Africa to apologise appropriately for apartheid. She possibly finds apology to be such an intangible concept that she rather focuses on material reparations. Barkan, by contrast, feels that ‘[a]pology is growing in popularity in both the private and public sphere and both nationally and internationally. Its legitimacy grows despite domestic criticism and cynicism, reflecting public repentance and turning it into a form of restitution’ (Barkan 2000:323).

Krog provides no solution or last word on the subject of reparations. She does, however, concisely formulate an aspect of the tension between ‘black and ‘white South Africa, which is perhaps one of the reasons why ‘race’ endures as the subject of debate. ‘White’ people have never been officially required to make restitution for apartheid, but at the same time, that restitution is exacted in less tangible, more frustrating ways. Against this background, Krog’s trilogy can indeed be read as an attempt at personal and collective restitution, but also as a plea for a new state of affairs. Indeed, Barkan anticipates that restitution can transform a traumatic event into a ‘constructive national narrative and identity’ (Barkan 2000:XLI).

Even though Krog does not elaborate on the subject of financial reparations, her statements in Begging to Be Black are important to situate and interpret her trilogy. The issue of the legacy of colonialism coincides with the issue of skin colour, which, according to Krog, functions as an enduring reminder of the injustices of the past. And it is of definite interest to interpret Krog’s trilogy as a response to this combination of issues, especially when her response may be compared to that of other ‘white’ intellectuals in South Africa.

One should guard against reading Krog’s subject position in an analysis of her non-fiction as unique (she was not the only ‘white’ woman activist during apartheid). Similarly, her quasi-academic meditations on the place and role of ‘white’ people in post-1994 South Africa should not be studied as a singular phenomenon. In broad thematic terms, there is an overlap between Krog’s work and that of other Afrikaans-speaking intellectuals such as Frederik van Zyl Slabbert’s Afrikaner, Afrikaan (1999) and diverse publications and statements by Max du Preez and others. Nevertheless, it is beyond the scope of this article to undertake a comparative study of Krog and other prominent Afrikaans-speaking intellectuals. Moreover, the issues that concern Krog and others are not limited to ‘white’ speakers of Afrikaans, but are also relevant to the ‘white’ Anglophone population of South Africa. Krog’s transformation trilogy was written in English and is mostly analysed by Anglophone academics.

Krog’s subject position as an Afrikaner writing in English is complicated, but I would like to indicate briefly that there are important similarities and differences between Krog’s English-language contributions and those of other Anglophone intellectuals, particularly the philosopher Samantha Vice, who published an essay entitled ‘How do I live in this strange place?’ (2010). She describes the aim of the essay as ‘an attempt to critically reflect upon what it is to be white in a country like South Africa’ (Vice 2010:323). Moral issues are of paramount importance to Vice, and she points out the problematics of a country like South Africa, ‘in which the self is … thoroughly saturated by histories of oppression or privilege’ (Vice 2010:323). One cannot simplistically question the moral responsibilities of the individual without properly taking into account the historical privilege or discrimination which are part of the individual’s history. Inherently, Vice asks what the ‘morally appropriate reaction to one’s situation of privilege’ is (2010:323).

Vice reaches two main conclusions, namely that shame and ‘silence’ are morally appropriate responses for ‘white’ people in post-apartheid South Africa. It is appropriate for ‘white’ people to experience shame, ‘aware of oneself always as privileged and existing in a world that accommodates one at the expense of others’ (Vice 2010:329). Although ‘white’ people are officially welcome in South Africa, this shame is so deep-seated, according to Vice, that the only acceptable position for ‘white’ people is to make themselves ‘invisible and unheard’. ‘White’ people should not publically express their opinions on the political situation in South Africa; they should learn that they do not matter (2010:335). Vice emphasises the fact that the silence she advocates is a political one, as she specifically encourages ‘white’ people to read the ‘literature of the oppressed’ (2010:335) and to listen actively to non-white voices (2010:336). In this silence, then, ‘white’ South Africans can do humble introspection (2010:340).

Vice’s conclusions are considered controversial. Eusebius McKaiser (2011) introduced Vice’s essay to a wider audience in the Mail and Guardian, and there were diverse reactions to Vice in the press, as well as in a special issue of the South African Journal of Philosophy (2011, Volume 30, number 4). None of the commentators, however, pointed out the similarities between Vice’s questions and Krog’s transformation trilogy.

Morality is a key issue for both Krog and Vice. In essence, Krog asks the same question as Vice, namely what might be a morally appropriate way for ‘white’ people to live in South Africa, taking into account their historical privilege, which continues into the present. But Krog does not reach the same conclusions as Vice.

Although Krog touches upon cultures in which guilt and shame play an important role in Country of My Skull (with reference to the complicit and the victims whose testimony is heard during the TRC hearings) and seems to suggest that there are similarities between ‘black’ people and Afrikaners, she is not overly concerned in her trilogy with notions of shame (or, as has already been pointed out, with ‘white’ guilt). And even though Krog at times chooses to keep silent for a short while in conversations with ‘black’ people, there is no question in her work of silence10 as a deliberate act. Krog feels just as strongly as Vice that ‘[w]hites in South Africa ought to see themselves as a problem’ (Vice 2010:326) and she consequently confronts her readers with the legacy of colonialism and the nature of ‘white’ privilege in South Africa. The fact that Krog insists that ‘white’ people should learn how to live as a minority in South Africa, how to become less, does not lead Krog to the conclusion that ‘white’ people should be invisible (at a political level). On the contrary, Krog does not shy away from criticising black politicians and phenomena such as ‘black’ corruption in her trilogy, as well as the simple fact that there is still a strong emphasis on ‘race’ in South Africa.

Vice seems to accept that South Africa is a ‘strange place’ to her that she can neither know nor seek to understand; her ‘whiteness’ excludes her so fully from the ‘black’ majority that she has to relinquish any notions of participation in the country’s politics and can only engage with literature by ‘black’ writers or conduct conversations with black people in a silent, personal way. To a certain extent, Krog’s approach corresponds to that of Vice in this regard. Krog also values ‘strangeness’ (compare Krog 2009:267) and insists that there are many things about ‘black’ people that she does not understand as a ‘white’ person. In contrast with Vice, for whom the ‘strangeness’ of South Africa is apparently a fait accompli, at least Krog makes an attempt to begin to understand that which she finds strange and incomprehensible. In her attempts to increase her understanding, Krog engages in conversation with diverse black interlocutors in her trilogy. She has also collaborated academically with ‘black’ colleagues (in There was this goat, 2009) and has translated some of the literature of ‘black’ people written in Bantu languages in Met woorde soos met kerse (2002). Krog does not present herself as an expert on ‘black’ people and on Africa, but rather as a student who wants to share her new-found knowledge with her readers. Even at the end of her trilogy, she concludes that she is still incapable of imagining ‘black’ people (Krog 2009:268), but this does not deter her from her attempts to get to know ‘blackness’ better and trying to understand it.


In this article, it has been demonstrated that in her trilogy, Krog valorises ‘blackness’ and wishes to invert old notions of ‘white’ superiority. Conrad’s Heart of Darkness serves as a powerful intertext in all three texts of the transformation trilogy, with which Krog engages in order to disprove colonial ideas about Africa. These attempts at disproving sometimes lead Krog to reveal a strong aversion towards the ‘heart of whiteness’ in and of Europe, as well as a tendency to portray ‘black’ people and Africa in essentialist ways as consistently positive.

Examples of Krog’s essentialism are problematic and possibly contradict Krog’s plea not to be judged exclusively on the basis of the colour of her skin. Yet this demonstrates the extent to which Krog is willing to take risks in her writing in order to undertake her specific journey towards transformation and understanding, just as she persists in her sentimental ‘heart’ metaphor to convey beauty, desire and belonging.

This article has demonstrated the complexity of ‘race’ and of attempts to analyse it in Krog’s trilogy. Critics read echoes of racism into Krog’s oversimplified appraisal of ‘blackness’, as well as into her attempts to demonstrate that ‘race’ is not a very useful tool to continue using. On the one hand, critics accuse Krog of wanting to find refuge in her undeniable ‘white’ privilege, but on the other hand, she is denied the right to identify herself with ‘black’ people.

The way in which Krog herself insists on seeing things ‘in black and white’ is a by-product of apartheid and of the fact that Krog believes that those who were complicit and the victims of apartheid can still be recognised easily by the colour of their skins. This makes Krog’s position a consistently anti-racist one, and she writes in a specific way about ‘black’ and ‘white’, never losing sight of ‘white’ complicity. Just as the clash of ‘Western’ notions and an ‘African world view’ boils down to issues of morality for Krog, for her, the question of what ‘white’ people ought to do in South Africa is a moral one.

Finally, Krog’s interest in a Deleuzian ‘becoming-minor’ seems to differ in important respects from conclusions drawn by other ‘white’ intellectuals. At the same time, South African exceptionalism can be avoided by reading the trilogy’s views on restitution in the context of global trends.


Competing interests

The author declares that she has no financial or personal relationships which may have inappropriately influenced her in writing this article.


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1. This article is based on a DLitt thesis completed at the University of Pretoria under the supervision of Prof. H.S.S. Willemse in 2014: Om te hoort: aspekte van identiteit in Antjie Krog se transformasie-trilogie. I am indebted to my supervisor, the external examiners of my thesis, and the three anonymous reviewers of this article for their indispensable contributions.

2. In my thesis I have written extensively about Krog’s exploration of an ‘African world view’ (as ubuntu, or ‘interconnectedness’). The scope of this article only allows me to refer to this exploration without explicating it.

3. The widely recognised term ‘non-racialism’ entails a rejection of racism, but the term is problematic in that it still implies that ‘race’ exists, signifying ‘a retrospective state of being (Goldberg 2015:163). The term ‘anti-racialism’ denotes the desire to ‘end racial reference’ and erase ‘the evidence of racisms’. ‘Anti-racism’, on the other hand, is the active opposition to racism, combating not only ‘the existing and previous forms of racist expression, but doing so in the name of an affirming set of ideals’ (Goldberg 2015:162–164).

4. Krog’s insight that stereotypically German efficiency can also be observed in their systematic annihilation of the Jews during the Second World War is not original, but she deploys it effectively in her argument.

5. See also Garman (2015:104).

6. I cannot adhere to Literator’s preference for the term ‘mixed-race’ here, since it is a contradiction in terms if one accepts that ‘race’ is nothing but a construct.

7. The performance of Tristan und Isolde by Wagner is one of the highlights of Krog’s stay in Berlin and also one of the climactic scenes in Begging to Be Black. Far from being solely transported by the music she describes in exquisite detail, Krog also views this evening critically and questions the position of victims and perpetrators in relation to the Jewish conductor Barenboim and his German audience (Krog 2009:240-244).

8. Only A Change of Tongue has been published in Afrikaans, as ’n Ander tongval (2005).

9. ‘Restitution strictly refers to the return of the specific actual belongings that were confiscated, seized, or stolen, such as land, art, ancestral remains, and the like. Reparations refers to some form of material recompense for that which cannot be returned, such as human life, a flourishing culture and economy, and identity. Apology […] to an admission of wrongdoing, and, in some cases, an acceptance of responsibility for those effects and an obligation to its victims’ (Barkan 2000:XIX, Barkan’s emphasis).

10. The kind of silence which Vice advocates is rejected by some critics as a paternalistic need to protect ‘black’ people from her ‘whiteness’ and/or a sign that the ‘white’ person deems his/her own interests to be more important than those of ‘black’ people (compare McKaiser 2011:460 and Hook 2011:498).


Crossref Citations

1. Guilt, shame and the politics of moral change in Antjie Krog’s and Zoë Wicomb’s literary responses to South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Kai Wiegandt
Journal of Postcolonial Writing  vol: 53  issue: 4  first page: 440  year: 2017  
doi: 10.1080/17449855.2017.1292405