‘Where Do Whites Fit in?’:

The portrayal of Black Consciousness and its effects on white liberals in Burger’s Daughter


The Black Consciousness Movement rose to prominence in South Africa in the 1970s and forms one of Gordimer’s central focuses in Burger’s Daughter. The movement mobilised a large number of black South Africans to unite and fight for revolution, however, it also brought with it a critique of white liberalism which, in the particular context of South Africa, referred to almost any white person involving themselves in the anti-apartheid effort. Through an examination of Burger’s Daughter, this essay will attempt to explore the way in which Gordimer portrays the attitudes of Black Consciousness and indeed the effects that these attitudes had on white liberals. As presented through the novel’s titular Character, Rosa Burger, one such effect was that it threw ‘the position of dissident whites into radical ambiguity’ (Clingman, 1986, p.170), leaving them searching for a role in South African society. This idea will also be examined, along with Gordimer’s own beliefs about the role of white liberals in South Africa.


Steven Clingman advances that ‘the primary phenomenon to which Burger’s Daughter responded”¦ was the movement of Black Consciousness’ (Clingman, 1986, p.170). In particular, Gordimer investigates the effects that Black Consciousness had on dissident whites and their roles in South Africa. These effects are explored primarily through the novel’s eponymous character, Rosa Burger, who encounters rejection and hostility from Black Consciousness activists. Given this focus, this essay will explore Gordimer’s portrayal of the attitudes of Black Consciousness in Burger’s Daughter and, indeed, the effects of these attitudes on the ‘white liberals’ that were criticised. One such effect is that it threw ‘the position of dissident whites into radical ambiguity’ (Clingman, 1986, p.170), leaving them searching for their role in South African society. Accordingly, this essay will investigate Rosa’s questioning of her own identity and place in society and in doing so will provide insight into Gordimer’s own response to the question.

It is first apposite to offer some insight into the history and nature of the Black Consciousness Movement. Rising to prominence in the 1970’s, Hirschmann notes that the Black Consciousness Movement must be granted ‘[a] large measure of credit”¦for the resuscitation of black opposition’ (Hirschmann, 1990, p.2) in South Africa. The formation of the South African Students Organisation (SASO) by a group of black students who broke away from the pre-dominantly white National Union of South African Students (NUSAS), is thought to have ‘heralded the beginnings of the Black Consciousness Movement’ (Gibson, 2010, p.213), with their separation prompted largely by the belief that the white dominance of the NUSAS meant that it was no longer serving their interests. It drew its influence from multiple sources, including the rise of Africanism across the content as a whole and the Black Power Movement in America, ‘more importantly though was the local context, more specifically the intensifying opposition to the ruling National Party and the declining strength of multiculturalism and liberalism amongst opposition forces’ (Hirschmann, 1990, p.3). The primary objective of Black Consciousness, as an ideology, was to unite and make black South Africans take control of their own struggle against Apartheid. Indeed, as Steve Biko, one of the most prominent leaders of the movement, put forth, ‘Black Consciousness is in essence the realization by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their operation – the blackness of their skin – and to operate as a group in order to rid themselves of the shackles that bind them to perpetual servitude’ (Biko, 1978, p.49). As an appendage to this objective, however, Black Consciousness also advanced a forceful critique of white liberalism; a title that, within the specific context of South Africa, evolved into a catch-all, pejorative term, encompassing almost any whites ‘who [attempted] to involve themselves directly into some sort of anti-apartheid activism’ (Wagner, 1994, p.16). Proponents called into question the role of ‘white liberals’, espousing the view that they had hitherto dominated a struggle that was not their own; speaking for the blacks and thus reinforcing white supremacist structures.

Prior to the rise of Black Consciousness, particularly in the 1950s, there had been inter-racial cooperation, with blacks and dissident whites working together in opposition to apartheid. As Gordimer notes ‘[p]olitically”¦and socially, in Johannesburg particularly, members of the different races were coming together as if to prove, almost by force of their example, that the precept of inter-racial solidarity must vanquish the divisiveness of apartheid’ (Gordimer, 1988, p.31). The growth of Black Consciousness, however, put a stop to this harmony and, to a large degree, transformed South African society, in terms of attitudes and interactions between whites and blacks. This transformation is pivotal to the novel and is most clearly observed through the stark contrast depicted between the position of Lionel Burger and that of his daughter, Rosa Burger. Whilst Lionel, a Communist activist, holds a leadership role and is almost revered by those around him for his commitment to the liberation movement, years later, in the 1970s, Rosa is depicted as being very much sidelined and insignificant in comparison. Rosa, unlike Lionel, is confronted by the indictments and repudiations of Black Consciousness.

Despite their opposition to apartheid, white liberals were accused by proponents of Black Consciousness of holding paternalistic attitudes and, rather paradoxically, of dominating the blacks in their own liberation struggle, thus reinforcing the anatomy of white supremacy. Within the novel this notion is portrayed most significantly through the character of Lionel Burger, a white Communist with Afrikaner roots who died in prison as a result of his commitment to the anti-apartheid movement. Gordimer accords him a leadership role and places him as at the very centre of the struggle. This is conveyed through his position as the head of the household. In the context of the novel, this position represents far more than simply being the head of a family, however, because, as Dimitriu suggests, ‘[t]he Burger household with its open-house policy and its symbolic central gathering point of the swimming-pool, stands for the underground maze of political activism’ (Dimitriu, 2000, p.47). Lionel’s headship of the household, therefore, serves to represent the predominance of whites in the movement. As Dimitriu further advances, ‘although it is primarily for the liberation of blacks that Lionel Burger struggles, it is he who is central and they ancillary in the struggle’ (Dimitriu, 2000, p.64). Moreover, Lionel is admired and almost hero-worshipped by those around him, blacks and whites alike, particularly in the 1950s and 60s in which he was politically active. This is exemplified when Rosa visits Fats’ house. Fats’ grandmother, an elderly black woman, exclaims to Rosa, ‘[t]he African people we thanks the Lord for what your fath-a was doing for us, we know he was our fath-a’ (Gordimer, 1979, p.148). Calling Lionel ‘our fath-a’ acts as an almost explicit reference to his paternalism and, by extension, of white liberals in general. It also highlights the fact that the majority of blacks of Lionel’s own generation submitted to such paternalism, accepting the role of whites opposing apartheid on their behalf.  Perhaps the most significant representation of white paternalism, however, is depicted through Lionel Burger’s adoption of a young black African boy named Baasie. Although there are undoubtedly benevolent intentions, by taking him in and thereby becoming his guardian, Lionel can be seen to have taken control and even ownership of Baasie, whilst also creating a relationship of dependence. As he is only a child, Baasie has very little say in the matter; Lionel make the decision on Baasie’s behalf, just as the white leadership, it was argued, spoke for the black people. This is congruous with one of the most prominent leaders of the Black Consciousness Movement, Steve Biko’s assertion that ‘[t]rue to their image, the white liberals always knew what was good for the blacks and told them so’ (Biko, 1978, p.20). Moreover, Baasie’s original African name, which we later find out is Zwelinzima, is taken away from him by the Burger family and he is given a new Afrikaner one which again displays domination and can be seen to reinforce the very white superiority being battled against. Through her portrayal of Lionel Burger it can be seen that Gordimer displays a sympathetic attitude towards the views of Black Consciousness as her presentation of his dominant and paternalistic tendencies advances criticism of white liberalism and thus, demonstrates understanding of their arguments.

Baasie himself, who can be interpreted as the embodiment of Black Consciousness in the novel, later comes to reject the Burger family and, in turn, the very notion of white paternalism. It is Rosa Burger who is confronted by this rejection. After being estranged for several years, Rosa and Baasie encounter each other at a party in London. Following a brief and somewhat tense exchange, in which Rosa refers to him as Baasie, only to be corrected that his name is actually Zwelinzima, they part ways. Later, in the middle of the night, however, he telephones Rosa. The dialogue is very heated and can be seen as an aggressive move by Baasie’s as he chooses to do it at night, when he knows Rosa is likely to be asleep and therefore taken off guard. This seemingly illustrates the anger and resentment of those mobilised by Black Consciousness. In reference to his adoption Baasie asserts ‘whatever you whites touch, it’s a take-over’ (Gordimer, 1979, p.321) which suggests he has interpreted his adoption as being akin to subjugation. He also states ‘I’m not your Baasie’ (Gordimer, 1979, p.321) which represents both a dismissal of their familial ties, whilst also invoking the notion of possession. Indeed, by stating ‘I am not your Baasie’ he is repudiating the guardianship, or more strongly, ownership, imposed upon him by her family.

It also invokes the idea that he is reclaiming his own identity; taking ownership of himself in the way that black people were taking possession of their own struggle. He concludes the conversation with ‘I don’t have to live in your head’ (Gordimer, 1979, p.323) which represents the assertion of his own consciousness and symbolises both his, and thereby the Black Consciousness Movement’s, rejection of the paternalistic tendencies of whites and their leadership roles in the anti-apartheid struggle.

Another related accusation explored in the novel is that ‘whites, no matter what their political persuasion, still participated in deep rooted patterns of white supremacy’ (Clingman, 1986, p.176). In other words, by virtue of being white, even those who fought against apartheid were privileged and thus guilty of complicity with the ruling class, if only at an unconscious level. Indeed, as Biko espoused, ‘no matter what a white man does, the colour of his skin – his passport to privilege – will always put him miles ahead of the black man. Thus, in the ultimate analysis no white person can escape being part of the oppressor camp’ (Biko, 1979, p.23). In the eyes of Black Consciousness, therefore, all whites were considered the same and thus equally implicated. This is conveyed through Rosa’s time at Fats’ house. In an impassioned exchange between Fats’ friend Duma Dhlada, a young black student, and Orde Greer, a white photographer, Dhlada states ‘[w]hites, whatever you are, it doesn’t matter. It’s no difference. You can tell them – Afrikaners, Liberals, Communists. We don’t accept anything from anybody. We take.’ (Gordimer, 1979, p.157). Not only does this illustrate the perceived homogenous nature of the white community by explicitly suggesting that regardless of political orientation all whites are alike, Dhlada’s use of personal pronouns also implies this. By using ‘we’ in reference to black South Africans and ‘you’ and ‘them’ in reference to whites, it presents the idea that the two groups are separate and also coherent. Alluding to blacks as ‘we’ has a uniting effect, whereas referring to whites as ‘them’ represents a kind of separation; giving the impression that he believes whites as a whole are an ‘other’, regardless of what they believe. This is also portrayed when Baasie questions Rosa: ‘Why do you think you should be different from all the other whites who’ve been shitting on us ever since they came?’ (Gordimer, 1979, p.322).This suggests that he too, has come to the conclusion that all whites are the same and therefore complicit.

That all whites, because they are white, are therefore complicit in apartheid is linked to the notion of what Karl Jaspers termed ‘metaphysical guilt’. Indeed, Jaspers asserts that ‘[t]here exists a solidarity among men as human beings that makes each as responsible for every wrong and every injustice in the world, especially for crimes committed in his presence or with his knowledge. If I fail to do whatever I can to prevent them, I too am guilty.’ (Jaspers, 1961, p.36). As Smiley advances, this involves a ‘moral guilt based on who one is’ and ‘belonging to an “evil” community without asserting one’s own moral powers”¦to cleanse it of such evil’ (Smiley, 2011). Rosa can be seen to acknowledge her own ‘metaphysical guilt’, most notably when she witnesses an impoverished black man brutally beating a donkey; an image than can be seen as a stark representation of apartheid, with the suffering imposed on the donkey parallel to that imposed on black South Africans. She realises that she could have stopped the beating: ‘I had only to career down on that scene with my car and my white authority’ (Gordimer, 1979, p.209), which is also recognition of her superior position. However, she opts not to prevent it. She states, ‘I drove on because the horrible drunk was black, poor and brutalized. If somebody’s going to be brought to account, I am accountable for him, to him, as he is for the donkey’ (Gordimer, 1979, p.210). This marks her acceptance that being white has, at least in part, made her responsible for this man’s position. Due to her continued existence within South African society and the structures of apartheid, she has been complicit in the subordination of black South Africans. She seemingly does not stop the black man from beating the donkey because she does not want to be complicit in this way. It is significant therefore, that this incident acts as a catalyst for her departure from South Africa as it can be seen to represent her conclusion that she cannot operate within the country without culpability.

As a result of the changing nature of South Africa society and, indeed, the rise of Black Consciousness, Rosa Burger struggles to find her role as a white South African. This was the case for many white South African’s whose position was thrown into ‘radical ambiguity’ (Clingman, 1986, p.170) by the Black Consciousness Movement. From the outset, it is expected that she will continue the political legacy of her father, as is shown at the beginning of the novel when she states ‘when my mother and brother were gone, there was me. If my father were to be arrested, there would always be me’ (Gordimer, 1979, p.29). However, she is troubled by this conjecture, feeling detached from her father’s cause. For instance, she refers to ‘my father’s kind’ which hints at disassociation, indicating that she does not include herself in that ‘kind’. In addition, she submits that ‘people in that house, had a connection with blacks that was completely personal”¦I have lost my connection’ (Gordimer, 1979, p.172). Within the novel, it seems that Rosa has lost this ‘connection’, at least in part, because of the rise of Black Consciousness and the attitudes towards white liberals that accompanied it. This is made evident by her assertion that ‘Lionel and my mother did not stand before Duma Dhlada and have him say: I don’t think about that’ (Gordimer, 1979, p. 172), which illustrates her recognition that circumstances have changed since her parents’ days of activism. She states that her parents ‘had a connection because they believed it possible’ (Gordimer, 1979, p. 172), highlighting the fact that Rosa has been lead to question whether there can be a role for white activists in the opposition forces at all anymore. Rosa’s departure from South Africa can be seen as the culmination of this questioning as it represents the belief that she no longer has a place in South African society. She doubts the usefulness of activism like her father’s, yet she cannot stand by and allow herself to be complicit in the subordination of black South Africans and thus cannot see an appropriate position for herself to occupy.

Rosa’s decision to return to South Africa, however, can be seen to represent the end of her search for a role. Her homecoming illustrates that she has reached the conclusion that there is a place for her in South Africa. Upon her return she takes up a position working with children in a hospital in Johannesburg. This suggests that she has, in a sense, rejected her father’s tradition and, in turn, the centrality of whites in the anti-apartheid movement, as her new role is very much a peripheral one. She is ancillary to the struggle as she accepts that it is blacks and not whites who should be the principal actors. This is indicative of Gordimer’s own belief that whites in South Africa could have a continued role, but that it had to be an altered one. Indeed, in her 1959 essay ‘Where do Whites fit in?’ Gordimer suggests that in order to ‘fit in in the new Africa’ the white man should ‘regard himself as an immigrant to the new country; somewhere he has never lived before, but to whose life he has committed himself. He’ll have to forget the old impulses to leadership’ (Gordimer, 1988, p.34). In this way it can be seen that Rosa has accepted her white consciousness, as she has recognized the necessity of Black Consciousness and even her own culpability as a white person and constructed an authentic alternative to the central role of her father, thus transcending the horizon of complicity in the structures of white supremacy (Clingman, 1986).

Thus it can be seen that the Black Consciousness Movement is portrayed as having a profound effect on the consciousness of white liberals, leaving them rejected both by blacks and whites due to their commitment to anti-apartheid and, in turn, struggling to find a role.

Rosa’s experience of Black Consciousness can be seen as similar to that of Gordimer herself, who found it disillusioning and uncomfortable to live through (Gordimer, 1988).

The attitudes of Black Consciousness are presented with a degree of sympathy and understanding, as is demonstrated by the criticism she offers of Lionel Burger and his paternalism and dominance in the opposition forces. This presentation is perhaps indicative of Gordimer’s own acceptance that Black Consciousness was ‘an absolutely necessary stage in all political, sociological and spiritual growth’ (Gordimer, 1988, p.35). The ultimate conclusion of the novel, however, is that dissident whites can continue to have a role in South Africa, in spite of black resistance against this notion. Their roles must just be altered and they must be accepting of their place at the periphery of the anti-apartheid struggle.

This article forms part of the SAHO and the University of York Partnership Project


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