When word went out that veteran journalist Marianne Thamm would be interviewing Antjie Krog on her most recent book, Begging to Be Black, on the same day that the country celebrated the twentieth anniversary of Nelson Mandela’s liberation from prison, Kalk Bay Books received some 200 emails accepting! Fully a half an hour before the much-loved author arrived the bookshop was filled to capacity.
Those who braved a long stand in the late summer heat were not disappointed by the frank and funny discussion. True to her inimitable form, Krog engaged the topic of what it means to be living in South Africa with a different dominant hegemony with wry humour, irreverent observation and her insights that range from profoundly compassionate to utterly withering.
Thamm reflected how that historic day had marked the formal beginning of the country’s transformation at every level, political, social and economic, and less obivously, psychic and spiritual. She said, “Transformation, as we know, is an ongoing process, but if your cup is already full, it’s a problematic journey, and almost, a non-existent one.”
She said, “Krog’s work over twenty years prods, provokes and excavates at a deeply personal and metaphorical level what it means to be a South African, in particular a white South African, in this new transforming landscape. Few other people dare to go where Antjie Krog has gone.”
The dialogue launched straight into the vexing nature – “irritating” said Thamm – of the title that many have found disturbing.
Krog said, “It wants us to talk about what we mean when we say ‘black’. It’s a plea to understand to what we should be changing. It’s an assumption that we have to change.” She referred to a conversation with the Dutch writer, Adriaan van Dis: if you could take a pill that would make you black, would you take it?”
“When you start thinking about this,” said Krog, “people are shocked to think that we should become ‘black’. We like and prefer to be white. Like men like and prefer to be male. When I was a child my mother said that if I ran through the rainbow, I’d become a boy. I spent my days trying to run through the rainbow, but none of my brothers ever wanted to be a girl. Why is that? It’s the same with straight people, which of you would take a pill to take a pill to make you gay? Who wants to join the less powerful group?”
Thamm noted that much of the contemporary discussion about identity and belonging is happening amongst Afrikaans speaking South Africans. She referred to Max du Preez’s “being confounded by Antjie’s excessive handwringing about her white skin, her overdeveloped feelings of guilt about apartheid and colonialism, her over-romanticisation of Africa’s black people and her naivety about politics of the region.”
She mentioned that Du Preez had said he was happy with who he is as a white Afrikaner. The question of ‘blackness’ had never occurred to him. “Perhaps,” she said, “Max’s cup is already full?”
Krog responded that it wasn’t only Max, it was all the “old lefty ooms” spouting the tired jargon of women: “you’re crazy, you’re naïve, you’re angry”. For her, English is no longer the language of white English speaking people only. “When I write Eglish, I no longer think I’m in conversation with white English speakers only. English non-fiction is a conversation with the country. It comes to me through English.”
The candour with which people asked questions of Krog implies that perhaps there is an open-heartedness to pursuing the ongoing challenges of connection, transformation and apology. Maybe there are those for whom the cup is not yet full.