The universal sanctity of whiteness: Antjie Krog's negotiation of black responses to white transformation in A Change of Tongue.
Country of My Skull (1998) emerged out of Antjie Krog's participation as a journalist covering the Truth and Reconciliation proceedings and consists mostly of the collected stories of individual trauma inflicted by the apartheid regime, which are overlaid with her own responses to these graphic details. A Change of Tongue (2003) is more autobiographical and personal than the earlier work, more searching in its negotiation of the complexities and paradoxes confronting white identities in relation to a new sense of unhomeliness in a space which had been reserved exclusively for whites as home. It is also less comfortably indicting of the regime responsible for the atrocities, and more willing to confront the continued force of whiteness as a cultural construct. Studies in whiteness are employed to investigate Krog's experimentation with genre and her experience of 'race'. The narrative perspective and its engagement with a post-apartheid crisis in white identity, is explored, paying specific attention to the encounters recorded in the book with black South Africans. This is done in order to map Krog's understanding of what post-apartheid whiteness might represent and how it might be transformed. Such a mapping demonstrates the ambivalences that emerge in the interstices of Krog's painful grappling with her growing sense of un-belonging as a white woman in post-apartheid South Africa.
A Change of Tongue is a book that offers a white writer's personal response to the difficulties of transformation within the first decade of South African democracy. The autobiographical aspect of Krog's project is overt, but the text resists easy categorisation with Krog's unsettling of the boundaries between truth and fiction. The debates around the theoretical and ethical implications of such categorical and generic manipulations have already been considered by, amongst others, Fiona Ross (1998:2) in relation to Krog's appropriation of material from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in Country of My Skull, Judith Lutge Coullie in her exploration of Krog and contemporary readings of autobiography and life writing (2005), and Krog herself in response to criticisms levelled at her for not adhering to generic rules pertaining to the division between the fictional (or imaginative) and the autobiographical (2005). All three concur that inherited rigid categorizations cannot adequately contain the contradictions and complexities of a society in transition. Sidonie Smith and Julia Watson (2005) use "life narrative" to suggest the necessary shifts across generic boundaries that emerge particularly in relation to marginal literatures and bearing witness. It is our contention that Krog grapples with notions of marginality and bearing witness in her life narrative, A Change of Tongue, but the effects are perhaps not as favourable as her more sympathetic readers have suggested.
The blending of fact and fiction is clearly not a new phenomenon but Krog's work opens up an interesting debate in relation to how such smudging has been received by the reading public. In this article, we argue that the narrative experimentation in A Change of Tongue might productively be read in relation to the writer's attempt to inhabit the uncomfortable and unhomely space of estrangement or "freak displacement", (1) at a time in this country's history when such a gesture from a relatively mainstream white writer might be, in itself, uncomfortable. Krog's claim to alterity is problematic in the face of the continuing effects of hegemonic whiteness, and her project thus remains marked by an unresolved ambivalence which this paper investigates. Her experimentation includes fictionalising aspects of her experience and personalising very public debates. The result is, at least partially, that the text is received as testimony or confessional and thus (despite protestations to the contrary, whether from Krog herself, or from her detractors) (2) she becomes a spokesperson, or representative voice, reflecting a general white South African response to transformation. This emerges in her awkward dual capacity as writer and subject, and in her confrontation with her own defensiveness, her sense of normality, and her sense of alienation, in relation to multiple encounters with black South Africans. What needs to be examined is the ambivalence of the writer-narrator's (3) encounters with black South Africans, encounters which exemplify the ambivalence of enacting and resisting white normativity evident in Krog's project. Such enactment and resistance is a characteristic of much white writing in post-apartheid South Africa, and this investigation of its manifestation is just one small part of a broader study (West 2006) (4) which demonstrates that in post-apartheid South Africa, white women's writing, in particular, is marked by an uneasy duality, a duality that hinges on the residual effects of whiteness, as an "unmarked marker" (5) in a western liberal humanist tradition, which continues to 'mark' race representations and race relations in South Africa.
Our understanding of whiteness emerges out of a growing body of work (Steyn 2001, Wicomb 2001, Coetzee 1998) in South Africa which offers the possibility of examining the largely invisible ways in which white identity continues to suggest normativity even as it is undermined either from contesting literatures and criticism or from within its own self-regulating discourse. White writing by women in contemporary South Africa is often uncomfortably both consciously in support of, and unconsciously at odds with, multi-culturalism and hybridity. This uneasy ambivalence becomes apparent when one examines the interstitial manifestations of residual assumptions of entitlement that are at odds with emergent reconciliatory gestures. The continued and residual effect of particular discursive formations, which are clearly classist, that favour whiteness as a racial category, despite official policies that have begun to shift the racial marker into a less than comfortable position, sustain whiteness as aspiration. Perhaps the most significant element of such discursive formations is western liberal humanism, a discourse that has often been instrumental in maintaining the insularity and the assumptions that have emerged as normative. (6)
Three general observations need to be made with regard to the emergence of whiteness studies in contemporary theorisation. The first of these relates to the distinction between 'whiteness' and complementary concepts that portray black identity, for example. In the United States, 'Black Power' was the African-American response to white supremacy, and later, in South Africa, Steve Biko introduced the notion of 'Black Consciousness' to counter white racism. (7) Both versions are essentialising responses to the continued effects of an essentialising racial hierarchy that favours the white community. 'Whiteness' as a concept carries with it the implication of an invisible but powerful abstraction that other groups have experienced as monolithic. This is not to say that whiteness as a cultural category is monolithic; rather, we are attempting to examine the ways in which the politics of privilege is experienced by those who are white-identified and those who are not.
The second observation in contextualising the concept of whiteness is to distinguish between skin colour or pigmentation and ideological identification. Whiteness has in fact very little to do with pigmentation, but it emerges as an identification that is premised on the historical fact that white settlers of mainly European extraction colonised large tracts of the rest of the world. This initiated an unequal relationship between the lighter-skinned settler and the darker-skinned native, and consequently between the descendants of the settler and the native. The history of that relationship in South Africa is clearly more charged because it continued for longer than in other colonised worlds, given that it has been only just over a decade since the official dismantling of apartheid structures.
The third observation is that whiteness emerges, because of the lingering effects of such a hierarchy, as an aspiration and an identification that is ideologically (re-)produced. In that sense, it is a socio-cultural construct that has been brought into being, rather than a 'natural' or essential identity. Despite thirteen years of democracy, and despite official efforts to realign racial politics, whiteness in South Africa continues to exude a powerful sense of normativity. This normativity has recently been overlaid with defensiveness, an ambivalent and often combustive combination that thwarts rather than favours the process of reconciliation, and in many ways deepens the racial divisions. Though one might acknowledge a growing sense of white displacement, one might also recognise whiteness as a central and abiding affiliation, even for those who are not necessarily white-skinned. As a result, whiteness operates as a cultural force, which to some extent relieves white people of the responsibility of having to negotiate their whiteness, except as defensiveness. The fixity of racial identification is often understood in terms of reification and valorisation, both concepts emerging out of Marxist critiques of power relations, and denoting the invisible ways in which ideology operates to essentialise and naturalise constructed differences. This reifying tendency may best be understood in relation to a hegemonic privileging of the white western self. Raka Shome defines 'whiteness' as a "power-laden discursive formation that privileges, secures, and normalizes the cultural space of the white Western subject" and notes in particular the reproductivity inherent in the neo-colonial and figurative 'travelling' of white cultural products, including academic texts (1999:108). (8) Shome's inclusion of 'academic texts' in her catalogue of transferable cultural products makes it necessary to take cognisance of the reproductivity of white normality in textual production and reception, or how certain ideas flourish as a result of the publishing industry and the readers who subscribe to them.
How then has Antjie Krog negotiated whiteness as normativity in A Change of Tongue? We have suggested that Krog's increasing centrality in South African English literature suggests that she is emerging as a spokesperson for a white South African crisis of identity. In order to speak so generally, she has blurred the boundaries between fact and fiction, and unsettled the historically firm division between Afrikaans- and English-speaking South Africans, (9) and in doing so, she has encouraged solidarity among white South Africans premised on a new-found sense of displacement. Writing in the mode of the testimony or the confessional, Krog succeeds in foregrounding as exemplary her own battle with transformation, and her own desire to belong as a white African in South Africa. As such her struggle will inevitably resonate loudly amongst white South African readers, who arguably need to hold on to the hope that such an identification is possible. That she courageously invites the reader to share her "voyages of personal discovery" in order to demonstrate the difficulty of transformation is not in dispute. What is open to contestation, however, is whether her call for a 'change of tongue,' or of being, has been effectively negotiated, particularly in the debates enacted between the writer-narrator and the black characters depicted in A Change of Tongue. Though Krog's work consciously challenges any idealistic post-apartheid reconciliation, and though the text exhibits moments of the white writer-narrator's negotiation of her own complicity in maintaining white normativity, it also exhibits moments of impasse in negotiating the continued effects of "the global sanctity of the white body" (Ndebele 2007:137 cited in Krog 2003:118). The ambivalence that emerges may be read as the residual effects of white normativity that is at odds with a personal and political attempt to move beyond race and find other ways of being.
A Change of Tongue offers multiple encounters with black subjectivities that are marked by becoming increasingly ambivalent from the earliest she experiences through to the more recent post-apartheid instances, as the following discussion will demonstrate. At first, the encounters simply record the legacy of white superiority. In one such encounter the writer-narrator asks Eveline what the Sesotho word "makgoa" (white people) means. She is told that it means "'Baboons, [because ...] baboons always look over their shoulders [...] they do nothing, they just check out, check out, check out--the whole day'" (2003:85-86). In this definition, two significant features emerge: namely, the surveillance and 'baaskap' assumed by the settler, always 'checking out,' which, in an ironic reversal is interpreted by the black farm labourers as inherent laziness, and in another twist, the reversal of the zoological terms reserved by the settler to mark the condition of the native. (10)
Further definitions of whiteness from a black perspective are offered by Professor Mayekiso who tells the writer-narrator that "Xhosa and Zulu were among the first black languages that named whites in Southern Africa" (2003: 184). He points out that although at first the names were merely descriptive of the strangers' appearance and behaviour, for example, "'They-whosehair-washes-down-from-their-heads'", the naming soon incorporated an attitude that indigenous people came to associate with whiteness: "'They-who-speak-to-others-as-if-they-were-bundles-of-washing'". Mayekiso also quotes from a poem by S.E.K. Mqhayi: "you whites/you-who-are-not-able-to-share-anything/ the English, the Germans, the Boers" (2003: 185). These attitudes exhibit the sense of superiority and entitlement characteristic of imperialist/colonialist sensibilities. In addition, when the African poets' pilgrimage to Timbuktu is related, the group is reminded that the Swahili word for whites is "They-who-surround-you-with-questions" (2003:297), interrogation being a colonialist strategy to determine whether the natives were friendly or not and how much plundering of natural resources could be effected. These definitions suggest that whiteness has been experienced as monolithic.
In Krog's extended interrogation of whiteness, the writer-narrator experiences some uncomfortable moments. The first of these occurs when visiting the new black mayor of Kroonstad: she fires questions at him about poor delivery and possible corruption in local government. Here the writer-narrator, in admitting that she is struggling "to find a way of making him understand that [she is] on his side" (2003:53), is exhibiting the lingering residue of ineffectual and burdensome white guilt, the kind that manifests itself in post-apartheid South Africa when the liberal intellectual demands answers but is defensively self-conscious of the privileged position from which the demand proceeds. This awkwardness is expressed in her acknowledgement that "[it] is hard to find a legitimate space to criticize from, but it seems harder still for him not to feel victimized by it" (2003:54). She need not have worried about offending the mayor, it turns out, because his detailed account of the insurmountable difficulties he faces in an attempt to appease those who continue to live in the township, as well as those who continue to inhabit the suburbs, suggests that feelings of victimisation have transmuted and are now beginning to take the shape of something far less familiar and thus more threatening to white South Africans: he regards the writer-narrator's precious 'white-informed' point of view with "something like pity" (2003:55).
The remainder of the interactions represented by Krog are not as straightforward. The writer-narrator continues to interview people from previously disadvantaged communities, at times demonstrating a profound awareness of white presumption, and at other times taking it upon herself to defend her whiteness quite vociferously. This is evident in the simultaneous enactment of and resistance to white normativity exhibited in a conversation she has with Sheridan (a black friend and former colleague). The writer-narrator asks how Kroonstad is faring post-1994. Sheridan says that nothing much has changed: "The whites still have everything and the blacks still have nothing" (2003:117). When quizzed, he suggests that the changes that have happened are largely superficial and that they have occurred where it does not really count:
On television black men are suddenly drinking whisky, black women are doing their own laundry. In Kroonstad, a black man wears the mayor's chain, there are black children in white schools. But these things don't matter. As soon as black people take control of something, that thing loses its power. Sjoep! Suddenly the power is gone, and you look around and see that the whites have twisted things here and there, and the power is with them. It is somewhere else again. (2003:117)
The writer-narrator's riposte is predictable: that is, she cites black corruption as opposed to white hegemony as the primary factor determining post-apartheid race relations. Though this counter response cannot be easily disregarded, it is also pertinent to note that in such encounters, it is often the case that racism operates unobserved because such responses reinforce the problem of disentangling class and race. David Wellman, for example, has argued that racism in the United States is a scheme that "systematically provides economic, political, psychological, and social advantages for whites at the expense of Blacks and other people of color" (1977:37). In South Africa, white power still resides in multiple institutional practices. Sheridan's charge that it is merely window-dressing to have a few black faces in local government and in television, advertising may no longer be accurate. However the continued and urgent necessity in public and private enterprise for employment equity cannot be ignored, especially in light of the fact that poorly educated working class township people remain as disempowered as ever while their middle class suburban counterparts continue to enjoy relative economic security. Following Wellman, Sandra Harding suggests that institutionalised relations (of race, gender, class and sexuality) are not "caused by prejudice--by individual bad attitudes and false beliefs", though these of course are not to be condoned and do not help matters. Individual prejudice is simply a symptom and Harding suggests that we pay attention to institutional rather than personal dynamics to uncover the ways in which "an individual may be well-informed about, and not at all hostile toward, people of color, women, the poor, or gays and lesbians--that is, he or she can have the proper mental characteristics that constitute lack of prejudice--and nevertheless continually and effectively support beliefs and practices that maintain economic, political, and social inequality" (1995: 122). Sheridan reiterates this phenomenon.
When the writer-narrator's own liberal humanist tolerance for difference is expressed, Sheridan suggests that the Mandela/Tutu vision of the New South Africa was too idealised to have lasted:
'It is only now that we've woken up and realized that you don't take the whites out of power so easily. Their white skins protect them everywhere in the world. If you touch a white person it has international repercussions. And that is what I resent most. We are not dealing with real fellow citizens here. Whites have the universal sanctity of their white skin.' (2003:118, emphasis added)
The response to this is also predictable: she demonstrates her reticence in acknowledging the "universal sanctity" of whiteness by getting up to leave. However, she does not terminate the interview then, and this may indicate that she may be posing for the benefit of her (white) readership: Krog wants her reader to endure the uncomfortable moment with her fictive self, thereby enabling her to teach the lesson more effectively. In a sense, she may be read to be consciously and purposefully exhibiting the allegiances of the well-informed, unprejudiced individual that Harding suggests is never overtly racist, but who is nonetheless very much a product of the universalising assumptions that whiteness continues to promote.
During this encounter with Sheridan, the writer-narrator is initially unambiguously offended, but when Sheridan quotes Njabulo Ndebele, whose articulation of the sanctity of whiteness is powerful, her reactions suggest uneasy ambivalence:
The white body is inviolable, and that inviolability is in direct proportion to the global vulnerability of the black body. This leads me to think that if South African whiteness is a beneficiary of the protectiveness assured by international whiteness, it has an opportunity to write a new chapter in world history. It will have to come out from under the umbrella and repudiate it. Putting itself at risk, it will have to declare that it is home now, sharing in the vulnerability of other compatriot bodies. South African whiteness will have to declare that its dignity is inseparable from the dignity of black bodies. (Ndebele 2007:137 cited in Krog 2003: 118)
Her initial response to Sheridan is her attempt to leave, but having listened to him quoting Ndebele, she might be acknowledging the challenge to her as a writer in contributing to what Ndebele conceives of as a new chapter in world history. Momentarily unable to rise to the challenge, she resorts to white defensiveness in suggesting that Sheridan wants to put her into a "convenient 'white box'" and thus avoid confronting what she calls "the complexities of good and bad whites, and good and bad blacks" (2003:119). It is interesting to note here that what Ndebele articulates as the violence of the bodily experience of racism appears not to have been heard by the writer-narrator whose language suggests the discomfort of being marked by labels as opposed to Ndebele's words which depict a more painful vulnerability inscribed on the body--an embodiment of racial markings. The differing responses emerge in the very words employed by each of the writers, the most telling verbal cues perhaps being Ndebele's choice of bodily complexion (11) as dominant signifier, and Krog's use of complexities. These words move respectively from concrete to abstract or, perhaps, from lived to imagined. Clearly the writer-narrator's position in this rejoinder, whether she is conscious of it or not, is that of the liberal white in anti-racist debates. This is a position, Alistair Bonnet suggests, which allows "white people [...] the luxury of being passive observers ... of knowing that 'their' 'racial' identity might be reviled or lambasted but never made slippery, torn open or, indeed, abolished" (1997:177-178). This is not to suggest that Ndebele stands accused of essentialising racial categorisation, but to indicate his experience of the effects of such categorisation.
The conversation ends abruptly, once again predictably, after Sheridan praises the Zimbabwean president, Robert Mugabe, for real redistribution of wealth and land and suggests that in South Africa "'we are being squeezed like lice between the fingers of America and Europe'" (2003:119). The writer-narrator's next and very telling statement is: "There's not much left to be said." This represents a familiar deadlock in black and white relations in this country. It is an impasse that cannot be readily overcome in the face of continued white privilege, and one that the writer-narrator does not effectively negotiate in this vignette. After the meeting with Sheridan she sees hundreds of disintegrating school desks and chairs in the parking lot of the Education Department, and her anger is palpable in the description that ensues.
But Ndebele's challenge to white South Africans is indirectly revisited in the very next scene. The proximity suggests the deliberate juxtaposition of these scenes. On her return to the farm, Joep Joubert, the new manager, drives her off to witness something. He points out a black woman working in the field wearing a new bright pink hat, and the writer-narrator perhaps hears the echo of her own earlier anger and despair in Joep's summation of the woman and her pink hat. He says:
'she bought a bloody fucking hat with half her money. And she's working in the fields with it! And I can promise you, she will have a child every year as long as she can keep herself in money. These are the people that we are sharing the country with! Transformation! You don't understand half of it.' (2003:120)
This encounter constitutes a painful turning point in the writer-narrator's negotiation of difference. For her it was a pile of unused desks, for Joep a pink hat, but it is ultimately the writer who recognises the bitter sound of racist and sexist sentiment in Joep's comments, and perhaps recalls an echo of the white exasperation in her own response to Sheridan and the abandoned desks. Her countering description of the woman confirms the probability:
I clasp my lame left hand to me as he drives me back. I think about the woman--how her face glowed as if light was collecting on her skin underneath the pink hat. How, while we were looking, she raised one hand softly, as if she were touching something very special, and pulled the hat forward on her brow. (2003:120)
Here she feels the brokenness of post-apartheid South Africa physically, in the hand which has been affected by a stroke, and perhaps figuratively in the lameness she experiences in the face of such injustice. More significantly, however, it becomes apparent in the poignancy (the complexions) she reads into the scene. Her frustration has been eclipsed by a more dangerous white response to transformation, and it is replaced with something akin to shared human suffering: she feels pain for the woman labourer who has been so ruthlessly dehumanised in Joep's image of her, and the writer-narrator responds by validating this other woman's existence in gentler words, and in doing so, perhaps indirectly, rises to Ndebele's call for white South Africans to write a new chapter in world history, one that counters the impression created by Joep Joubert that his version of the story unfolding before them is the right (white) one.
The writer-narrator's frustrated response to the abandoned desks after her encounter with Sheridan is also counteracted in her recollection of Deborah Matshoba's testimony at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In a follow-up interview with Deborah, Krog demonstrates, not outrage at being labelled white, but outrage at what white people have done in the name of their whiteness. Deborah is asked what it is about whites that she finds most difficult to negotiate. Her response confronts an aspect of South African whiteness that needs to be scrutinised:
'Things like--and I'm just mentioning a few--they don't know that we only started having a democratic vote, a democratic government in 1994. Oh really! Were you oppressed? You were arrested? We didn't know that! You couldn't get a management position? You were in jail? What for? They don't know that they used to put the National Party in power. That is irritating, very, very irritating.' (2003:157)
This brand of assumed innocence is a symptom of the insularity and normativity associated with whiteness. Such 'innocence' may stem from the fact that most middle-class white South Africans have not needed to develop an awareness of anything outside their frame of reference, since it is their frame of reference that is supposedly universal, educated, liberal and thus beyond reproach. It is an 'innocence' born out of a seemingly benign indifference amongst younger generation white South Africans whose other pat response is that they had nothing to do with apartheid, and should therefore not be obliged to carry the burden of white guilt. (12) It is also an 'innocence' that constitutes a crass dismissal of the struggle for freedom in South Africa and the ways in which white people have benefited and continue to benefit from the 'universal sanctity of whiteness'. When Deborah is asked why she chooses to live in a racist white suburb, she says that having fought so hard for freedom she will now live wherever she wants to because she can, and that her neighbours need to seek acceptance from her, and if they do not seek acceptance "they might as well go and live in Canada" (2003:157). As Melissa Steyn (2001:276) has pointed out, many white South Africans do in fact choose to leave the country rather than forego the narratives that promote a sense of superiority and entitlement, but those who have stayed are often guilty of an insularity that relieves them from actively seeking acceptance. The writer-narrator is not convinced that the acceptance Deborah demands has come easily, or at all, and she interviews one of Deborah's AWB (Afrikaner Weerstandbeweging) neighbours. Bokkie, on hearing that Deborah was a 'terrorist,' says simply that "she has changed" (2003:157). And this constitutes a recognisable, even typical, white response in this country: the expectation that black people in general ought to change their ways, become whiter, while they expect of themselves nothing more than the odd gesture of multiculturalism in the exoticisation of 'tribal' traditions--Bokkie's last anecdote revolves around her daughter's borrowing traditional wear from Deborah to attend a corporate cultural day (2003: 158). Deborah has not changed, at least not in the sense that Bokkie imagines, namely, that because she lives in a predominantly white suburban space, she has been 'civilised'. Bokkie appears to have interpreted economic upliftment (Deborah has a pool in her backyard) as a measure of her transformation, but the debate around race versus class is explored by Krog in the next encounter in which she mediates black responses. So far, it may be argued, the incidents recorded constitute Krog's self-conscious performance of the difficulty of transformation, of changing one's tongue, but it is an impression that is counteracted by another less effective negotiation of black responses to white transformation in the final encounter that this paper investigates.
Krog has admitted that A Change of Tongue emerged as a response to the 2002 South African Conference on Racism. The explanation proffered in her critical essay epitomises her ambivalence:
The refrain right through the conference was: whites hadn't changed, whites were in denial. And I wanted with A Change of Tongue to say: it was not true. Things have changed. Racism that previously had been the odious job of the state, was suddenly wielded by individuals; whites for the first time really talked about blacks. "Fuck the kaffirs" had changed into "these fucking kaffirs". (2005: 103)
Facetious as this explanation might be, it is nonetheless shot through with the same ambivalence that Krog's writer-narrator exhibits in an exemplary debate that takes place "in one of the most obscenely expensive shopping malls in the country" during the same conference (2003:273). She is reunited with two former colleagues, Ghangha and Mamukwa, from her teaching and activist days in Kroonstad. A version of this scene is recorded in Country of My Skull, and a comparison of the two scenes demonstrates Krog's changing responses to the same debate. In the earlier text, the names of the characters taking part in the debate are Mamogele and Eddy (2002:287), but much of the debate is omitted. For example, in the later version Ghangha says that she is now living in Bloemfontein in a formerly white suburb and suggests that initially she was "held accountable for every single thing a black person did":
'If a black man rapes a child or steals a million, the neighbours or my colleagues want me to explain. And if I want to know why it is I never ask them to explain when a white farmer shoots a black baby--is it perhaps because I know them well enough?--then they're quick with this ubuntu thing: blacks stick together because of ubuntu, you know? And I can tell you, nothing pisses me off more than whites pretending to understand or even care about African concepts like ubuntu'. (2003: 272)
Ghangha's experience of 'integration' once again suggests the universalising normalcy of white responses. But the knee-jerk response to this experience is of greater significance, one heard more and more frequently in liberal white anti-racist rhetoric and one which is recorded more or less verbatim in the earlier text:
Why has race become the only debate? ... 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! (2003:272 and 2002:287; the parts italicised are from Country of My Skull)
The catalogue of other debates that is introduced is not, strictly speaking, alternative to race and it is clear that Krog's position has not shifted significantly since writing the earlier version of this encounter. Equally apparent, however, is that the list of alternatives from class through to the definition of perpetrators is arguably almost exactly the list a reader would recognise as constituting Krog's entire project in writing A Change of Tongue, though the final product, ironically, is ultimately and explicitly about race. Krog's preoccupation with race, and in particular with whiteness, is also evident in two of her most recent collections of poems: Down to My Last Skin (2000a), and Kleur Kom Nooit Alleen Nie (2000b). Part One of the poem "na grond-invasions in Zimbabwe" [After Land Invasion in Zimbabwe] from the latter collection (2000:45), for example, poses a set of fiercely asked questions which suggest her discomfort at being labelled white. Echoes of this exasperation also appear in Country of My Skull where she expresses the bitter acknowledgment that no debates in South Africa come sans racial implications. This emerges in her reading of Mbeki's thoughts on reconciliation (that it is only possible if whites take responsibility for apartheid and ask for forgiveness) in which she suggests that this is a political line that "freezes the debate in tones of black and white and gives no guidance on how the individual can move forward" (2002:58). In A Change of Tongue it is clear that Krog has not managed to move the debate beyond "tones of black and white" as she painfully negotiates the impossibility of divorcing racial dynamics from the other pressing debates she engages.
It may therefore be argued that rather than simply staging a debate, or "a lively discussion" (2003:273), for the sake of exposing the faulty logic in 'white' thinking, Krog may be exhibiting a real reticence, which comes across as defensiveness, in negotiating whiteness as a distinct and persisting racial category. Krog the writer, as well as Krog the narrator, seems to need to resuscitate the categories 'individualism' and 'humanism' in the face of strong evidence that these western constructs have lost much of their credibility. Indeed, as Robert Young's critical reading of Fanon's espousal of a new humanism suggests, whenever universal human(ist) ideas are circulated, it is almost always accompanied by a "mask[ing] over [of] the assimilation of the human itself with European values" (2004:161).
The writer-narrator's next point in this debate (omitted from the first version), is the centrality of class in negotiating racial dynamics and she suggests that highlighting race at the expense of other debates is strategic:
Let me tell you why we only hear about race. The new black elite hates it when the debate turns from race to class. They will keep the race issue spinning, so that their greedy hands can grab more and more, until they have it all. They need whites as a serviceable Other. As long as a few whites are still living on a farm or two, no matter how modestly, no matter how strongly they identify with Africa and all that shit, the black elite will cry race, they'll send in the poor to do the dirty work and afterwards they'll throw them to the wolves. (2003:273)
Clearly she has a point--one that has already been adequately theorised by Fanon in his identification of the post-liberation black bourgeoisie in newly appointed positions of power, who replicate colonial oppressions, having learnt well from the master what to desire and how to acquire it. Ghangha's counter-argument, however, is difficult to dispute, in her suggestion that "whites are in complete denial" and borne out in the curiously inaccurate generalisation concerning "a few whites" living on "a farm or two" who might "identify with Africa and all that shit". Firstly, land redistribution has not progressed satisfactorily, as statistics indicate, and secondly, to refer only to farmers and to omit middle-class urban dwellers is to miss the major constituency of representative white South Africans. In addition, the writer-narrator's reference to an identification with Africa "and all that shit" suggests a very real sense of uneasiness, embarrassment even. After all, what might such identifying with Africa mean? Does it entail identifying with the continent, the climate, the landscape, the people, or all of the above? One response might be that it is largely an identification with the land, but this emerges only later in the book, and is not examined in detail in this essay. A serviceable example of how this identification emerges is in Krog's preoccupation throughout the book with the family farm which is sold, and to which she is forced to return when she visits Kroonstad in the capacity of something like a 'bywoner', (13) residing not in the family homestead, but in the adjoining bungalow. The writer-narrator once again exhibits a desire to rely on the notion of the individual as opposed to negotiating the cultural/racial group out of which that sense of autonomy arises. Indeed, she says as much in her response to Ghangha who argues that "[w]hites can never know what it is to be black":
'Race is the only thing about yourself you cannot change. I can change my perspective, my words, my thinking, my body language, but not my skin. So if you have a problem with me because I'm white, I'm trapped. There is no room for change. Race moves the debate from moral questions--how are you acting?--to narrow, nationalist ones--what colour are you? what group to you belong to.' (2003:274)
Her response suggests that A Change of Tongue attempts to demonstrate that it is possible but extremely difficult to change one's perspective, one's words, one's thinking and one's body language. Of all the categories, it may be argued, 'body language' is the hardest to change, as it is the most unconscious manifestation of an attitude, and this emerges in Krog's scatological preoccupations throughout the book. (14) There are five sections devoted to the minutiae of sewerage or scatology in the book (2003:45,50-52, 121-123, 320, 359-360).
So far, in the text Krog has wrestled with all of these categories to a lesser or greater extent, and in the section entitled "A Translation" she wrestles specifically with words and here the word 'race' appears open to conflicting definitions: she is ironically and dangerously close to essentialising and biologising the concept in her attempt to argue against using pigmentation as the primary indicator of a person's worth and is reminded by Ghangha that whiteness is not a matter of skin colour:
'"white" is a mindset, an outlook. Whiteness is pervasive: it's not only the way you walk and gesticulate, in your words and thoughts, it is also to do with confidence, with where you start from. With exclusion. With the assumption that your way of running a country is the best, that your definition of a town, what you need to be happy in a town, to call it your town, is the only one.' (2003:274)
It is this aura of assumption and exclusion that is the most difficult to define or identify in ordinary everyday interactions, and it is in these unconscious, seemingly trivial gestures that white normativity is most effectively camouflaged.
That Krog chooses to record the same debate, though in variation in two consecutive books, suggests two likely explanations: firstly, that she recognises that it is a debate that is necessarily ongoing and must continue to be re-articulated, revisited and recycled, a point she makes in summing up her response to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the end of Country of My Skull, where she acknowledges that though the TRC did not succeed in all it set out to achieve, it at least made "a new relationship possible. But the cycle will have to be repeated many times for this new relationship to be lasting" (2002:292). Secondly, it implies that she herself is living proof of the difficulty facing white South Africans of engaging in a debate in which white racial identity is under such intense scrutiny, and in danger of being torn apart. The version in A Change of Tongue is much fuller and more nuanced than the one in Country of My Skull, suggesting that Krog has thought through these black and white responses more completely. Indeed, the second rendition contains a lively banter lacking in the first, noticeable when she records her own reaction to being labelled a 'kangaroo'. If the writer-narrator is going to have to live with labels signifying her outsider and exotic status as a white woman in Africa, she'd rather be a "eucalyptus tree" than "a bloody kangaroo hopping around the Free State" (2003:275). Humorous reflections of self and community aside, though, the outcome of both versions is fairly bleak: the moment is abandoned to uncertainty, leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions, and perhaps predictably, those conclusions will be directly related to the demographics (read 'skin colour') of the reader. The writer-narrator holds her tongue and appears not to know how to respond to black solidarity and black resentment. She sits with "a mouth full of teeth" (2002:288) and admits to being "a bit stuck" (2003:274).
At the end of both versions the writer-narrator confesses that what she really wants to hear from her black friends is that as a white person in post-apartheid South Africa she 'belongs', but she senses that the moment is inopportune, and walks off with Mamogele/Mamukwa, together but apart: "We walk slowly back to the hotel--window shopping. The past bleeding softly between us" (2002: 289); "We walk slowly back to the hotel, window-shopping. The future already unfolding in different ways between us" (2003: 275). Whereas at the end of Country of My Skull Krog appears to believe that it is a bloody past separating the two women, towards the end of A Change of Tongue she seems to believe it is the future that will continue to come between them, a future perhaps in which a racist past continues to lurk, one in which the white woman feels that she no longer belongs, and one in which the black woman feels for the first time that she does belong. The very phrasing of the revised final sentence is fraught with ambiguity: read positively, it may mean that the future though differently experienced or interpreted by the two women, is at least shared between them. Read negatively, it may suggest that the future, containing all of the unresolved trauma of the past, will always come between them, keeping them apart. The latter is arguably the more credible reading, given the attempted parting comment to the two black women, the one which remains incomplete: "'But I want to ...'" (2002:289; 2003:275). "Belong" remains unsaid and unanswered, unsayable and unanswerable, and perhaps exemplifies a growing white South African sense of unhomeliness.
Bhabha defines the 'unhomely' as the shock of discovering that where you are is no longer home and marks its emergence in that "unhomely moment [that] relates the traumatic ambivalences of a personal psychic history to the wider disjunctions of political existence" (1992:144). Bhabha is referring to the experience of non-western subjectivities here, and uses Toni Morrison's Beloved and Nadine Gordimer's My Son's Story to examine the ways in which each of the houses or 'homes' (124 Bluestone Road and a house in a 'grey' suburb in Cape Town, respectively) throws out what he calls "freak displacements," a phrase he co-opts from Gordimer's novel, and which he sums up as "the profound divisions of an enslaved or apartheid society ... negrification, denigration, classification, violence, incarceration" (1992:145).
It is only when white South Africans truly begin to feel the effects of being forcibly displaced themselves, and to acknowledge the possibility that such a sense of freak displacement is the inevitable outcome of colonising western history for most of the world's population, creating conditions for all that are neither new nor avoidable, that a less conspicuous, more uncomfortable, and necessarily more uncertain space might become available to inhabit. Whereas the condition of experience for most colonised people is always a sense of "freak displacement", for the white western subject living in South Africa it is a relatively new sensation, since white subjectivity has not only not been tainted by "negrification, denigration, classification ... [etc.]" but it has also 'naturally' benefited from the privileges that such processes afford. In a sense the incomplete appeal to belong may conceivably be read as an indication of an awakening sense of a white postcolonial "freak displacement", as is suggested in Krog's poem "ai tog!" (2000b:47) from Kleur Kom Nooit Alleen Nie: the speaker, having catalogued her challenge to the prescriptions she associates with normative social/ cultural identification, ends with her proclamation of dissociation in suggesting that "mens hoort by haar wat daagliks woordeloos / nuwe wolle by die mat vleg" [one belongs to she who daily and wordlessly / weaves new wool into the mat]. This constitutes a powerful rejection of patriarchal prescriptions, and an alternative identification with the woman worker. But it is an identification lacking in the writer-narrator's stifled appeal to belong in A Change of Tongue, so that the transformative potential contained in the earlier poetic image remains unrealised in the latter encounter. That the appeal is addressed to black South Africans may suggest an unconscious western will to entitlement, but that it is a stifled appeal. That it appears in a book addressed predominantly to white South Africans, suggests Krog's recognition of her own white normative assumptions.
Whiteness studies suggests that the 'sanctity of whiteness' has not, in universal or economic terms, diminished. The question that remains significant is where and how does one separate the writer (from the) narrator. And that is where the ambivalence resides: the book, in effect, enacts and resists white normativity simultaneously. This emerges in Krog's claim to marginality, or alterity, and in her negotiation of 'belonging' and 'un-belonging' from a position of relative privilege, which may be to ask for too much too soon.
Bhabha, Homi K. 1992. "The World and Home". Social Text 10: 141-153.
Biko, Steve. 1987 . I Write What I Like. Oxford: Heinemann.
Bonnet, Alistair. 1997. "Constructions of Whiteness in European and American Racism". In: Werbner, Pnina & Tariq Modoo (eds). Debating Cultural Hybridity: Multi-Cultural Identities and the Politics of Racism. London: Zed Books: 172-193.
Coetzee, J M. 1988. White Writing: On the Culture of Letters in South Africa. New Haven: Yale University Press.
Coullie, Judith Lutge. 2005. "Translating Narrative in the New South Africa". The English Academy Review 22: 1-21.
Fanon, Franz. 1967 . Black Skin, White Masks. New York: Grove Press.
--1967 . The Wretched of the Earth. London: Penguin.
Frankenberg, Ruth. 1993. The Social Construction of Whiteness: White Women, Race Matters. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Gordimer, Nadine. 1990. My Son's Story. London: Jonathan Cape.
Harding, Sandra. 1995. "Subjectivity, Experience, and Knowledge: An Epistemology from/for Rainbow Coalition Politics". In: Roof, Judith & Robyn Wiegman (eds). Who Can Speak? Authority and Critical Identity. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.
Krog, Antjie. 2000a. Down to My Last Skin: Poems. Johannesburg: Random House.
--2000b. Kleur Kon Nooit Alleen Nie. Kaapstad: Kwela Boeke.
--2002 . Country of My Skull. Johannesburg: Random House.
--2003. A Change of Tongue. Johannesburg: Random House.
--2005. "'I, me, me, mine!': Autobiographical Fiction and the 'I'". The English Academy Review 22: 100-107.
Ndebele, Njabulo. 2002. "Iph' Indlela? Finding Our Way into the Future". First Steve Biko Memorial Lecture, University of the Western Cape. Fine Lines from the Box: Further Thoughts About Our Country. Johannesburg: Umuzi.
Morrison, Toni. 1997 . Beloved. London: Vintage.
Roodt, Dan. 2007. "'n Datsja vir mev Samuel: Dan Roodt skryf 'n ope brief aan Antjie Krog". www.oulitnet.co.za/gras/06antjie.asp Accessed: 12 July 2007.
Ross, Fiona. 1998. "From a 'Culture of Shame' to a 'Circle of Guilt'". Southern African Review of Books. June; 1-5.
Schoonees, P C.(ed). 1970 .Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal: Eerste Deel A-C.3rd ed. Pretoria: Die Staatsdrukke.
Seshadri-Crooks, Kalpana. 2000. Desiring Whiteness: A Lacanian Analysis of Race. London and New York: Routledge.
Shome, Raka. 1999. "Whiteness and the Politics of Location". In: Nakayama, Thomas K and Judith N Martin (eds). Whiteness: The Communication of Social Identity. Thousand Oaks, London; New Delhi: Sage Publications. 108-122.
Smith, Sidonie and Julia Watson. 2005. "The Trouble with Autobiography: Cautionary Notes for Narrative Theorists". In: Phelan, James and Peter J Rabinowitz (eds). A Companion to Narrative Theory. Malden, Oxford, Victoria: Blackwell Publishing: 356-371.
Steyn, Melissa. 2001. 'Whiteness Just Isn't What It Used To Be': White Identity in a Changing South Africa. Albany: State University of New York Press.
Wellman, David. 1977. Portraits of White Racism. New York: Cambridge University Press.
West, M. 2006. White Women Writing White: A Study of Identity and Representation in (Post-)Apartheid Literatures of South Africa. Unpublished PhD: NMMU.
Wicomb, Zoe. 2001. "Five Afrikaner Texts and the Rehabilitation of Whiteness". In:Kriger, R and A Zegeye (eds). Culture in the New South Africa: After Apartheid. (Vol. 2). Cape Town: Kwela Books.
Young, Robert, JC. 2004 . White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. London and New York: Routledge.
(1.) This is Homi K Bhabha's (1992) co-option of Gordimer's phrase, the implications of which are pursued later in this article. It is a phrase Bhabha deploys to suggest the condition of unhomeliness for colonised people across the globe.
(2.) See Krog's extended denial of speaking on behalf of anyone (2005), and Dan Roodt's vehement response to her speaking on behalf of Afrikaans-speaking South Africans, in particular, in his open letter to her posted on Litnet (2007).
(3.) To reflect the fluidity of 'life narrative', as opposed to the rigidly categorical 'autobiography' versus 'fiction', when referring to the first-person teller of a semi-factual account we use the hybrid 'writer-narrator'. When we have used Krog's name it is to indicate her authorial control over the material, and if there is still some slippage between the two, it is inevitable and intentional, given the fluidity of the genre and Krog's willingness to promote such slippage.
(4.) West's doctoral study (2006) was co-promoted by Helize van Vuuren.
(5.) The concept is widely used in whiteness studies, but associated most readily with the pioneering work of Ruth Frankenberg (1993). Other scholars have employed the Lacanian terms 'empty signifier' (Wicomb 2001), or 'Master Signifier' (Kalpana Seshadri-Crooks 2000) which are interchangeable with the notion of an 'unmarked marker' to suggest the transparent normativity that continues to be associated with whiteness in the Western world.
(6.) Young (2004) plots the history of white western liberal humanism and demonstrates its complicity in colonialism.
(7.) See Steve Biko's I Write What I Like for an explication of Black Consciousness as a response to white racism. This series of polemical essays written in the 1970s urges black South Africans to recognise their own worth, and to understand the ways in which they have been systematically and institutionally disadvantaged. Of note is Biko's charge that "[w]hite liberals must leave blacks to take care of their own business while they concern themselves with the real evil in our society--white racism" (1987:23).
(8.) Shome explicitly lists these products and suggests that in addition to the historical and "physical travel of white imperial bodies colonizing other worlds ... today's neo-colonial travel of white cultural products--media, music, television, products, academic texts, and Anglo fashions--to other worlds [has] ... sustained [the] forces of imperialism and global capitalism" (1999:108).
(9.) Krog chose to publish the book in English first. Though this might well have been simply expedient, it also had the effect of allowing it to reach South Africa's English readership first.
(10.) In Dot Serfontein's interpolated history recorded in A Change of Tongue, the Boers are described by the English as "orang-utans" (2003:150), and the cumulative effect of these images is a sense that Krog is situating Afrikanerdom as alterity.
(11.) In most usages of 'complexion' cited in the New Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, it includes an overt sense of physicality, including tone, texture, 'nature' and the four bodily humours: heat, cold, moisture and dryness.
(12.) This is not to suggest that a similar indifference is not also evident amongst black South African youth. Their responses are not under scrutiny in this study.
(13.) Translation from the Woordeboek van die Afrikaanse Taal: Eerste Deel A-C:
1. A white man on a farm who does not really earn a fixed salary but enjoys certain advantages such as a free house and grazing, etc, in exchange for certain services.
2. Somebody settled in a country as a stranger or living with someone as a subordinate. (Schoonees 1970).
(14.) West has argued that this preoccupation with excrement and in particular the scene in which the writer-narrator has to shit in the shower, suggests that the primary identification is with the African landscape, and not with its people (West 2006).
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Author:||West, Mary; van Vuuren, Helize|
|Publication:||Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa|
|Date:||Jul 1, 2007|
|Previous Article:||The mother as pre-text: (auto)biographical writing in Antjie Krog's A Change of Tongue.|
|Next Article:||Open season.|