Tag Archive: Begging to be Black


i love love love this piece on Christians not being saved to relax and enjoy the Kingdom of God while living in the midst of chaos in the world:

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To be a Christian…

We need to be alive to the reality that Jesus could not have established the church without dying on the cross and being raised again. Thus, the church was born in a struggle of life and death and is plunged into this struggle to work for the Kingdom of God. To be Christian is not to relax and enjoy the Kingdom of God in the midst of sin, corruption, oppression and death. To be Christian means to engage in the struggle for righteousness against unrighteousness, the struggle for justice against injustice, the struggle to save the world. Any view of Christian life without engaging in struggle cannot be compatible with the work of the Lord on the cross. Our mission as Christians is to engage in acts of salvation for the world in the name of Him who died for it. We are called to proclaim the good news of salvation to the world.

[page 84]

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So as followers of Jesus, we can’t not be involved in the societal woes that surround us and yet far too often we choose to ‘protect ourselves’ in the bubble of religious life and activity and keep an active distance from the often overwhelming struggles that are taking place outside our doors.

A little bit later in the book Frank takes it further with this:

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This brings us to an expression quoted by one of the participants at a workshop on the Kairos document in Zurich, Switzerland, in the process of grappling  with the kairos of the Western Church, of Western Christians. The statement was expressed in the following way:

… our problem is that we are stuck with love and charity in our response to the evils of this world rather than justice. We in the West are compelled by love, Christian love and concern about the brutality of some of the systems in the Third World, we are moved by the hunger and poverty to give charity. But we never go beyond charity to justice.

The implications of this statement became very clear to the group. Giving charity was seen as necessary to save lives in these devastated areas of oppression and exploitation and to alleviate pain and suffering. But it was noted that this good, generous activity on its own cannot resolve the fundamental problem. It remains an ‘ambulance’ ministry to help save the victims of a vicious system. To participate in the ministry of addressing the fundamental problem, Christians in the West must engage in the struggle to uproot the foundations of this problem, which are mainly based in their countries. They must have a deliberate programme of action as part of their confession and their commitment to the gospel. To put it in crude terms, terms that are threatening to some people, they too must engage in a liberation struggle to redeem and free themselves of this subtle system which benefits them, directly or indirectly making them partners in this primary sin.

Churches need to begin to challenge the bankers at their home base. They need to challenge business people, corporations, governments and para-state institutions at their home base. They need to challenge their membership and raise their consciousness about this sin and equip them with better, more critical theological tools to detect it. Christians and committed people at grassroots also need to undertake campaigns to mobilise their people to deal with this problem from below. It seems to me that this is going to become increasingly the most effective way of expressing solidarity in action and struggle, rather than necessarily stopping the attack of apartheid at the frontline of the battleground (i.e. South Africa itself). Our solidarity, our sharing of the same body of Christ, our ecumenism, will be expressed in this common action of faith on all fronts of this war (struggle) against evil and injustice in the world. Our unity in Christ can only be unity in action, united action in struggle; it cannot be a unity that leaves the very structures of oppression intact.

[page 176-178]

[For the next passage dealing with Violence Avoided, click here]

[For some thoughts and shares from Antjie Krog’s ‘Begging to the Black’, click here]


So i know i said i would share three sections of the book ‘Begging to be Black’ by Antjie Krog that i have just finished, but i couldn’t not share this bonus piece [which EVERYONE should read, regardless of where you are from] and then you really should get hold of the book, because four short extracts do not do it justice… but this is powerful stuff, prepare yourself…

This is from a trip Antjie did to Turkey and more particularly, Istanbul:

‘We walk down the street toward a recommended place called Güllüoğlu, established many years ago and still using a recipe for baklava, so we are told, brought from Damascus.4

‘Why does it sound so wonderful, a recipe from Damascus?’ I ask.4’The place of revelation, scales falling from Saul’s eyes,’ suggests the professor, as we pass a large demonstration taking place under massive police presence.

‘It is such a relief that my country has said sorry,’ he says. ‘At last the discussions about reparation have begun.’

‘It somehow seems to me that it is easier to say sorry when you are in power and in the majority. It is very confusing with us. Instead of whites being asked to pay back, they were asked to step back. Instead of being taxed, they’re being blamed.’

The baklva is indeed an experience worth a thesis. Three small wedges arrive on a plate. After the first mouthful we fall into sublime silence – no talking, no academic thinking, only deep, intense, empirical abandon. Our tongues verify the menu: the syrup of Turkish baklava is made not from honey but from special sugar; the pistachios super-finely grated on top were handpicked in Barak; the butter in the pastry comes from Şanlıurfa. It is sheep’s milk butter ‘made clear’ in the heat of the sun.

We sit enraptured. Speechless we drink the Turkish coffee. The money we hand over seems immaterial. The professor goes to a bookshop and I rush back for my panel discussion with a Turkish journalist and a Greek journalist who uncovered mass graves and atrocities on Cyprus. Their governments don’t like this debunking of ‘official explanations’, ad the two journalists are being harassed in terrible ways. Both of them look anxious and stressed out.

My input starts with a quote from Cynthia Ngewu, one of the mothers of the Gugulethu Seven, which I used in my book about the Truth Commission:

This thing called reconciliation… if I am understanding it correctly… if it means this perpetrator, this man who killed [my son] Christopher Piet, if it means he becomes human again, this man, so that I, so that all of us, get our humanity back… then I agree, then I support it all.

‘Let me set out what this amazing formulation says: it says that Mrs Ngewu understood that the killer of her child could, and did, kill, because he had lost his humanity; he was no longer human. Second, she understood that to forgive him would open up the possibility for him to regain his humanity, to change profoundly. Third, she understood also that the loss of her son affected her own humanity; her humanity had been impaired. Fourth and most important, she understood that if indeed the perpetrator felt driven by her forgiveness to regain his humanity, then it would open up the possibility of the restoration of her own full humanity.

‘In the TRC final report, Mrs Ngewu’s response on prison sentences for the perpetrators reads as follows: “I think that all South Africans should be committedto the idea of re-accepting these people back into the community. We do not want to return the evil that the perpetrators committed to the nation. We want to demonstrate a humanness [ubuntu] towards them, so that [it] in turn may restore their own humanity.”

‘This was being said at the end of a century dominated by revenge: that to punish would be to perpetuate inhumanity. Analysing the sentences in TRC testimonies about forgiveness, one picks up how both literate and illiterate black people formulated forgiveness in terms of this interconnected humaneness.

‘What I am trying to say is that Christianity (or human rights, restorative justice, or, for that matter, the theology of Tutu and the politics of Mandela) is not simply linked to, or an add-on to, a kind of African interconnectedness, but is in fact imbedded therein.

Interconnectedness forms the interpretive foundation of southern African Christianity, and it is this foundation that enabled people to reinterpret tired and troubled Western concepts such as forgiveness, reconciliation, amnesty and justice in new and usable ways.

‘In other words: these concepts moved across cultural borders and were infused and energised by a world view of interconnectedness-towards-wholeness to assist people to break out of their past and make a new future possible.

‘So what would be the difference? Christian forgiveness says: I forgive you because Jesus has forgiven me. The reward will be in heaven. “African” forgiveness says: I forgive you so that you can change and I can begin to heal and all of us can become the selves that we were meant to be. The reward is here on earth.

‘Forgiving is therefore never separate from reconciliation, but the first personal step. It demands a response from the forgiven one, to change, to become human, to share. Forgiveness is thus not an uninformed embrace of evil, it is not a miracle brought about by an individual, but an interconnected act that makes a changed relationship possible, a future, a new way of being.’

But I see the audience sitting in front of me: a fierce gleam of hurt, anger and bitterness in their eyes. The world will never learn anything from Africa, my friend Sandile Dikeni once said. We are just something cute, a mask to hang in a television lounge, but we will never be recognised for having contributed something worthwhile to the world.


[To return to the beginning of this series and read some other powerful extracts from this book, click here]


A third share from Antjie Krog’s brilliant ‘Begging to be Black’ [did you order your copy yet?] with a very different flavour from the last two i shared as this is more a reflection on the country than herself. Found in chapter 9:

Writing while busy with her time in Berlin, Antjie says, ‘I experience, fr the first time until now, coherence. For example, on my way to the woods, I walk along Furtwängler Strasse. I know who Furtwängler is. At home I have a CD on which he conducts the Berlin Philharmonic performing a Brahms symphony. During my stay here, Furtwängler was the theme of a cultural programme on rbb Kulturradio one morning, part of a newspaper article a month later, part of a museum exhibition about the choices of musicians during the Second World War, part of German history taught and written about, available as a biography in a book or CD or DVD in the bookshops, part of a documentary on late-night television, part of a street address on someone’s business card, and part of a conversation about the bus stops along the route of the M29. Furtwängler, an extraordinary musician, is woven into the fabric of the culture that intersects daily in many different ways with the lives of ordinary people in the streets ad shops; there is coherence between the life in your head and the physical life around you.

The coherence in Germany also extends to the shop windows in Kurfürstendamm. One week they display clothes and shoes for workers at hospitals, roads, construction sites, factories and cleaning sites. The following week they display dresses from the Prussian period for Christmas, then soccer gear in German colours, then artworks built on Greek and Roman mythology.

In South Africa, we all live in incoherency. It looks like this: the area I live in has a name only some people can pronounce [be it Oranjezicht or Qunu], its meaning lost to most of us. Many provinces, areas, towns and streets had other names prior to their current ones, so one will find some people still using the previous name, others the one before that. Some use the correct pronunciation, others a new anglicised version of the correct pronunciation. (Some of the taxi drivers talk of Orange-Cyst.) Apart from Mandela and Verwoerd, we do not really know the people who appear as statues on pedestals, or the people honoured by naming or vilified by renaming. No part of our history is without its exclusion and destruction of some part of the population.

Every day, most South Africans jump with stretched-out legs from one solid knowable stone, hoping to land on another – but they are mostly out of reach. If one misses, one wades in an unknown morass until one reaches something recognisable to stand on for a while and catch ones’s breath. I always think of Gloria Gotyombe: when she comes once a week to clean the house, she must ask herself: What on earth could this white woman be doing on a computer that is so important that she and her husband can generate enough money to pay for a house and a car and clothes and the abundance of food in the fridge?

Worker’s clothes would never be displayed in our shop windows, because work was racified and is therefore despised. Nobody wants to be a worker. We all want jobs, but not work. The clothes on display are suits for the bosses. Actually, we all want to be bosses, non-working bosses.

Most of the organised events in South Africa exclude, either through place or form, theme or reference, framework or cost. On our national holidays (Heritage Day, Reconciliation Day, Youth Day) we realise we have nothing in common – not what we read, not what we speak, not what we write, not what we sing, not whom we honour.

Nothing binds us. Our daily Third World lives are broken into hundreds of shards of unrooted, incoherent experiences. (Visiting Jakarta with a group of Dutch and Flemish writers, one of them remarked how they navigate with difficulty through the streets checking for ‘undesirabilities’ – unequal surfaces, unexpected holes, open sewers, pedestrians, bicycles, etc. – while I seem to walk the streets with a different sensibility, as if I know the geography beforehand.)

Of course incoherence is not new to southern Africa: centuries ago the First Peoples found their way of life splintered by black groups moving south, and after all the indigenous groups were violently invaded by white settlers. But the thing about colonialism is that the colonisers often manage to produce their own coherency, so the world in which I have grown up was a completely closed coherent world in which the first time I came across a black man with a university degree was when I was twenty-two years old. For half my life I functioned entirely in Afrikaans, from bathing my children to writing a complicated dissertation. The new South Africa changed that. Afrikaners found their way of life forcefully splintered by a gradually self-asserting black majority, and the majority of Afrikaans-speakers turned out not to be white and started claiming the majority space in their language. So Afrikaners, who have so easily appropriated the land and the continent, found themselves in a new kind of post-colonial dynamic and are still reeling and deeply resentful about the incoherence in their lives.’

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She goes on to this point which is different, but equally between-the-eyes:

‘J. [her husband] has arrived. He brought into the flat our stressed-out lives from South Africa. I shifted to my ‘official’ side of the bed, made space in the cupboard, learnt to adjust the shower and asked for a television.

We saw our president-to-be dancing in skins, takkies and sunglasses at his wedding. Then, picking up his legs as I’ve seen younger men do, he falls backwards on the people behind him. The BBC played it at least five times during the day and every time I felt the embarrassment spreading in my neck. The worst, however, was the wife-to-be: she sat in her traditional clothes plus white bra with a submissive demureness that is quite frightening. And one thinks of the impressive presences of our recent first ladies. J. tells of power failures called by the misnomer ‘load-shedding’. He says he is going to vote for the political party that is not dancing. Watching BBC or CNN, it seems the only business in Africa is dancing, dressing, ad, it has to be said, dying.

Coming down Hasensprung on Saturday, there is was: snow.

Real, big, soft flakes of snow. I put down my bags and just stood there, feeling it on my face, my heart wanting to burst. I learnt that snow has a smell, and that at night it glows into the flat as if a big, cold moon is hanging outside.

When I passedthe Hasensprung on Sunday, the pavement had been scraped clean. I was aghast. Someone had actually cleaned Hasensprung on a Saturday-fucking-afternoon! Can that be? On Monday morning, something crunched under my shoes. Gravel! I was almost moved to tears: to think that somebody cared enough that others might slip there? It’s beyond my understanding, coming from a place where we kill each other for twenty rand.’

[For the last extract – a super powerful bonus piece on Forgiveness, click here]

[For a range of other interesting South African related posts, click here]


This is the second of three posts i am wanting to share from Antjie Krog’s ‘Begging to be Black’ worth some serious thought and conversational engagement.

From Chapter 9:

‘I don’t think I know how to talk about social imaginings. I think I am experiencing a racial awareness crisis. Whereas I can imagine myself poor, ill, scared, beautiful, strange, powerful, I can’t even begin to imagine myself black. Why is that? One stood up against apartheid because one believed that all people shared a common humanity and that discrimination was wrong. In other words, I think I can imagine the indignity and hurt and empathise with that, but I can’t imagine the being-blackness.’

‘Do you know or suspect why that may be the case?’

‘Part of me is terrified that it is an indication that, somewhere, somehow, the residues of as yet unrecognised reflexes of racism are still smouldering. That I cannot imagine myself black because I actually despise black.’

‘You suggest that to imagine yourself black would be for you the final proof of your non-racialism?’

‘Maybe. But maybe I simply don’t know enough about being black to imagine it. Again the story of Petrus. I think I do not hear it properly enough to say: now I can imagine myself with a black voice. On the other hand, maybe whiteness is unlaydownable and I just have to learn to care for it?’

‘I really feel a bit uncomfortable with your black/white divisions. You suggest that blackness is more than skin-deep, to use the cliche, and this is essentialist talk. Trying to argue intelligently about it is a waste of time for me. We’re sitting here in a country [Germany] and in an institution and with people that are still staggering to make up for those very consequences of racist essentialism.’

‘Okay. You’re right. You’re right.’

‘And this is not to deny that a group of people’s inner psyche had been overwhelmingly formed through the colonial and apartheid principle of race. But race deserves more serious thinking than skin colour.’

‘We still have twenty minutes.’

‘No, let us continue next week. I also have to point out that you should be careful not to let blackness become a voiceless group that you privately observe and define, instead of a varied, multiple people with which you should have multiple-way conversations. In other words, don’t keep on talking to whites about blacks. Talk and listen to blacks.’

Somewhat unsettled by this stern admonition, I walked back to the flat.

Oblivious to the trees and the long, quiet street, my inside was searching for a word. A milk-near word. Something rising through all the remnants of past hearings. How was one to break through all these dividing borders? ‘Suture,’ I think. Perhaps ‘suture’ is the word that can wash this world. Carefully, to stitch, to weave, this side to that side, so that border becomes a heart-hammered seam.’

[To read the next part on Coherence or the lack thereof, click here]


This is the first of three passages i want to share from Antjie Krog’s magnificent ‘Begging to be Black’ and this conversation explains itself but also raises some really interesting questions about race and identity which i think are worth thinking deeply together about:

From chapter 7:

I am sitting opposite my discussant in one of the smaller sitting rooms at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Berlin. He is a philosopher and has kindly agreed to engage in a series of conversations with me about what I am trying to understand. He has many things in my eyes that should disqualify him as a possible discourse partner (white, male, teaching Western Philosophy in Australia), but I have read a provocative paper he wrote on the concept of becoming-animal in J.M. Coetzee’s novel Disgrace, and it is this concept of ‘becoming’ that I am interested in. Not becoming-animal or becoming-woman as in Coetzee’s book, but becoming-black.

I explain to him that in order to understand something I have to write it; while writing – writingly, as it were – I find myself dissolving into, becoming towards what I am trying to understand.

‘Tracing the lines of flight is what Deluze calls it.’ The professor is a translator of some of Deluze’s work.’

‘I am not fleeing! This is why I am having this discussion. I’m staying, but I want to understand with what I am staying.’

‘Not flight as in fleeing, but flight as in going in a particular direction. One moves from an established known identity by transforming oneself. But transformation always moves in a particular direction and writing is often the best way to trace these directions. Expressed in different words: the aim of good writing is to carry life to the state of non-personal power.’

I quickly write this down on the cover of the thick manuscript file bearing words in black inspired by The Satanic Verses: ‘BEGGING TO BE BLACK.’ The professor notices mt blunt working title and responds somewhat curtly.

‘Tracing lines of transformation is fine, but blackness/whiteness…,’ he says. ‘You’re not going the essentialist route, are you? A core that makes somebody white or black, or Jewish, or female?’

‘No. And I am not busy with difference either, I think. I want to ask two questions. Firstly, I live in a country that for nearly four centuries was interpreted and organised via Western or European frameworks. Since 1994 I have lived with a black majority that asserts itself more and more confidently, as well as many black people from the rest of Africa who stream into my country. So I find most of my references and many of my frameworks of understanding to be useless and redundant.’

‘As in how?’

‘As in how to understand the “reading” of Robert Mugabe both by the South African government and by the Zimbabweans themselves, for example. I do not want to have a Western perspective on Mugabe; I want an Africa perspective. I am trying to work out what that is. Is Thabo Mbeki’s muteness the perspective? Or is Archbishop Tutu’s criticism the perspective, or the crowds who always cheer Mugabe? Or are these reactions all based on something else which makes them not contradictory, but moral and sensible but diverse interpretations of the same world view or philosophy?’

‘Isn’t that derogatory, at least to Tutu? You must remember that colonisers aren’t always trying to “understand” the colonised in order to colonise and dehumanise them even more effectively. Are you not trying to understand so-called blackness as amoral, or a farce, or simply theatre, in order to keep an ingrained racism more sensitively and subtly alive?’

‘I want to be part of the country I was born in. I need to know whether it is possible for somebody like me to become like the majority, to become “blacker?” and live as a full and at-ease component of the South African psyche.’

‘Now what is an at-ease component?’

‘If Angela Merkel or the Australian prime minister says something, you do not sit dumbfounded, thinking: God, where did that come from? There is a traceable logic from within your framework to understand, even if you passionately disagree with then, the most inane and gross comments even of George W. Bush. At times when my president, Thabo Mbeki, speaks, and he is an intelligent man, I sit like somebody in complete darkness. It’s not necessarily that I don’t understand what he is saying; I do not know where it is coming from, from within what logic it wants to assert itself as “right”. I want to understand him and all the many utterances that daily try to turn me into a racist. It feels to me wrong to simply say, yes, we are now mos all liberated and equal, while in actual fact I have only known the white part of this new constellation. It is like saying: black people should now stop their nonsense and become like “the rest of the civilised world” – meaning they should become white. But, actually, black people are the majority and it is I who should be moving towards a “state of non-personal power” within blackness.’

‘How do I “flee” towards black, to use your term, if I have never cared to know what black means? So my first question is this: is it possible for a white person like myself, born in Africa, raised in a culture with strong Western roots, drenched in a political dispensation that said black people were different and therefore inferior, whether it is possible for such a person as myself to move towards a “blackness” as black South Africans understand it?’

‘With all its hurts and Fanon-identified harms?’

‘Yes. And then, secondly, I want to look at the way in which black people challenge Western paradigms that insist liberal values are the only possible framework for a modern state. If we ignore or gloss over this, is that not simply apartheid and colonisation in a new guise?’

‘Let’s summarise: you accept that all life is changing, is becoming, that black people have been and still are profoundly affected by powerful influences from both inside and outside Africa. But you are saying: because you lived in this apartheid bubble which tried to keep itself whites-only and Western, that this has stunted your own changing and becoming?’

‘Yes. So, I am not necessarily interested in African philosophy versus Western Philosophy, but rather in what kind of self I should grow into in order to live a caring, useful and informed life – a “good life” – within my country in southern Africa.’

‘Are you talking about a kind of entanglement?’

‘No. It’s not about mingling, or the entanglement of roots, but how one root can become or link to another.’

‘A synapse.’

I smile. ‘Perhaps that is the word.’

[To read the next part dealing with non-racialism, click here] 


i have just finished reading Antjie Krog’s ‘Begging to be Black’ [my first AK] and it was quite an experience. i thoroughly enjoyed it [thanks to tbV for a great birthday gift, 1 of 2] even though it was different stylistically to anything else i have ever read. In fact, refreshingly so.

What was most interesting about it to me, was that it contained three concurrent stories ranging from the time a murder weapon was hidden [and discovered] on her property and the court case that ensued, a jump back to the 1800’s and the story of Moshoeshoe, king of the Basotho as well as Antjie Krog’s time and experiences in Germany as she pursued a research fellowship in Berlin.

Three completely different stories, told in different styles even [her Berlin time is mostly witnessed through letters to her mother] and completely just bouncing from one to the other with no tangible links from the outset, but a convergence that picks up speed towards the end.

i would highly encourage my South African friends to give this book a read. As i continue on my journey to try and understand the history of my country through different voices and experiences, this felt like a really helpful guide, not of the full story, but definitely of a story that crossed the lines of race and culture in geography, experience and a deep sense of wrestling for identity.

i would like to share a few passages from the book which i think all come from Antjie’s wrestling with the identity question and what it means for a white person to try and understand what it means to be black or white and truly African as those were the ones which challenged me and got me thinking the most.

i hope they inspire you to wrestle with these themes as well and also hope they will be the nudge you need to find yourself a copy of this book and give it a read…

[For the first passage on ‘becoming black’ shared from ‘Begging to be Black’, click here]

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