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White Liberalism Challenged
on 3 January 2008
While other colonised countries in Africa gained their independence in the 60s, resulting in black rule, the independence of South Africa reinforced the white rule of the settlers, continuing the oppression of the black majority for another three decades. It is not surprising, therefore, that apartheid and the struggles against the regime dominate late 20th century South African literature. One might consider, though, the implications of the fact that the best known writers of the period are not black, but white politically liberal writers.
This is addressed in some way in Nadine Gordimer's Burger's Daughter, where Rosa, the eponymous heroine, attempts to forge her own identity and independence from her father, Lionel Burger, a prominent white anti-apartheid activist who dies in prison. Towards the end of the novel, Baasie, a black childhood friend of Rosa's, who she has not seen for years, rebukes her: "Lionel Burger... Everyone in the world must be told what a great hero he was and how much he suffered for the blacks. Everyone must cry over him... Listen, there are dozens of our fathers sick and dying like dogs, kicked out of the locations when they can't work any more. Getting old and dying in prison. Killed in prison. It's nothing. I know plenty blacks like Burger. It's nothing, it's us, we must be used to it". At another point in the novel, another black character rejects the white liberal struggle against apartheid: "Whites don't credit us with the intelligence to know what we want! We don't need their solutions."
The novel is very firmly placed historically, with references to the Sharpeville and Soweto disturbances and to the key figures in the ANC. Gordimer faces the turbulent politics of South Africa, and her questions about the white liberals' role in the struggle reflects her own position as a writer. It is significant that Rosa, who tries to separate herself from her family's history of political struggle, is inevitably drawn back into it and ends the novel in prison. Though chronological in structure, in other ways Gordimer's narrative technique demonstrates some of the experimentation of other post colonial literature. The novel employs different narrative voices, first person and third person, as it follows Rosa's story, some passages like Rosa's personal confessions and reminiscences, others which treat her objectively. There are sections which have the style of newspaper reports, others the tone of police reports about her activities.