Could white consciousness -- once you have
decided what it is and how to put it into
practice -- provide a means for whites to
participate in the legal and economic and
spiritual liberation of blacks? Will it
find a way in which whites themselves may
at the same time be liberated from the
image of the Janus Oppressor, the two arche-
typal stereofaces, grinning racialist or
weeping liberal, of the same tyrant? Is
this what consciousness is? You are making
a Pascalian wager on it; and that's the
only way to find out.
(Nadine Gordimer, address to students at the
University of Cape Town, 1977)
For a quarter of a century, white South African writer Nadine
Gordimer has used both short stories and novels to portray her intense and
singular vision of life )a Mfla ordinary and heroic, white, black and
brown, in/troubled, racist-striken land of her birth. The extraordinary
power of description which she brings to her craft -- a clarity as profound
as the South African high veld on a winter's day -- has won her an interna-
tional reputation unmatched by any other South African writer. Yet for
Gordimer, whose mother and father were South Africa immigrants from England
and Lithuania respectively, to be white, conscious and South African means
that the mantle of international fame can/no more comfortably worn with un-
ambiguous satisfaction than the privilege automatically bestowed on her in
a society constructed on foundations of racial oppression, injustice and se-
SBlack South African writers can be and are continuously silenced by the
direct and indirect forces of apartheid. Physical and psychological abuse,
like everything else in the racist society, are meted out unequally. Black
writers may be rendered voiceless by sudden police raids on their homes, by
the theft and destruction of their manuscripts, by threats to their jobs and
families, and by the well-founded fear that their lives can be endangered or
shortened by violent interrogation and detention without trial. White writers,
especially those with an international following, may find their books censored
in South Africa, or may find their plans for travel and attempts at communica-
tion thwarted by the apartheid regime. But they are also, at least to date,
protected by their whiteness, and,.in Ms. Gordimer's case, by the government's
reluctance to attract the international outrage which would no doubt accompany
an attempt to effectively silence her. Indeed, she must live with the dis-
concerting fact that she is used by a government she abhors to demonstrate its
tolerance of internal artistic dissent.
To be white, conscious and South African is therefore to live and to write
in a state of contradiction that is both internal and external. Fiction writers
are perhaps always and necessarily aware of their status as "insiders/outsiders"
with respect to their relationship to the societies which have produced them and
about which they write. But few writers face the complexity of this issue as
it emerges for a white South Africafwho must question her claim to birth right,
the meaning of her existence, her sense of place, and even the possibility of
being human in a society where she represents a race which denies black Africans
their birth right, their existence, their sense of place, and their humanity.
In 1977, Gordimer wrote of herself:
Certainly I am aware that I have not been nearly
as brave as being South African has turned out
to require, and it so happens that active radicals
and bravery go together here.
How much can I blame on the tumbril of history
whose destination is unlikely to be that rendevous
where there is room for all? How much can I blame
on the lingering sloth of privilege, convictions not
matched by courage: the writer's fiercely-exclusive
sense of his existence through his work? It is hard
to be honest about these things, even with oneself.
< L' ra d$-T er7?asia^o
For Gordimer in 1977, courage and bravery wore the face of clear-eyed African
youth and children, thousands of whom had challenged apartheid by rejecting an
educational system which required them to learn and use Afrikaans, the language
of their oppressor, in their separate and unequal schools. In the uprising which
began in Soweto on June 16, 1976 and spread throughout the country's Black ghettos,
the majority of some 900 Africans killed by the South African police and army were
school children, who had defiantly confronted apartheid's only real weapon -- the
weapon of death. Profoundly shaken by Soweto, and by the challenges of the Black
Consciousness Movement, including the rejection of all whites -- self-proclaimed
radicals as well as liberals and avowed racists -- Gordimer (+ s>
took seriously the demand that whites forqe and demonstrate a new white
consciousness, that they'"change the concept of who and what they are in re-
lation to South Africa." "For myself," Gordimer wrote,
I can say that rationally I understand it and
consider it necessary, but as individual
experience I find it 7the rejection by blacks
as wounding as anyone else does. It is not
easy to take a new starting point. Black
thought insists that, beginning again from
rejection, whites must work out a social and
psychic route based on the idea that they
will arrive so changed back at the point of
departure that it will be possible, then, for
there to be equality of acceptance. For blacks
will emerge from their great pilgrimage into full
selfhood; and the thread that leads out of the
labyrinth of struggle will turn out to have been
in the hands of both and to have brought them to
a meeting-place, not some hall where the petty
apartheid signs have been hastily taken down.
Five years later, Nadine Gordimer continues to struggle with issues of
consciousness and visions of possibility for South Africa. In the interview
which follows, conducted between her public appearances at the College of
St. Thomas on October 25, I was struck by the force of her dilemma once again.
Between the "they" with which she refers to Blacks and the "they" from whom
she clearly separates herself when she speaks of the white apartheid regime
and all who support the "Big Lie' she claims her own determined yet highly
uncertain ground from which to give voice to a society in agony -- a society
struggling to be born anew.
Gordimer locates the contemporary currents of positive energy for
radical transformation of South African society within Black activism,
and particularly within the dynamic process of independent trade union
organizing among Black workers. Although this process has been accelerating
since the early 1970's, the past three years have seen an enormous growth
in Black unions, with membership up by more than fifty per cent and power
demonstrated in the vast increase in the number of strikes and work stopages,
from 207 in 1980 to 342 in 1981.
The "government support" for Black unionization Gordimer refers to came
in the August, 1981, Labbr Relations Act, which acknowledged African worker
organizing that was taking place by permitting interracial unions to register
and by allowing all African workers to join unions for the first time. At
the same time, this Act extended government controls over the existing and
rapidly multiplying unregistered Black unions by making registration manda-
tory and by limiting the right to strike and pay strike benefits.
In contrast to the positive force of Black unionization, Gordimer
specifically cites plans for a "president's council)" .-N vU a reference
to "reform" proposals unveiled in May of tFs y by South African Prime
Minister Botha and further elaborated in Julyn These proposals call for the
replacement of the existing all-white government with a system of separate
$sAn45 elected assemblies for South Africa's theee million people of mixed
race and the one million Asians. Members of these assemblies would join
representatives of the 4.7 million whites to form a council headed by a
white president with authoritarian powers. While giving a semblance of
representative government to heretofore disenfranchised Asians and "Coioureds"
under a newly conceived "strong president" system, the proposed constitutional
"reforms" offer no political rights 9IA $/$0~Y/ to South Africa's majority
population, the nation's 20 million Africans.
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S.G.: What are the particular tensions between working and living, as a
white South African writer, in the South African context?
N.G. Well, I think that the tension there lies particularly in the question
of yourself. There you are writing. Is it enough? It's not like being a
painter or a writer anywhere else. It's a question one feels an artist shouldn't
have to ask. But whatever you do, living in a country like South Africa,
whatever your work is, you cannot relate it only to your self-fulfillment, be-
cause the material you are drawing on -- because the life around you that you
are drawing on for your work subconsciously all the time -- because this is
such an embattled area, you sometimes feel, have I the right simply to go on
writing? Am I not using, in a sense, other people's misery, other people's
problems, as my material?
Of course, it is never as direct as that. I'm talking about it in an
extremely rational fashion. But when you come to question yourself you do so
in this rational way. I mean every writer, every painter, has the right to
use the material around him. And you would not question it anywhere else,
but in South Africa you do because you feel, I am also a human being -- a
South African -- and, what else should I be doing? If I believe what happens
there is wrong, is it enough to write about it? Is it enough that it should
be part of my material? Is it not something that ... shouldn't there be some
other form of activity?
This is not a new question. Indeed, Jean-Paul Sartre once wrote that
there were situations where a writer might feel that he or she would have to
stop writing. That you couldn't write. That you must do something else.
For instance, that you'd have to do some other kind of work altogether. This
is the kind of question that comes up.
My own answer to it at this stage of my life is that you have to separate
one thing from the other. You have to separate the life you live from your work.
The work is something that if you are an artist you have a particular talent
and ability to do. There isn't anything else you are going to do that you'll
do as well as your own work.
One cannot put in the balance -- on the scales -- the worth of art to
a society that is struggling to be born. Society needs its artists. It
needs to understand itself. And I think that that is all a writer can do.
If a writer has a social purpose, this is it. For somebody like myself to
say, right, what I ought to do now is to become a trade union worker ...pretty
absurd, wouldn't it be? Because I probably wouldn't do it very well.
I think one should do what one does best, and if as an artist you do
this with all the effort with which you are capable, and with the greatest
honesty with which you are capable, and without fear or favor -- in other words,
you don't use your society for commercial ends -- and if you don't distort in
any way, if you try and be as honest as you possibly can -- maintain both kinds
of integrity, the artistic one and the other one -- this is all you can do.
S.G.: To whom do you think you speak most directly within South Africa, in
N.G.: I have no idea because it isn't anything that I think about and it isn't
anything I can measure. When I write, I'm not speaking to anybody. Because as
soon as you are directing yourself to speak to somebody you are distorting to a
certain extent. You are deciding what you are going to say. You are emphasizing
this, you are playing down that, you are trying to please somebody or to annoy
S.G.: In asking the question, I didn't mean your intent or intended audience
while you are writing. I meant to ask about what you might have learned from
responses from people in South Africa who find that your writing speaks to them --
not that you write with the intent to speak to them.
N.G.: No. I see. Well, that is really impossible for me to measure. I can
only measure it in a very small degree. by the kind of things people ask me to
do outside my work. For instance, the students in Johannesburg at Witswatersrand
University, when they have orientation week for the new students, they sometimes
ask me to come and speak on what I think a future culture in South Africa should
be. I can only presume that this is some kind of response to what they find in
my work ... a movement toward that kind of thinking.
S.G.: You spoke in your remarks today about changing consciousness, and I
read, several years ago, the article form of a talk you gave on "white conscious-
ness" at the University of Cape Town. That was 1977, right after Soweto, which
seemed to mark, for those of us who were following at all, and I'm sure internally
as well, a tremendous possibility and watershed. Today, you spoke about black
trade union organization, and about the establishment of small presses in South
Africa which are pushing the censorship laws. You also responded to a question
about the Sullivan Principles,'pointing out that whatever benefits might be gained,
they are extremely limited since Blacks can't sell their own labor. In general,
where do you see that South Africa has moved in terms of pushing institutional
structures since 1977? Do you see changes that are hopeful occurring in recent
N.G.: It's such a strange thing. .The organization of black trade unions,
for example. This was an extraordinary step, and a very hopeful step, and
the first step, truly, since 1948, towards important grassroots change in the
structure. Because you have to look at it against the background of what's
happened in the last twenty or more years.
During the '60's, all the organization of Africans for change -- all
their organizations -- were banned. So they have had no kind of possibility
of having any kind of political forum. This is being denied them. But
a trade union, you know, is a political forum.-- it's the beginning of one.
The fact of being able to organize a meeting again openly -- this can be
something very important leading to peaceful change in South Africa. So
that it is a very important move. It is a way of Africans showing their
strength in the area where they are most essential to white South Africa --
in other words, through the labor that makes the country prosperous. So
that is positive, despite the fact that it is fraught with all sorts of
As you know, there are many many conditions about the formation of these
trade unions. The trade union movement is a battleground now. It is be-
coming even more of a battleground because whites who have become totally
frustrated -- who have no constitutional outlet for their desire to bring
about change, and who are not revolutionaries in the sense that they want to go
and throw bombs -- for these young people, most of them in universities, who want
to work with Blacks for a new future, and on Blacks' terms, not snatching the
leadership and directing -- the trade unions have given an honest opportunity to
do this. But you saw what happened. Neil Aggett died in detention. So these
young people are in the political front lines, just as if they were in some re-
But still, trade unionism is on the critical side, and it is true ad-
vancement, .and it is/true crack in the wall, given voluntarily -- what the
reasons were we won't go in to -- by the South African government.
But on the other hand, look what is happening with the president's
council. Look what is happening with the idea of a new constitution, of a
new form of government which will finally bring about the loss of citizenship
for all black South Africans. This is such a drastic move. It is something
worse than anything that has ever ever happened before. This is dispossessing
Blacks of their birthright. So, if we've taken one bigg step forward, they've
taken two steps backwards. It is just a terrible move.
S.G.: But the move to totally dispossess Blacks of all rights within a South
Africa proclaimed "white" has been in the cards for years and years. That's
been the blueprint.
N.G.: But it is also the final irony, the final sophistry of the whole
apartheid construction. This peculiar construction. It is the final lie.
Apartheid is one big lie and this is the final lie. They think Blacks don't need
to be part of the new constitution because they've got their own homelands and
don't need to be part of South Africa. And isn't that the final lie? Whites,
Indians and people of mixed blood are South Africans, and the Africans themselves
are not. They are members of so-called "national states" within our own country...
within their own country.
The thing about the trade union movement is that it is a concrete achieve-
ment and it affects real issues and real people living and acting them out;
whereas the president's council, the famous "constellation of states" which con-
sist of parts of South Africa splitting off and being called "national states...
and this desperate attempt now, this insane attempt-- I don't know, it's probably
COL s-+. of FFVYzVVJl. sI"l ooooo Soot% 5O rpia &E 1934h
going to come off! -- to give away part of South Africaqto Swaziland in order to
buy certain advantages there, including making Swaziland one of those constellations.
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S.G.: The thing that's so distressing is that South Africa makes insanity
reality in that there's an extent to which there is both a kind of flexibility
in terms of adapting to kinds of changes that are forced on the government at
the same time it moves in wayr~that I agree, appear on the face of it, insane.
But that's the desperately depressing thing. It's not insane. It is all
couched in a kind of incredible reality.
N.G.: It's an insane logic.
S.G.: But it's working.
N.G.: Of course. Again, one is surprised by one's interpretation of possi-
bilities and how they really work out. We've had a tremendousshock in South
Africa this year because one could not have believed that the break-away movement
wSthin the National Party itself would take quite the form it has.
There were the Herstigtes, and one athat this was the lunatic fringe.
They wanted to go back into the past. The women ran around with black bonnets
on. It was back to the "trek and the drought" mentality. But then, when a
powerful, highly intelligent man like Dr. Andries Treurnich breaks away and
takes so much support -- members of parliament -- with him, this and the constant
possibility of more defections from the party; when one suddenly sees that if he
has an election coalition with the Herstigtes, you've got two wings of the
extreme right joining together to form some strange beast that then takes wing
and may become the official opposition.
[_reoprAorrt~iT \,k( ibcuA1 %>*C
So the Progressive Reform Party,,which, whatever one thinks of it, one had
said, "right, when the time comes for a transfer to Black majority, there must
beSomeone to talk to." The world outside thinks there is a lovely night of long
nights, and they are nicely comfortable 10,000 miles away, and it's all nicely
resolved; and then the world helps to come in and finance reconstruction.
The fact is that we know that you need people to talk to.
But now look what's going to happen. We're going to have tweedledum and
tweedledee except that tweedledee is ten times worse than tweedledum. It
seems that Mr. Botha /the Prime Minister/ is paralyzed. His right wing have
got him like that. Because if he moves, they'll defect. Half of them have
gone already and the other half will probably go. So if we grant him the
sincerity of the reforms he wants to make -- I myself don't belong to those
who do, but there's a large section of people saying give Botha a chance --
the fact is, Botha isn't going to be given a chance by his own party. And what
will probably happen now is that we are going to have the National Party and the
official opposition is going to be the extreme right wing, and that just means
we'li be headed eventually for a civil war.
S.G.: Is it necessary to hold out the possibility of peaceful change simply
to live in South Africa as a white writer?
N.G.: It is absolutely necessary. And it isn't just some kind of comforter
one grasps to one's bosom. There are people who indeed are ready to lay their
lives on the line for it -- somebody like Neil Aggett -- all these people
working in the trade union movement. We have to believe that it is possible.
And experience in the world shows that you can make things possible if you
can get enough people to believe in it. And you cannot only do things on the
guarantee that you're going to succeed. Nothing would be done in the world if
you had to have guarantees. So though the odds look great, one has to go on
You've got Black leaders like Bishop Desmond Tutu Csecretary general of
the South African Council of Churches7 who has just been here in the U.SJ,
and Dr. Nthatho Motlanarchairman of Soweto's Committee of Ten7, as well as
others whose names probably wouldn't mean anything to you -- an educationist
like Manana Mazibuko VVfl% -- people who go in and out of prison, imprisoned
by the whites on the one hand, but who refuse to be told by the Black extremists
that they must not talk to whites and that they must not work with whites for
any kind of peaceful change. So while this exists and you live there, that
is the only reason for continuing to hope.
S.G.:A ou set your July's People in the middle of a revolution that is
clearly not a revolution occurring by peaceful process. It is the war.
N.G.: Yes, but part of that war is already going on. South Africa is no
longer a peaceful country. There's a war going on on the border, as you know.
S.G.' Yes, many borders: Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Namibia....
N.G.: Well, I mean we regard it as one great border. War is all around us
except where there's sea. In the last year there have also been many cases
of urban sabatoge -- urban attacks. People in the remote farming areas are
very nervous. There are deserted farms.
Nobody talks about the young Black South Africans who are being killed.
The insurgents, the freedom fighters. They are killed every day. But there
is a great deal of talk about the young whites. And indeed, there are these
ghastly state funerals with full military honors. Boys of seventeen, eighteen.
One asks, what are they fighting for? They are fighting our own people. This
is a civil war we're in. They belong in the same country.
And just over the border we have an example of what happened in
Rhodesia, what is now Zimbabwe, where 28,000 people were killed. And what
for? For a war that had a foregone conclusion. And this is a foregone con-
clusion in South Africa. The South African apartheid regime cannot survive,
quite apart from the morality of it. But, of course, the morality is part of
it. It cannot survive and it should not survive.
But we are not like other countries in Africa, and we could find a
solution. But we seem unable to learn from what is going on so close to us.
What was that war for in Zimbabwe? And the problems in Zimbabwe today are the
fruit of that war. It is dragon seedthat is sprouting all over. So, if one
lives in South Africa, one cannot throw up one's hands and say there is no
alternative to violence. One has to do everything one can to find realistic
ways of averting it.
At the same time, if you are a writer...you might say, why write July's
People? But the fact is, what happens in July's People is a great danger;
and as I say, there are the signs of it already. Part of it is already
S.G.: In terms of what's happening in July's People, I'm not sure whether
it's there, but I read into it a fairly cynical view of the Black characters.
For example, the old chief who...
N.G.: Ah, but the old chief is an enemy of the revolution! It's not cynical.
It's a fact!
S.G.: So is it "romantic" to think that Blacks in South Africa will unite around
the common cause?
N.G.: No. It is not romantic at all and they have united around a common
cause before and they will. But part of their problem is that people like
the chief have been corrupted by the apartheid regime. They've been bought
off. And the fact is that the Black organizations have not been able to
organize -- have not been allowed.to give their people a political education,
especially in the rural areas.
S.G.: But you portray the young man from the city too as...
N.G.: Ah, but he's not a city man! He's a country man. He feels he doesn't
belong there, and he too -- he's a servant. His mentality is .... That
book is really about a section of the community, both Black and white, that has
not been allowed to prepare itself.
S.G.: But then, that's like 85% of the population. What does that mean?
N.G.: No, it isn't in terms of Blacks.
S.G.: If you put them together: migrant laborers, those who are never allowed
to be urbanized, servants, the rural population -- those Blacks who have never
been allowed to be politicized...?
N.G.: Yes, but I took a very small canvas with very few characters. You could
say that what I'm showing is what the politicized Blacks and the Black revolutionarie:
and the Black masses who are politically aware -- what they are up against.
S.G.: It is formidable.