Exploring identity

2009-12-30 00:00

BOOK REVIEW

Begging to Be Black

Antjie Krog

Random House Struik

CENTRAL to Krog’s concerns in her latest publication, Begging to Be Black (a title inspired by Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses), is her need to ­understand the black psyche, the ­underlying philosophy which directs governance, attitudes and behaviour in contemporary South Africa. For those South Africans, like Krog, who have been raised in a culture with strong Western roots, there is a sense of alienation and mystification ­regarding the black world view. Since it is this view that is pervasive, there is a need to try to access and comprehend it in order to minimise judgemental responses and racism.

In her attempt to identify and examine the black world view, Krog ­recalls a case of murder (1992) in which she unwittingly became involved when the perpetrators left a balaclava and the incriminating weapon on her Kroonstad stoep; ­discusses the enlightened policies and practices of Moshoeshoe, King of the Basotho; and presents — through letters home, conversations with an Australian teacher of philosophy and diary entries — an account of her ­experience of living in Berlin in 2007-2008 while on a research fellowship. Krog exposes the complexities and multiplicities of South Africa compared with the sophistication, order and coherence of life in First World Berlin; the clash of perspectives between the 19th-century Basotho and European missionaries.

What emerges from her encounters with the Kroonstad murderers, her subsequent engagement with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and her study of Moshoeshoe is an ­observation that the black world view is characterised by interconnectedness. At its best, this produces men of great vision like Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu, and encourages the victims of atrocities to forgive, in order that humanity might be restored to those who are forgiven and a future forged. At its worst, it is conflated with race and results in the condoning of the behaviour of individuals like Robert Mugabe.

Dense with experience, research and thought, Krog’s Begging to Be Black is an insightful, searching work by a person keen to understand the changing nature of South Africa and her place in it. “I’m staying,” she writes, “but I want to understand with what I am staying.”

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