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White Consciousness re-emerges

8 May 2010

Forty years ago a group of us published a radical (or so we thought) Christian journal called Ikon. It was originally published by the Durban youth group of the Christian Institute of Southern Africa, but was withdrawn after Beyers Naudé, the Director of the Christian Institute, phoned me in a sudden panic, and wanted me to go round the country collecting every sample copy we had sent out, and burning them, because he feared that it could lead to us being prosecuted under several Acts. I managed to persuade him that that would be counter-productive, but we re-published the first issue, and all subsequent issues, under the name of “Church”, a non-existent non-organisation. So if it caused Beyers Naudé to panic, perhaps it was radical.

A few months later I was summarily fired from my job at the Department of Water Affairs in Windhoek (which I had held for a month and three days). They wouldn’t tell me why I was fired, but on the top of my file was a press cutting with the headline CI keer wilde jeugblad (CI rejects untamed youth paper) so I could guess.

The first editors of Ikon were Dick Usher, a journalist on the Durban Daily News, my cousin Jenny Aitchison and me. Jenny was an art teacher, and was responsible for most of the art work. We were surreptitiously helped by her husband John, who was banned at the time, and so could not be named as an editor, and if it was known, we could indeed have been prosecuted under the Suppression of Communism Act — John for assisting with a publication, and the rest of us for quoting or publishing things he said or wrote. In terms of the Suppression of Communism Act it was a criminal offence to possess or play a tape recording of the gurglings a banned person had made as a baby, since it prohibited the publication or dissemination of any “speech, writing, utterance or statement” ever made by a banned person.

Dick Usher resigned as an editor shortly afterwards, and Dave de Beer, the diocesan secretary of the Anglican Diocese of Damaraland (now Namibia) joined the editorial board. Ikon came to an end when both Dave de Beer and I were banned in June 1972. We could cope with one banned editor, but not with three.

Two things reminded me of that today.

The first was an e-mail from Dave Trumbull, who had been a member of the Christian Institute youth group, and was deported with his family in 1972. He wrote to ask me if I was in contact with Dick Usher.

The second thing that reminded me about it was reading a couple of blog posts by people who had been to a debate at the University of Pretoria (Tuks). Tom Smith’s post sets the scene: Begging to be black – Soulgardeners:

Yesterday I attended a debate at the University of Pretoria on Antjie Krog’s book, “Begging to be black”. The book was reviewed by Klippies Kritzinger, Jurie le Roux and Rodney Chaka, this was followed by two rounds of questions from the audience with further responses by the presenters.

In the book Krog converses with a diverse group of interlocutors. The historic figure Moshoeshoe, a black student, her comrades, her family (husband,children,mother),other African authors and scholars from Australia and Germany. She places her body in different geographies ranging from South Africa, Germany and Lesotho. These conversations and places help her towards a certain becoming; a “long conversation” on what it would mean for her, a white female, to become part of a majority black South Africa. In the process Krog deconstructs her whiteness.

I didn’t go to the debate, mainly because I hadn’t read Antjie Krog’s book, and after reading about the debate, I’m not sure that I want to read the book either, though perhaps I ought to, in order to understand what the debate is about. And the reason I’m reluctant to get involved in that particular debate is what reminded me of Ikon.

A few weeks after I was banned, on 19 July 1972, I wrote in my diary:

In the evening Derek Kotze brought Bob Scott, of the New Zealand Christian Student Movement round, and said that he had spoken to James Polley in Cape Town, and he had been eager to take over Ikon and using it for promoting white consciousness. I told him emphatically that Ikon was opposed to white consciousness, black consciousness, or any other sort of racial consciousness, and sought only to promote the Kingdom of God. If James Polley wants to do his thing, that’s fine by me, but I hope he doesn’t try to do it with Ikon.

To me, “white consciousness” was the root of one of the main problems in South Africa. The government of the day took it for granted that it was a good thing and tried to promote it and inculcate it by relentless propaganda in press and radio (no TV back then), through indoctrination of children in schools, and by systematically carving up the country into ethnic enclaves, and especially to get blacks out of “white” areas, so that whites could live undisturbed in their enjoyment of their white consciousness. That is all implied in the concept of apartheid. As one of the educational texts produced by apartheid ideologists put it “… pedagogically it is the greatest conceivable injustice to a child if he is not educated completely within his own culture. A situation cannot be allowed to arise which causes conflict between the culture taught at home and that taught at school. As a result, children from minority groups often find themselves in an agonizing and bewildering dilemma accompanied by an identity crisis.” This assumed that the culture the child was taught at home was based on race consciousness. It did not apparently occur to the authors that a conflict might arise if this monoethnic culture was taught at school while the parents tried to teach the child a nonracial culture at home. Such a thing was quite inconceivable to the authors of texts like that.

Now I was aware at the time that that was not what James Polley meant by “white consciousness”. James Polley was a Methodist minister, and was a staunch opponent of apartheid. I think, and I hope I am not misrepresenting him when I say this, that he had been influenced by the debate following the rise of Black Consciousness. The proponents of Black Consciousness maintained that there was no place for whites in the liberation struggle. Blacks did not need whites to fight for their freedom, and did not want to sit around waiting for whites to get off their backsides and fight for freedom on their behalf. So I think that what James Polley meant by “white consciousness” was conscientising whites to take the back seat in the liberation struggle, and let blacks take the initiative.

I wasn’t too keen on Black Consciousness either, and thought that Black Power (another contemporary movement) was a better notion. There isn’t space to go into all that here, but in the apartheid system, black identity was determined by white power. Black Consciousness was an attempt to create a different racial identity, independent of white power. But I thought that creating or establishing, or searching for or clinging to any kind of racial identity was not a good idea. It was the source of our problems, and we need to get away from the idea of racial identity (based on skin colour) being important at all. I’ve dealt with that in more detail in another post, Race, ethnicity and the census, so I won’t say much about it here.

But this debate stirred up by Antjie Krog’s book seems to be “white consciousness” coming round again. Tom Smith goes on to quote another book, Begging to be black – Soulgardeners:

In Melissa Steyn’s book “Whiteness just isn’t what it used to be” she notes that,

As the privileged group, whites have tended to take their identity as the standard by which everyone else is measured. This makes white identity invisible, ‘even to the extent that many whites do not consciously think about the profound effect being white has on their everyday lives’. In sum, because the racialness of their own lives is edited out, white people have been able to ignore the manner in which the notion of race has structured people’s life opportunities in society as a whole (p.xxvi)

This sentiment was echoed a few times by white respondents who wanted to move the conversation beyond race “because there is no black or white”. We whites can afford this kind of talk because the dominant culture of whiteness(es) still prevail.

I would say yes, we should be moving the conversation beyond black and white because there is no black and white; but at the risk of being very self-centred, I would say to such people: If you weren’t saying that before 1990, you should not be saying it now. If you want to say it now, you should be deeply repentant if you failed to say it before 1990, when it actually cost something to say such things.

Cobus van Wyngaard, another blogger who was at the debate writes, I’ll just be that other white African, an Afrikaner � my contemplations:

One thing I think we have almost consensus about. Krog’s use of Black wasn’t the best choice of words. We might differ on our reason for saying this, but maybe Begging to be African would have been a better choice. For me, however, this quest has found words over the past year in becoming an Afrikaner. I, the naive reader of Krog and Jansen, want’s nothing more than to reclaim being Afrikaner. I want to claim being Afrikaner, being born from Afrika, wanting to be from Afrika, while being white and Afrikaans speaking, but I want to be that other white African, not the Afrikaner from the Voortrekker monument pictures, not the Afrikaner from the April 2010 letters to daily papers in South Africa, but the new kind of Afrikaner, the one who has no identity other from being part of a democratic South Africa.

And I think his last sentence says it all.

When I read about this debate, I think again of Beyers Naudé. As St Paul said he was a Pharisee of the Pharisees, so Beyers Naudé could say that he was an Afrikaner of the Afrikaners. I had several disagreements with him, and I regarded his actions over the withdrawal of Ikon and some other things that happened around that time as a kind of betrayal, and it took me quite a long time to get over it. But he was one of the most together people I have ever met. He did not agonise over his identity. He was who he was, and he accepted other people as who they were, and that is how he could help to bring people together across barriers of race, ethnicity, culture, language and denomination. He was an Afrikaner, but he did not expect other people to become Afrikaners before he would talk to them, nor did he try to impose an alien identity upon them. He did not pretend to be what he was not, but was secure in knowing who and what he was. And he had too much to do to afford the distraction of an identity crisis.

I haven’t read Antjie Krog’s book, but I have read Beyers Naudé’s My land van hoop. Now there was a ware Afrikaner (real Afrikaner). And when I read it, I wished I could speak and write Afrikaans like him, untainted by the pompous bureaucratese of the civil servants and Afrikaner nationalist academics of the apartheid years. It is worth reading for the quality of the language alone. It is clear language that expresses and promotes clear thinking rather than the obfuscating convolutions of the Apartheid Establishment.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. 8 May 2010 4:01 pm

    Steve, I’m not lekker sure if I should respond. Because I can’t understand if you are for or against what Tom wrote, what I wrote, what Krog wrote (OK, I’m pretty sure you’re against that). Maybe I’m missing something since the happenings of white consciousness and black consciousness you mention was long before my time.

    • 8 May 2010 6:32 pm


      Sure you should respond — it’s a conversation, innit? How can we get any further unless we bash ideas back and forth a bit. I can’t say for sure if I’m against what Krog wrote, since I haven’t read it, but I did say I agreed with the last sentence in your paragraph I quoted, though I’m not sure how that fits in with what Krog wrote, so tell me — and tell me if you think I really ought to read the book.

      • 8 May 2010 10:01 pm

        OK, then I think I understand your post better now. Well, as I said in my post, we all agreed that their is a lot of “mistakes” in the book, wrong use of words, formulations etc. But in the end I think it’s an important book to read, but more because of certain emotions that come from the story than because of this brilliant piece of philosophy. Black wasn’t the correct word to use. But Krog tell a story of a serious attempt to not be captured in whiteness, and this journey takes her through relationships, from ANC members to a young student who show her around Lesotho, to reading the story of Moshoeshoe. I think the book in it’s entirety is more than simply black and white, it’s exactly the struggle of getting beyond that, but being honest in the process.

  2. 9 May 2010 6:59 am

    Hi Steve,
    I don’t know if you’re a FBer, but I posted a link to this post on my profile there:

    Else how’s things?

    • 9 May 2010 3:35 pm

      Rethabile — Thanks for the link, I hope it stimulates some interesting discussion.

      Yes, I am on Facebook, but don’t spend much time there — it’s too easy to get lost!

      • 9 May 2010 3:46 pm

        Well, another commenter there and I think that Black Consciousness, removed from the trappings that Apartheid had given it, was a good thing. I try to put the point forth using the example of Lesotho and other post-colonial régimes on the continent. No identity, no direction, no self-respect (regard of self), and by the same token, no identity, an easy target, a weaker victim (regard of the other), and so on.

        Thanks for this post which, yes, has generated some discussion.

  3. 9 May 2010 1:06 pm

    Hi Steve,

    Interesting post. I’m not sure if I would term the debate as “white consciousness” – that sounds like we are trying to build our identity on white-ness. For me the challenge is to become someone with multiple identities and to face the blind spot of my white identity and the privileges it has and still affords me.

    Do you still have a copy of the magazine articles you published? I would love to read them.

    • 9 May 2010 3:47 pm

      Hi Tom,

      Interesting discussion.

      I’m not sure about multiple identities, but I think that we have a complex identity built from many sources. I tend to see it in terms of Huntington’s civilizations theory, and say that I straddle three of his civilizations — African by birth, Western by education and Orthodox by religion. I think it possibly makes it easier to do code switching, and to help people to interpret the civilizations of others in terms of their own, but also tends to make one a bit unsympathetic to rigidly monocivilisational types — like people who make snide remarks about “multiculturalism”, which they clearly dislike, though they never explain what they mean by it or say why they dislike it.

  4. 9 May 2010 4:29 pm

    I’m not familiar with Huntington’s theory – the way you explain it makes perfect sense to me.
    Do you still have the IKON articles?

  5. Reggie permalink
    10 May 2010 12:18 am

    I agree that we need to get clarity on the terms we use.
    For me the conversation is about identity, which is informed by many things, including culture and race. Hence, the concepts whiteness and white consciousness are not the same. Perhaps its just another provocative hit-seeking title ? 🙂
    Identities are constructed, as we are socialised, we are exposed and the choices we make. Yet we cannot deny and say that whiteness as a social structural reality does not exist, as much as black-ness does not exist. These realities can be transformed through praxis, but in most of the world, it still persist-hence ( and here I agree with Rethabile) the ongoing need for black consciousness and black theology. By the way: the word ‘black’ was not introduced by apartheid legislation, but within the BCM it was a political identity, not another racial identity.
    Cobus (and Skillie), I should have said it on your post, but here it goes. Afrikaner-ness may be part of your heritage and hence part of the elements to construct who you are, but its not the (safe?) rock-bottom of who we are (if there is anything like that). It was also created at some point towards political emancipation, but at the expense of fellow taalgenote and land-genote. Its not an innocent concept as well. For me we need to acknowledge these complexities and unsettled-ness, as it spurs transformation.
    I personally disagree with Klippies and liked Krogs title-as being black is not going to go away…we are with it and will be for some time- and there has to be and attempt to (at least) understand it.

    • 10 May 2010 7:11 am


      Ja-Nee. I agree to some extent. Yes, blackness as in BC/Black Theology was a political, not a racial construct (as were “white consciousness” and even “whiteness”). But the apartheid regime eagerly adopted “Black” with a capital “B” as the new politically-correct substitute for the unpopular and discredited “Bantu”. I became aware of how much that sort of discourse shapes one’s consciousness when I went to Kenya, and encountered, as a sort of culture shock, people who quite unselfconsciously used the word “Bantu” as if it had no shameful or evil connotations, as indeed for them it didn’t, or at least not the same ones as it held for us. I believe that political rivalry between Bantu and non-Bantu is a political issue in Kenya, but not the same as it was here.

      Yes, I agree that identities are constructed as we are socialised, and by the choices we make. And I suppose my identity has been shaped by resistance to and rejection of the imposed category of “whiteness”. And that was also responsible for my aversion to James Polley’s “white consciousness”. I knew intellectually (as I tried to acknowledge in the post above) that it meant something different to him, and did not imply support for apartheid. But emotionally I could not accept it.

      One of the major things that shaped my identity was being a Christian. That was partly a choice, and partly a matter of being socialised. If I had drifted into the atheism/agnosticism of my parents, perhaps my socialisation would have been quite different, and I might have accepted without resistance the “white” identity that the government sought to impose on me. There is an English saying, “blood is thicker than water”. I don’t know what it originally meant, but people who defended apartheid often used it to mean that like should stick with like — “own” affairs, own land, own people (yeah, right, become landowners and slaveowners, but the apartheid apologists couldn’t se the irony of those phrases). But that kind of talk offended my developing Christian consciousness. “Blood is thicker than water” implied (to me) that baptism was meaningless, and was therefore blasphemous. It was demanding that I sell my heavenly birthright for the pottage of this sinful world. I thought I ought to find more in common with black fellow Christians than with white heathen, and perhaps because I thought I ought to, I did, though apartheid apologists would say I had brainwashed myself into thinking that I did, or rather that I had been brainwashed by Moscow into thinking that I did. Within that Christian identity there were many cultural variations, with people of different languages and social and cultural backgrounds. But the common Christian identity made it possible for people to interact and learn from each other’s cultures.

      And the question you ask Cobus, about Afrikaner identity, reminds me of a Congregational minister I knew in Namibia, Peter Lamoela. He said that some ancestor of his, perhaps his grandfather, was a Mosotho (Hi Rethabile!) who married a white woman, and so Peter was classified as coloured. But he described himself as a “Bruin Afrikaner”. But that would be rejected by the authorities who imposed identities like whiteness and blackness. As you say, these are political identities, not racial or cultural identities, but they are politicial identities insofar as they are part of an imposed political system. There is no such thing as “white” culture or “black” culture. Within the political categories of “Black” and “White” there are huge variations in culture. And one of the absurdities of the imposed system was that when “Black” became the politically correct substitute for “Bantu”, suddenly people began talking about “Black languages” instead of “Bantu languages”, which was manifestly absurd. Languages have no colour. And it implied that Afrikaans was a “White language”, when it was probably spoken by more bruin Afrikaners than blank ones. Whiteness was not so much a racial or a cultural constuct as a political one, and an imposed one at that. And there were the imposers, the imposed upon, and the passive accepters.

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