Nadine Gordimer
Nadine Gordimer; drawing by David Levine

Nadine Gordimer, like many of the great Russian novelists of the nineteenth century, lives in two worlds at the same time. She lives, as the Russians did, in a police state, and she also lives, as they did, in the wider culture of the West, receiving the reflections of the kinds of freedom that the West has enjoyed over two centuries or more. But it is more than a question of living under a police state. A whole analogous social structure is involved. Whites in South Africa, in relation to blacks, have much in common with the nobility in tsarist Russia in relation to the serfs. Turgenev and Tolstoy rejected serfdom but were nonetheless themselves distinctive products of a leisured serf-owning society. South African whites constitute an aristocracy of pigmentation, and even if they do not want to belong to it, they still do belong. A great writer in South Africa—and I believe Nadine Gordimer is a great writer—is living and working in a culture that is closer to nineteenth-century Russia than it is to the contemporary West.

Of all the great Russians, it is Turgenev whom she most brings to mind. Like him, she is alienated from the society which produced her and, as in his case also, that society, at work within her, makes her something of a stranger in the wider world. These conditions produce detachment, strange angles of insight, and a kind of stereoscopic lucidity. There is also in their works—by reason of the kind of world these writers willy-nilly share—an inherent aristocratic sense of leisure, of time to wait and to watch. In Nadine Gordimer’s writings, the conditions of South African life have produced a glorious anachronism.

The style of Burger’s Daughter is elegant, fastidious: a high style belonging to a cultivated upper class. Superficially, there is an opposition between this style and the subject matter of the book. Burger’s Daughter is the story of Rosa, the daughter of a revolutionary, the communist doctor Lionel Burger, who dies in a South African jail. The style is appropriate, none the less, and not just because Lionel and Rosa belong to the white, educated middle class—important though their so belonging is, and is shown to be. It is appropriate because the revolutionary’s daughter is an aristocrat of the revolution, feels herself to be such, and is used to being seen as such. Nadine Gordimer knows revolutionaries and knows them to feel themselves as being, not struggling underdogs, but patricians of a present underworld, and of a future society. Rosa is the daughter of a revolution only just beginning, yet her style has already something in common with a Daughter of the South African Revolution, in the American sense of such a daughterhood: “She didn’t understand the shame of the need to please, as royalty never carries money.” And again, as she talks to a friend from outside the charmed revolutionary circle.

—You seem to think people go around talking revolution as if they were deciding where to go for their summer holidays. Or which new car to buy. You romanticize.—The cartilage of her nostrils stiffened. The patient manner patronized him, displayed the deceptive commonplace that people accustomed to police harassment use before the uninitiated.

Burger’s Daughter is constructed with properly deceptive art. For much of its course—indeed considerably more than half—it seems to be one of those books in which “nothing happens”; or rather in which what happens is an accumulation of small events, individually ambiguous but making a significant pattern, established in a calm and leisurely manner. The events after Rosa’s father’s death are handled in this way. The house—a good, big one with a swimming pool—has to be sold, the plate with Dr. Burger’s name removed.

She returned before dark with an unhealthy-looking fair man with long hair and a straggling moustache, wearing the fashionable garb of shirt with Balkan embroidery, jeans, and veldskoen. He had a screwdriver but found some difficulty in turning it in the grooves caked with layers of metal polish turned to stony verdigris. She did not get out of the driver’s seat. The oblong where the plate had been showed whitish in the twilight. He put the plate in the boot of her car and they drove away.

As she talks with a friend outside the house she is aware of a small change within: “The telephone had stopped ringing in the house. Rosa knew by some faint lack of distraction in her ears. Somebody living there now had picked it up.”

In this part of the book Rosa’s relations to her father, to the revolution, and to South Africa are established with loving precision. She is intensely proud of her father and his revolution, yet she desperately longs to cut loose from them both. She experiences a kind of envy for her conventional, acquiescent Afrikaner farmer cousins,


secure in the sanctions of family, church, law—and all these contained in the ultimate sanction of color, that was maintained without question on the domain, dorp and farm, where she lay. Peace. Land. Bread. They had these for themselves.

Even animals have the instinct to turn from suffering. The sense to run away. Perhaps it was an illness not to be able to live one’s life the way they did with justice defined in terms of respect for property, innocence defended in their children’s privileges, love in their procreations, and care only for each other. A sickness not to be able to ignore that condition of a healthy, ordinary life: other people’s suffering.

That sickness is something she cannot escape, yet she can escape, physically, from South Africa, and she does, for a time. The incident that precipitates her departure is one of two great thunderstorms in the book, deliberate eruptions out of its marmoreal course, like interpolations by Dostoevsky into a story of Turgenev’s. They light up the South African landscape in the way which is wonderfully complementary to the calm perceptions of most of the book. These magnificent passages are pivotal to the novel: the first of them determines Rosa’s departure from South Africa, the second her return to it.

The first passage, which to do it justice I shall quote in full, concerns the beating of a donkey:

I gained a cambered dirt road without signposts just as one of those donkey-carts that survive on the routes between these places that don’t exist was approaching along a track from the opposite side. Driver’s reflex made me slow down in anticipation that the cart might turn in up ahead without calculating the speed of an oncoming car. But there was something strange about the outline of donkey, cart and driver; convulsed, yet the cart was not coming nearer. As I drew close I saw a woman and child bundled under sacks, their heads jerked rocking; a driver standing up on the cart in a wildly precarious spread of legs in torn pants. Suddenly his body arched back with one upflung arm against the sky and lurched over as if he had been shot and at that instant the donkey was bowed by a paroxysm that seemed to draw its four legs and head down towards the centre of its body in a noose, then fling head and extremities wide again; and again the man violently salaamed, and again the beast curved together and flew apart.

I didn’t see the whip. I saw agony. Agony that came from some terrible centre seized within the group of donkey, cart, driver and people behind him. They made a single object that contracted against itself in the desperation of a hideous final energy. Not seeing the whip, I saw the infliction of pain broken away from the will that creates it; broken loose, a force existing of itself, ravishment without the ravisher, torture without the torturer, rampage, pure cruelty gone beyond control of the humans who have spent thousands of years devising it. The entire ingenuity from thumbscrew and rack to electric shock, the infinite variety and gradation of suffering, by lash, by fear, by hunger, by solitary confinement—the camps, concentration, labour, resettlement, the Siberias of snow or sun, the lives of Mandela, Sisulu, Mbeki, Kathrada, Kgosana, gull-picked on the Island, Lionel propped wasting to his skull between two warders, the deaths by questioning, bodies fallen from the height of John Vorster Square, deaths by dehydration, babies degutted by enteritis in “places” of banishment, the lights beating all night on the faces of those in cells—Conrad—I conjure you up, I drag you back from wherever you are to listen to me—you don’t know what I saw, what there is to see, you won’t see, you are becalmed on an empty ocean.

Only when I was level with the cart, across the veld from me, did I make out the whip. The donkey didn’t cry out. Why didn’t the donkey give that bestial snort and squeal of excruciation I’ve heard donkeys give not in pain but in rut? It didn’t cry out.

It had been beaten and beaten. Pain was no shock, there is no way out of the shafts. That rag of a black man was old, from the stance of his legs, the scraggle of beard showing under an old hat in a shapeless cone over his face. I rolled to a stop beyond what I saw; the car simply fell away from the pressure of my foot and carried me no farther. I sat there with my head turned sharply and my shoulders hunched round my neck, huddled to my ears against the blows. And then I put my foot down and drove on wavering drunkenly about the road, pausing to gaze back while the beating still went on, the force there, cart, terrified woman and child, the donkey and man, bucked and bolted zigzag under the whip. I had only to turn the car in the empty road and drive up upon that mad frieze against the sunset putting out my eyes. When I looked over there all I could see was the writhing black shape through whose interstices poked searchlights of blinding bright dust. The thing was like an explosion. I had only to career down on that scene with my car and my white authority. I could have yelled before I even got out, yelled to stop!—and then there I would have been standing, inescapable, fury and right, might, before them, the frightened woman and child and the drunk, brutal man, with my knowledge of how to deliver them over to the police, to have him prosecuted as he deserved and should be, to take away from him the poor suffering possession he maltreated. I could formulate everything they were, as the act I had witnessed; they would have their lives summed up for them officially at last by me, the white woman—the final meaning of a day they had lived I had no knowledge of, a day of other appalling things, violence, disasters, urgencies, deprivations which suddenly would become, was nothing but what it had led up to: the man among them beating their donkey. I could have put a stop to it, the misery; at that point I witnessed. What more can one do? That sort of old man, those people, peasants existing the only way they know how, in the “place” that isn’t on the map, they would have been afraid of me. I could have put a stop to it, with them, at no risk to myself. No one would have taken up a stone. I was safe from the whip. I could have stood between them and suffering—the suffering of the donkey.

As soon as I planted myself in front of them it would have become again just that—the pain of a donkey.1

Rosa now leaves South Africa, herself conniving to do so with the connivance of a sophisticated verligte Nationalist politician (a distant relative)—a splendid hate portrait—and goes to live in the South of France where she has, for a time, a very good time, with pleasant, hedonistic people. Some of them give themselves political airs sometimes, but they are not political, as South Africa knows politics:


—You didn’t betray anybody.—

“Oppress.” “Revolt.” “Betray.” He used the big words as people do without knowing what they can stand for.

She listens to a political argument at a party:

—Yes, yes, exactly what they are saying—whether it’s the Communist Party or some giant multinational company, people are turning against huge, confining structures—

—Our only hope lies in a dispassionate morality of technology, our creed must be, broadly speaking, ecological—always allowing the premise that man’s place is central—

Bernard met Rosa in the thicket of the others’ self-absorption.—For them it livens up a party.—

She shrugged and imitated his gesture of puffing out the lower lip: for all of us. She gave a quick smile to him.

Rosa has grown more humble in exile: she feels she has betrayed others by leaving South Africa, she has come down to the level of ordinary mortals.

Then she attends another party, involving some real politics this time, since it is in honor of a Frelimo delegation. Here she meets Baasie again. Baasie is a black, of her own age, whom her father had taken into his house as a child. His father was a revolutionary organizer, generally on the run. The two children were brought up as brother and sister, sharing the same bed, in a household which regarded color as irrelevant. After the death of the two fathers in prison, the children become separated. Rosa is overjoyed to see her childhood friend, but he receives her coldly, refusing to let her call him Baasie. After the party is over, and Rosa is asleep in bed in her own flat, the telephone rings. There follows the second, and more terrible, of the book’s two thunderstorms.

The voice from home said: Rosa.



—It’s you, Baasie?—

—No.—A long, swaying pause.

—But it is.—

—I’m not “Baasie,” I’m Zwelinzima Vulindlela.—

—I’m sorry—it just came out this evening…it was ridiculous.—

—You know what my name means, Rosa?—

—Vulindlela? Your father’s name…oh, I don’t know whether my surname means anything either—“citizen,” solid citizen—Starting to humor the other one; at such an hour—too much to drink, perhaps.

—Zwel-in-zima. That’s my name. “Suffering land.” The name my father gave me. You know my father. Yes.—


—Is it? Is it? You knew him before they killed him.—

—Yes. Since we were kids. You know I did.—

—How did they kill him?—You see, you don’t know, you don’t know, you don’t talk about that.—

—I don’t…because why should I say what they said.—

—Tell it, say it—

—What they always say—they found him hanged in his cell.—

—How, Rosa? Don’t you know they take away belts, everything—

—I know.—

—Hanged himself with his own prison pants.—

“Baasie”—she doesn’t say it but it’s there in the references of her voice, their infant intimacy—I asked if you’d come and see me—or I’d come to you, tomorrow, but you—

—No, I’m talking to you now.—

—D’y’know what time it is? I don’t even know—I just got to the phone in the dark—

—Put on the light, Rosa. I’m talking to you.—

She uses no name because she has no name for him.—I was fast asleep. We can talk tomorrow. We’d better talk tomorrow, mmh?—

—Put on the light.—

Try laughing.—We’d better both go back to bed.—

—I haven’t been in bed.—There were gusts of noise, abruptly cut off, background to his voice; he was still somewhere among people, they kept opening and shutting a door, there.

—The party going strong?—

—I’m not talking about parties, Rosa—

—Come tomorrow—today, I suppose it is, it’s still so dark—

—You didn’t put the light on, then. I told you to.—

They began to wrangle.—Look, I’m really not much use when I’m woken up like this. And there’s so much I want… How old were we? I remember your father—or someone—brought you back only once, how old were we then?—

—I told you to put it on.—

She was begging, laughing.—Oh but I’m so tired, man! Please, until tomorrow—

—Listen. I didn’t like the things you said at that place tonight.—


—I didn’t like the way you went around and how you spoke.—

The receiver took on shape and feel in her hand; blood flowing to her brain. She heard his breathing and her own, her breath breathing garlic over herself from the half-digested sausage.

—I don’t know what to say. I don’t understand why you should say this to me.—

—Look, I didn’t like it at all.—

—I said? About what?—

—Lionel Burger, Lionel Burger, Burger—

—I didn’t make any speeches.—

—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 and show his life on television and write in the papers. 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, it’s not going to show on English television.—

—He would have been the first to say—what you’re saying. He didn’t think there was anything special about a white being a political prisoner.—

—Kissing and coming round you, her father died in prison, how terrible. I know a lot of fathers—black—

—He didn’t think what happened to him more important.—

—Kissing and coming round you—

—You knew him! You know that! It’s crazy for me to tell you.—

—Oh yes I knew him. You’ll tell them to ask me for the television show. Tell them how your parents took the little black kid into their home, not the backyard like other whites, right into the house. Eating at the table and sleeping in the bedroom, the same bed, their little black boss. And then the little bastard was pushed off back to his mud huts and tin shanties. His father was too busy to look after him. Always on the run from the police. Too busy with the whites who were going to smash the government and let another lot of whites tell us how to run our country. One of Lionel Burger’s best tame blacks sent scuttling like a bloody cockroach everywhere, you can always just put your foot on them.—

Pulling the phone with her—the cord was short, for a few moments she lost the voice—she felt up the smooth cold wall for the switch: under the light of lamps sprung on the voice was no longer inside her but relayed small, as from a faint harsh public address system in the presence of the whole room….

—Why should I see you, Rosa? Because we even used to have a bath together?—the Burger family didn’t mind black skin so we’re different for ever from anyone? You’re different so I must be different too. You aren’t white and I’m not black.—

She was shouting.—How could you follow me around that room like a man from BOSS, listening to stupid small-talk? Why are we talking in the middle of the night? Why do you telephone? What for?—

—I’m not your Baasie, just don’t go on thinking about that little kid who lived with you, don’t think of that black “brother,” that’s all.—

Now she would not let him hang up; she wanted to keep the two of them nailed each to the other’s voice and the hour of night when nothing fortuitous could release them—good, good, he had disposed of her whining to go back to bed and bury them both.

—There’s just one thing I’m going to tell you. We won’t meet, you’re right. Vulindlela. About him and me. So long as you know I’ve told you. I was the one who was sent to take a fake pass to him so he could get back in from Botswana that last time. I delivered it somewhere. Then they caught him, that was when they caught him.—

—What is that? So what is that for me? Blacks must suffer now. We can’t be caught although we are caught, we can’t be killed although we die in jail, we are used to it, it’s nothing to do with you. Whites are locking up blacks every day. You want to make the big confession?—why do you think you should be different from all the other whites who’ve been shitting on us ever since they came? He was able to go back home and get caught because you took the pass there. You want me to know in case I blame you for nothing. You think because you’re telling me it makes it all right—for you. It wasn’t your fault—you want me to tell you, then it’s all right. For you. Because I’m the only one who can say so. But he’s dead, and what about all the others—who cares whose “fault”—they die because it’s the whites killing them, black blood is the stuff to get rid of white shit.—

—This kind of talk sounds better from people who are in the country than people like us.—Impulses of cruelty came exhilarating along her blood-vessels without warming the cold of feet and hands; while he talked she was jigging, hunched over, rocking her body, wild to shout, pounce him down the moment he hesitated.

—I don’t know who you are. You hear me, Rosa? You didn’t even know my name. I don’t have to tell you what I’m doing.—

—What is it you want?—the insult thrilled her as she delivered herself of it—You want something. If it’s money, I’m telling you there isn’t any. Go and ask one of your white English liberals who’ll pay but won’t fight. Nobody phones in the middle of the night to make a fuss about what they were called as a little child. You’ve had too much to drink, Zwelin-zima.—But she put the stress on the wrong syllable and he laughed.

As if poking with a stick at some creature writhing between them—You were keen to see me, eh, Rosa. What do you want?—

—You could have said it right away, you know. Why didn’t you just stare me out when I came up to you? Make it clear I’d picked the wrong person. Make a bloody fool of me.—

—What could I say? I wasn’t the one who looked for you.—

—Just shake your head. That would’ve been enough. When I said the name I used. I would have believed you.—

—Ah, come on.—

—I would have believed you. I haven’t seen you since you were nine years old, you might have been dead for all I know. The way you look in my mind is the way my brother does—never gets any older.—

—I’m sorry about your kid brother.—

—Might have been killed in the bush with the Freedom Fighters. Maybe I thought that.—

—Yeh, you think that. I don’t have to live in your head.—

—Goodbye, then.—

—Yeh, Rosa, all right, you think that.—

Neither spoke and neither put down the receiver for a few moments. Then she let go the fingers that had stiffened to their own clutch and the thing was back in place. The burning lights witnessed her.

She stood in the middle of the room.

Knocking a fist at the doorway as she passed, she ran to the bathroom and fell to her knees at the lavatory bowl, vomiting. The wine, the bits of sausage—she laid her head, gasping between spasms, on the porcelain rim, slime dripping from her mouth with the tears of effort running from her nose.

Recoiling in horror from her own insults to Baasie, Rosa decided to return to South Africa, to the revolution, and so to prison—all without expectation of success. She isn’t really a revolutionary.

I don’t know the ideology:

It’s about suffering.

How to end suffering.

And it ends in suffering.

She knows—and not only from Baasie—that in a revolutionary movement now dominated by Black Consciousness her kind could have no influence either over the course of the revolution, or over the society resulting from it. She does not share the revolutionary confidence in the future, the simple confidence that makes one of her communist contemporaries say that her generation is necessarily luckier than that of their parents: “lucky to be born later.”

Essentially, her return stems from something she had noted much earlier in the book, about the house in which she grew up: “The political activities and attitudes of that house came from the inside outwards, and blacks in that house where there was no God felt this embrace before the Cross.” The trouble was that Baasie hadn’t felt that embrace, or, if he had, would not now admit the fact. But even if Baasie was no longer there, the Cross itself was there. That much could be relied on.

Burger’s Daughter is not a revolutionary book but a religious one, and seems specifically a Christian one. The Christian theme is only twice overtly introduced, but its introduction in each case is crucial—in the double sense of that word. The first introduction prepares a way for a terrible reverberating contrast in the second. The first is the “embrace before the Cross” passage, which occurs early in the book. In this passage Rosa is imagining a common acceptance of sacrifice and suffering, in her father’s house: blacks and whites embracing before the Cross. The weakness in this, of course, is that the whites could choose or reject suffering: the blacks had it inflicted on them, whether they chose it or not.

The second overt Christian reference occurs when Rosa receives the telephone call that disabuses her of that vision of black and white embracing. When, then, Rosa feels the need to hurt and humiliate the black who had hurt and humiliated her, the Cross is there again: “She wanted to keep the two of them nailed each to the other’s voice.” Black and white are no longer, now, embracing before the Cross: they are on the Cross, nailed there by one another. Rosa’s return from the joys and pleasures of Europe to South Africa—the “land of suffering” after which her “Baasie” was named—is the acceptance of the Cross.

I do not know whether Nadine Gordimer thinks of herself as Christian, but I do recognize Burger’s Daughter as the work of an imagination profoundly permeated by Christianity. Although Burger’s Daughter is written without the least hint of self-pity, it nonetheless reflects the pain, loneliness, and hopelessness of being a white South African who is really opposed to the regime. The “really” needs emphasis, because it is not at all painful or lonely to be notionally opposed to the regime, and vote against it at election times: most affluent, English-speaking South Africans are in opposition to that extent, and accommodate themselves very well to that which they oppose.

It is quite different to be a white who rejects the system totally, and who is an artist capable of entering into the minds of blacks who also reject it, but whose rejection takes the form of rejecting all whites. Baasie’s telephone call tells that story; and Baasie there speaks, in essentials, for almost all politically conscious young blacks in South Africa today. A white who really understands what Baasie is saying, and why he must say it, is cut off, in virtue of that understanding, from ease in either black or white society.

Cut off, also, from hope. An artist who takes politics seriously—as distinct from taking up political causes for the sake of relaxation, exercise, and display—is condemned to be lucid about politics, and lucidity about South African politics is a form of despair. For whites, that is, and some others. The Baasies have considerable, rational grounds for hope. After the fall of Angola and Mozambique, and as white Rhodesia falls, they can reasonably expect that power will be in black hands in South Africa during their life-time. That expectation alone is enough to light up their days with hope. Those who have to endure the systematic humiliation and privation of the apartheid system are not going to worry, in public at any rate, over such questions as: Whose black hands? or How will those hands use that power?

In private, the first question is certainly present in a number of active and ambitious minds; factions in revolutions—or, as at present, in a prerevolutionary situation—reflect not just differences about ideology or tactics but the struggle for future power. That is what Lenin was about, and that is what the South African Lenin—whoever he may be—has to be about now.

One thing can be said with certainty about the South African Lenin: he will not be of the same pigmentation as his precursor. Lionel Burger is dead and buried, and his hopes for a nonracial revolution in South Africa are dead and buried along with him. His daughter may enjoy a feeling of solidarity with blacks in prison, but outside she will be excluded from all their counsels. The future, as she knows, is not for her. For her and her kind the future can hold nothing good except for a liberation from the guilt of being, in virtue of their color, partners in a particular system of oppression, now doomed.

On that liberation there is a daunting price tag. Before any system acceptable to the Afrikaner Volk can be succeeded by any system acceptable to black consciousness, it is likely that blood will flow in great quantities, over many years. And at the end of that time? The lucid and (perforce) detached observer has to see that what ensues is very unlikely to take any democratic or liberal form. There is nothing in South Africa’s past to prepare for democracy or liberalism, nor is it likely that the coming period of transition will include such preparation. The future, then, at the end of a bloody struggle, is likely to bring not the talked of “majority rule” but the rule of a determined minority, hardened in the struggle against the whites—and also probably against other tough and determined black minorities disputing the final seat of power.

Afrikaners at present like to say that the end of white power would be followed by MFECANE—the word for the fearful intertribal crushing of peoples which accompanied the great Zulu migrations of the nineteenth century. It is, of course, in the interests of defenders of the present system to make such dire predictions, but these may nonetheless be uncomfortably close to the truth. Certainly in Rhodesia, as white power approaches its end, intertribal differences, whose significance was submerged under the whites, are becoming salient again—as they were before the white man came.

Black minorities—or even helpless majorities—are likely to suffer, but “non-black” minorities—Whites, Asians, Coloureds—seem virtually certain to do so. The Asians may be the most endangered of all. When I was in South Africa recently, a white journalist told of a joke told him by a black colleague. The joke took the form of advising the white man to be in Durban on the day of the revolution. Durban has the largest Indian community of any South African city. “So we’ll be so busy cutting the throats of the Indians first, there’ll be just time for you whites to leave town.” I take this blood-curdling pleasantry to be intended as a caricature of white fears of what black power would mean. All the same, if I were a South African Indian, I should not find the joke very funny.

Such grim intimations about the post-apartheid future do nothing to justify apartheid. On the contrary it is part of the case against apartheid that this is the kind of future that it has been preparing, and is still preparing, for the people who live under it and the people who devised it. There is a South African novel about a future in which blacks rule and Afrikaners survive as abjectly poor peasants, whose bare physical survival is tolerated, but who are occasionally swooped on and savaged by the police of their new masters. In these conditions an Afrikaner is showing a stranger, by candlelight, over his ramshackle old farmhouse. He shows him a set of portraits of the great Nationalist leaders of the past—Malan, Verwoerd, Vorster. He explains his pride in these men: “They made us what we are today.”

Burger’s Daughter2 reflects a doomed society, about to be overthrown by a probably doomed revolution—probably doomed, that is, so far as the hopes are concerned of those who now see in it the impending dawn of human liberty. No wonder that Nadine Gordimer’s work evokes comparison with those great Russians who painted their doomed society, in the years leading up to a revolution about which we no longer have to make predictions.

This Issue

October 25, 1979