“Begging to be Black” – a review of the book by Antjie Krog

Innocents in Africa?

“...picking my confused way through a world where there existed not one, but two sources of light. My perception is still confused by double shadows from those twin suns. I would never say that my perception is African. But Africa is lodged in my perception all the same.” - from Innocents in Africa by Drury Pifer (Granta, 1994).

Being white in Africa is a very confused way, a way that one has to tread through very carefully. Because the light from the two suns casts different shadows, and I, for one, am continually having to make some choices between one sun and the other. Do I take my time and direction from the African sun which burns and scorches with an and unpredictable urgent life, or do I take my time and direction from the European sun with its comfortable, relatively predictable cultural answers to all the questions that life, in Africa, no less than in Europe, throws at one from moment to moment.

When I first arrived at the University of Stellenbosch back in the early 1960s I had to be interviewed by the house committee of the residence in which I was going to be staying. I was asked my name, which, when I gave it, was greeted with the rather rude expostulation: “O, nog 'n fokken soutpiel!” Which, being translated, means, “O, another effing salt-penis!” The term “soutpiel” is a derogatory name for Englishmen and comes from the saying of Afrikaners that Englishmen have one foot in Europe and one in Africa, leaving their penises to hang in the sea between the two continents.

Begging to be Black is a wonderful book which demonstrates very clearly that in the new democratic South Africa the term “soutpiel” can be applied equally to both English and Afrikaans speakers. The author, Afrikaans writer and poet Antjie Krog, courageously and eloquently lays out the dimensions of the quandary of being white in Africa. This is a beautiful book, an important book, which anyone wishing to attempt to understand this amazing country which we share, sometimes rather uneasily, with about 49 million others, will read and learn from.

Krog does not offer answers, she does not make light of the difficulties, but in the end she comes down firmly on the side of Africa, unlike Drury Pifer who, in his book Innocents in Africa, rather reluctantly, I feel, in the end decides he is not African. Krog is African, and makes no bones about it, in spite of facing some challenging questions about her role as a white in Africa.

Back in 1959 Nobel laureate Nadine Gordimer wrote an article called “Where do whites fit in?” In it she was asking the question whether or not whites should or could stay on in the new Africa that was just then starting to shake off the shackles of a century or more of colonization by European nations. Apartheid was then in its early years as a political reality in South Africa, and the contrast between what she called the “new Africa” just being born into freedom and the reality of a South Africa moving resolutely in the opposite direction was becoming starker with each passing day.

The reality, though, of being African, was powerful for her. In the final paragraph of the article she wrote: “If one will always have to feel white first, and African second, it would be better not to stay on in Africa. It would not be worth it for this. Yet. Although I claim no mystique about Africa, I fear that like one of those oxen I sometimes read about in the Sunday papers, I might, dumped somewhere else and kindly treated, continually plod blindly back to where I came from.”

Africa, for those who are living here and are committed here, is lodged in our perception, it is part of us, with all its contradictions and difficulties.

To paraphrase John F. Kennedy (and, I think with more justification to what I would say than he had to say what he said) “Ich bin ein Afrikaner.” After all, I have lived my whole life here, and so have my forebears, going back many generations. So now the question is, with some urgency, “where do I, a white person, fit into Africa?”

Krog writes movingly about this dilemma, and does so by weaving together three interesting strands of her personal narrative: firstly her involvement in a crime, a murder, which brings into sharp focus the problematic of a white, anti-apartheid activist who is committed to the truth, to justice and to freedom; secondly, she does research into the life and politics of Lesotho's first king, King Moshoeshoe, who had to tread with great skill through the competing politics of the expanding white settlers who were encroaching on his land mostly to the west, the expansionist desires of the Zulu kingdom over the mountains to his east, the missionaries who were attempting to save his immortal soul (they thought), and the imperialist British South African interests; and thirdly, her nine month academic sabbatical at a University in Berlin, Germany, where, in regular conversations with a visiting philosophy professor, she explored, in academic terms, the dimensions of the dilemma of being white in Africa, and specifically, South Africa.

Interspersed with these three narratives are her emails to her mother, at times playful, at times angry, at times sad, but always throwing a new light on Krog's own struggles, if somewhat tangentially.

This book is not an easy read, nor should it be. It is tackling very real, very difficult issues which every white in the new South Africa must face. And it prompts Krog into some very colourful descriptions. Her choices around the murder lead her eventually to give evidence in the court case and after she has done so the police, evidently satisfied with what she has said in court, show her that they are pleased with her evidence. Seeing this, she writes: “I want to vomit myself out of myself.” It's that dilemma, to be true to one set of values held dearly, or to another, held equally dearly. And the consequences of that choice, for a white in South Africa, in particular a white who has always opposed apartheid, can be quite dire.

In one of her last conversations with the philosophy professor he asks her how she is going to present their discussions: “Are you writing a novel?” She tells him she has no plan to write a novel. He asks her why, saying, “...you can explore the inner psyche of characters; you can imagine, for example, being black. So what is it about non-fiction that you don't want to give up?”

Krog responds quickly, quite in character with the rest of this book: “The strangeness. Whatever novelistic elements I may use in my non-fiction work, the strangeness is not invented. The strangeness is real, and the fact that I cannot ever really enter the psyche of somebody else, somebody black. The terror and loneliness of that inability is what I don't want to give up.”

Krog in this wonderful book has wonderfully captured that loneliness and terror which comes from being white in Africa. Though I'm not sure that they are not factors anywhere, wherever people are they will, if they are honest with themselves, face that loneliness, that terror. We all face that loneliness and terror and so seek to accept and be accepted, as the only antidotes to the loneliness and terror.

It's just that being white in Africa casts the loneliness and terror more sharply, more vividly, because in Africa there are no innocents.

This is an intensely human book, with all the dilemmas and hard choices laid out without sentiment and yet with an amazing sensitivity.

Antjie Krog

Antjie Krog was born in the small Free State town of Kroonstad in 1952 and studied at the Universities of the Free State and Pretoria. She won international acclaim as the leader of the South African Broadcasting Corporation's (SABC) team covering the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) appointed by then President Nelson Mandela and chaired by Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu between 1996 and 1998. She wrote a widely respected book about her experiences with the TRC called Country of My Skull (1998) and a further book about the new South Africa called A Change of Tongue (2003) in which she explored the experience of the first ten years of the newly democratic South Africa.

Krog has published many volumes of poetry in both Afrikaans (her native tongue) and English. She is now a professor at the University of the Western Cape in Cape Town.

Copyright Notice

The text and all images on this page, unless otherwise indicated, are by Tony McGregor who hereby asserts his copyright on the material. Should you wish to use any of the text or images feel free to do so with proper attribution and, if possible, a link back to this page. Thank you.

© Tony McGregor 2010

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Comments 31 comments

ethel smith profile image

ethel smith 6 years ago from Kingston-Upon-Hull

Interesting. It must have been hard for all races in South Africa over the years.

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Indeed, Ethel, the apartheid years were apalling. But the more recent years of which Antjie is writing in this book have become very problematic also, with the demise of apartheid there was a loss of a common enemy, as it were, and a whole new situation of ambiguity, even in a moral sense, has meant that questions which previously were relatively easy to answer have now become more difficult, the situation is more complex, more fluid, and many people find that extremely uncomfortable. As the saying goes, Africa is not for sissies!

Thanks for dropping by and commenting. Much appreciated.

Love and peace


Mystique1957 profile image

Mystique1957 6 years ago from Caracas-Venezuela


This issue is so sensitive! I cannot begin to understand it because I have(fortunately)never had racial issues. Not in my country not in other countries where I´ve lived. However, being torn apart between two equally dear sets of values, must be a hellish experience!

Great review!

Thumbs up!

Warm regards and blessings, my friend!


Kaie Arwen profile image

Kaie Arwen 6 years ago

Tony- I've never understood the issues of race, but I have total respect for those who raise our awareness of the feelings that these issues ensue in others. I can't even begin to empathize with the emotions you've had to address, let alone the ones that you feel. On this topic I claim ignorance, because quite frankly, I am ignorant.

I work in a racially diverse school, and I once lived in a neighborhood where I wasn't just a minority............ I was THE minority. I was called the "little white mama with the big dog," on a daily basis; that was my name, and I was regularly told by police officers to go home when I was out after dark. I just smiled at all of it, but that's me. :-D Fearless at all of the wrong times!

Thank you for this review........ it was enlightening, and thanks for making me just a little less ignorant than I was ten minutes ago.......


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Al - yes the experience of "living in two worlds" can be shizophrenic but it is also rich with possibilities when looked at positively, as I try to do (not always too successfully I must admit!).

Kaie - "little white mama" - that's actually so sweet, isn't it. These days I am often in situations where I'm the only white person, but "little" and "mama" I'll never be LOL! And you are most welcome. I love writing about my beautiful, complex and challenging country and hope that my thoughts will help some get a slightly better understanding.

Thanks for visiting, reading and commenting. It really means a lot to me that you did so.

Love and peace


Dim Flaxenwick profile image

Dim Flaxenwick 6 years ago from Great Britain

The history of South Africa is obviously more complicated than I thought. I would like to read this book.

Thank you for bringing attention to such an interesting sbject.

love and peace as always, Dim.

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loriamoore 6 years ago

How very interesting.

lisadpreston profile image

lisadpreston 6 years ago from Columbus, Ohio

This is a book I would like to read. I must say that I can in some aspects relate to what you talked about and I got knots in my stomach from old memories that came to surface in my mind. My mother was always a rebel in that she was never a follower of societies demands of following the "NORM". She married a black man and I was inundated in the African American culture from a small child on. In the 60's and 70's we had race riots and there was very much hatred against the black race in my city. This was all very confusing to me as a small girl because I loved these people and I didn't see the differences as most children don't. We were always being chased by whites who wanted to kill us. I remember being on the city bus one night with my mother and her at the time boyfriend who was black and not thinking anything about it I started singing out loud the James Brown song, say it loud I'm black and I'm proud. This was a mistake. The whites on the bus went into hysterics, while my mother and Sonny grabbed me and we ran from the bus being chased by a gang of whites who then beat us up. I was only about 4 years old but the memory is vivid. And I feel the urge to vomit as I think of it. As I became an adult, racial discrimination became something that I have actively tried to end. It has gotten much better here but still we have many problems. Thank you for this hub.

Shelly McRae profile image

Shelly McRae 6 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

Excellent review. Even though there's little in my own life that relates to "being white in Africa", I believe I would enjoy reading the book.

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Dim - yes we have a richly patterned and complex history with many different threads of story woven into it.

Lori- thanks for the visit.

Lisa - your story is scary as are all manifestations of racism and prejudice. Racism needs to be addressed and dealt with everywhere it occurs.

Shelly - the book is not, as I said in the review, necessarily an easy read, but deeply rewarding for someone like yourself who takes life seriously.

Thanks everyone for your much appreciated comments.

Love and peace


kirstein.peter53 profile image

kirstein.peter53 6 years ago from Maseru

I could never claim to be anything other than African. As you stated Tony, our "Africaness" goes back many generations. Being a "white" South African married to a "black" Southern African draws some strange reactions mostly from other "white" South Africans! I must definitely get and read Antjie Krog's book.

caretakerray profile image

caretakerray 6 years ago from Michigan U.S.A.


thanx for a great article. :)

Interesting take on minorities.


tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Pete - thanks for your wonderful comment. Folks, Pete is the son of my cousin Andrew Kirstein and he is married to a lovely lady from Lesotho called Lindiwe. They live and work in Lesotho doing missionary work. Just thought people might like to know since he made this comment.

Ray - thanks to you too!

Love and peace to you both.


prettydarkhorse profile image

prettydarkhorse 6 years ago from US

Interesting history -- it seems very nice book and you did a good job reviewing it, Thank you, Maita

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Thank you Maita. I appreciate your reading and commenting.

Love and peace


Moulik Mistry profile image

Moulik Mistry 6 years ago from Burdwan, West Bengal, India

Seems to be a most important book to me - your review makes it more worthwhile, very well done, Tony...

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Moulik, yes, I think it is an important book. Thanks for reading and commenting.

Love and peace


MaryNeal 6 years ago

Terrific, Tony. It is always educational and enjoyable reading your articles. Visualizing "soutpiel" gave me a smile.

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Thanks Mary - it is a rather entertaining image, isn't it? LOL.

Thanks for dropping by and commenting. I appreciate it very much indeed.

Love and peace


AdamGee profile image

AdamGee 6 years ago

Tony, this was a very good review that really made me want to read the book. These issues sound very complicated!

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Adam - we have a saying here that "Africa is not for cissies," and I guess that about sums it up. The issues are complex but, since they are human issues they are not insoluble, I believe.

Thanks for the read and the comment.

Love and peace


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

Thanks for the heads up Tony. Great hub!

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Micky - you are most welcome and thanks for the visit and the comment.

Love and peace


kaja_mel profile image

kaja_mel 6 years ago from Saraland, AL

Great review Tony, I'm gonna read this book.

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Kaja - thanks for dropping by and commenting. I appreciate it very much.

Love and peace


CheapInMadrid profile image

CheapInMadrid 6 years ago from Madrid,Spain

Hello tonymaco4.Thanks for this article.I am a black South Arican and have been living abroad for 5 years,so I understand feelings of confusion and not fitting in,though the situation is reverse.The poignant part of your review is the conversation the author had with another pofessor where she said she would not write a novel because the strangeness was real.I stopped for a second and appreciated her genuine introspection of the South African reality for her.Its like she said that it was just not adequate nor would it be quite real imagining being a fictional black person.Anyway,we have a long time to go as a country,and the effort is for everyone...but so far,so good!

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

CIM - thanks so much for stopping by and commenting. It's really good to hear from a fellow-South African. We are making progress, I believe, but it seems so agonisingly slow at times. Despite all the problems we have here I could not contemplate living elsewhere! I'm sure you have moments of homesickness. I have been out of the country but never for longer than four weeks, and then I found I needed to be back on African soil urgently!

Thanks again and best wishes.

Love and peace


Micky Dee profile image

Micky Dee 6 years ago

I needed to read again. But you know how I love your work. This is another write from an interesting perspective. Thank you Brother Tony!

tonymac04 profile image

tonymac04 6 years ago from South Africa Author

Brotherman Micky - I so love your visits! Thank you as always, my brother.

Love and peace


Agnes 3 years ago

Dimitris, I found What is the Power a most enlightening read. All coommn sense to me. All one needs is the discipline to follow the principles you purport. I find I can be my own worst enemy in regard to overeating. It is easy to justify that extra delectable piece of food. I will now look to your article as inspiration to help me make the right decisions. Do keep writing.Many thanks and kind regards, Gabrielle.

big daddy oreo 2 years ago

Just hire a black bodyguard!

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