This novel is the story of a young woman, Rosa Burger, reflecting on her relationship with her father, a member of the South African Communist Party described as ‘South Africa’s Lenin’ who died incarcerated for his anti-apartheid activism. South African Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer was active in the anti-apartheid movement, becoming close to Nelson Mandela’s defence attorney Bram Fischer (for whom Gordimer has described Burger’s Daughter as a ‘coded homage’) and editing Mandela’s ‘I Am Prepared To Die’ speech, delivered from the dock during the 1963-64 Rivonia Trial that led to his 27-year imprisonment. Burger’s Daughter was banned on publication in 1979 but a copy was smuggled to Mandela on Robben Island. Apparently he ‘thought well of it’ whereas Gordimer considered his delivery of the ‘I am Prepared To Die’ speech ‘hesitant, parsonical…boring’. Bet they had a right barney when he got out:
‘Nadine, I am all about truth and reconciliation but why did you diss my speech? I was under a lot of pressure at the time you know, what with the threat of the death penalty and all that’
‘I’m getting Winnie on you’
Burger’s Daughter is a poignant portrayal of a child living in the shadow of an illustrious parent and the collateral damage resulting from a parent’s political devotion, and this exploration of the parent/child relationship gives the novel a universal appeal. (I was going to make a joke about living in the shadow of my own father who is an excellent painter and decorator but thought better of it, although for the record I have had enough of people expecting me to know about dry-lining.) The whole of childhood family life is distorted – there isn’t a real ‘family unit’ when loyalty to the cause and its participants runs deeper than family ties (‘I should not have thought of (mother) and my father as each other’s possession. We belonged to other people’), and everyday family life has a skewed focus (as Rosa’s lover Conrad teases ‘What did you celebrate in your house? … There was a mass protest or a march…these were your fiestas…When blacks were shot by the police….these were your mournings’). Rosa’s adult life is similarly distorted, as she is constantly viewed and used as ‘Burger’s Daughter’ rather than her own self: ‘I don’t know what I look like when I’m being used, an object of enquiry, regarded respectfully…or stripped …to assess my strength like a female up for auction in a slave market’. Much of the novel is Rosa questioning whether such a familial sacrifice is ever worth it.
However the main strength of the novel for me was its ability to bring the people of this struggle and their dilemmas to life – not just by being firmly rooted in real historical events, but in particular through the characters’ political discussions: the question of whether blacks should join whites in the class communist battle or focus on their racial concerns (‘All collaboration with whites has always ended in exploitation of blacks. It’s not a class struggle for blacks, it’s a race struggle’), the difficulties of forming a multi-racial women’s movement (at a rally ‘everyone…bunched together in the middle and back seats, the black women out of habit of finding themselves allotted secondary status and the white ones out of anxiety not to assume first place’), the place of violence in revolution (‘Apartheid is the dirtiest social swindle the world has ever known – and you want to fight it according to the rules of patriotism and honesty and decency evolved for societies where everyone has something worth protecting from betrayal’) and the origins of the student movement rebelling against an unequal education (‘They can’t spell and they can’t formulate their elation and anguish. But they know they are dying’).
I must also highlight the tale of Rosa’s reconciliation with Baasie, her ‘black brother’ who lived with the Burgers after his own activist father died in prison, until Rosa was sent to live with an aunt who would not house a black child. This was possibly the most moving part of the novel – but not for the reasons you may expect. Have the hankies at the ready.
The use of quotation dashes in the place of quotation marks renders the dialogue difficult to follow at times and this, coupled with the switching between internal monologue and anonymous narration, makes the book feel longer than 360 pages. I also questioned Rosa’s focus on the relationship with her father, when her mother had also died imprisoned for the cause and Gordimer’s own mother had been a political activist. But overall this book is worth the read, if only to reflect on those who sacrifice so much to alleviate the suffering of strangers: ‘I don’t know the ideology: it’s about suffering. How to end suffering. And it ends in suffering.’
On a lighter note, here is the wonderful footage of Mandela being released from prison on 11 February 1990. I can remember watching this as a 9 year old and my parents impressing upon me that This Really Was A Big Deal. Over a decade later, on 30 April 2001, I heard the great man speak in person at the Mandela Freedom Concert in Trafalgar Square. This privilege prompted me to name my first university laptop Nelson Mandela, which was quite peculiar now I think of it, but a heartfelt tribute nevertheless. Here’s to everyone who fought for freedom then, and everyone who continues to do so now (the struggle ain’t over people).
(Footage courtesy of the glory of You Tube.)