Burger’s Daughter

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Burger’s Daughter

by Nadine Gordimer


A novel set in Johannesburg, South Africa, and in the south of France in the 1970s; published in English in 1979.


A young Afrikaner woman struggles to define her own identity and political stance against the legacy of her famous revolutionary father, who died in prison after a life spent fighting for the liberation of black South Africans.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Born in 1923 in the small mining town of Springs, South Africa, Nadine Gordimer is a white South African of Jewish descent. Her father, Isidore Gordimer, immigrated from Lithuania to escape the pogroms there, and her mother, Nan Myers Gordimer, was of English extraction. Nadine Gordimer was raised South Africa’s white suburbs. She attended a convent school and, briefly, the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Only slowly, she explains, did she gain a political awareness: “When you’re born white in South Africa you’re peeling like an onion. You’re sloughing off all the conditioning that you’ve had since you were a child” (Gordimer in Malinowski, p. 204). Gordimer went on to write short stories, novels, and essays, winning the Nobel Prize for literature in 1991. Her works have explored the devastating effects of apartheid on her society. Burger’s Daughter was her first extended portrayal of white revolutionaries in South Africa.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

Before apartheid

At the turn of the twentieth century, the area now known as South Africa was embroiled in a war between the country’s two prominent groups of white rulers. There were the descendants of seventeenth-and eighteenth-century European (mostly Dutch) settlers—named Boers (the Dutch word for “farmers”), then renamed Afrikaners—who sought to preserve the independence of their settler states. And there were the descendants of the British, who sought complete dominance over the region they had partially occupied since the late eighteenth century. The British emerged victorious from the South African War (also called the Boer War; 1899-1902). By war’s end, they had destroyed 30,000 Afrikaner farmsteads, razed whole villages, and placed thousands of Afrikaners in concentration camps. The defeat portended decline and assimilation for the Afrikaners, but they resisted absorption into the British empire, setting up private schools that relied on the Dutch as well as the English language, and generally promoting Afrikaner consciousness. Several years later, with only a few thousand British immigrants and a resistant Afrikaner population in the region, conditions improved for the Afrikaners. A new Liberal government in London granted South Africa’s two Afrikaner states—the Transvaal and the Orange Free State—the right to selfgovernment. In 1910 the Union of South Africa was formed, the hope being that the Afrikaners and British would resolve their differences and forge a single South African nation. The two Afrikaner states joined the two British territories of Cape Colony and Natal on a less-than-equal footing. Under the 1910 constitution, all four areas were bound by the will of the British Crown.

Many Afrikaners supported reconciliation, including the former Afrikaner generals Louis Botha—the new prime minister—and Jan Smuts, Minister of Defence and future leader of the United Party. At the same time, the Afrikaner fear of British domination was strong, provoking a group led by General J. B. M. Hertzog to form a new National party in 1914 to champion Afrikaner interests. When Botha and Smuts led South Africa into World War I, many viewed them as traitors to Afrikaner interests and in retaliation raised arms against the government. Though the uprisings were quickly put down, many Nationalist martyrs emerged, and in 1924 the National Party won more government seats than any of the other parties. It formed a brief alliance with the English-speaking Labour party, and Hertzog became prime minister of a coalition government, fighting hard over the next eight years for the Nationalist Afrikaner cause. A new flag was approved, consisting of small replicas of the former Afrikaner state flags along with the Union Jack; Afrikaans became an official language; and, in 1931, South Africa was freed from formal British control. Though Hertzog was satisfied with these gains, a more strident group of Nationalists began to organize against him, marshalling support from Afrikaners who faced poverty because of disorienting economic changes.

As more and more Afrikaners were forced by economic conditions to move to the nation’s towns and gold fields, and to live in squalor among nonwhites—which, in their view, led to a “debasing [of] the entire Afrikaner stock”—Afrikaner leaders grew alarmed (Meredith, p. 17). A widespread prejudice of the day held the Afrikaners to be inferior to the British, which helped create an environment in which Afrikaners were now forced into competition with cheap black labor. Though Hertzog initiated a “civilized labour” policy that forced employers to privilege white workers over black workers wherever possible, such measures were not enough to counter the increasing poverty levels among the Afrikaners flooding South Africa’s cities and towns. “Facing social upheaval and finding themselves … at the mercy of British commerce and culture,” Afrikaners began forming groups to preserve their own culture (Meredith, p. 19). One of these groups, the Broederband, developed a powerful, extensive, clandestine network of influence throughout the country. Initially formed to promote Afrikaner culture, the group slowly came to define its goal as total Afrikaner domination of South Africa.

In 1932 Hertzog joined Smuts in forming the United Party and the two entered into a coalition known as the “fusion government.” Their aim was to unite all of white South Africa. At this point Afrikaner nationalists feared that Hertzog no longer represented their interests. In 1933 the Gesuiwerde National Party (GNP), heralded as a more pure, staunch, and “true” Afrikaner national party, was formed by a former preacher of the Dutch Reformed Church, Dr. Daniel Malan. Though the GNP made little impact initially, the Broederband steadily gained power and enfolded the new party into its ranks. Influenced by European fascism, Broederband intellectuals created theories and myths proclaiming, among other things, that the Afrikaners were a “chosen people” meant to fulfill a divine destiny in South Africa. Such ideas sparked the popular imagination and Afrikaner loyalty. The GNP gained some decisive victories during and after World War II, which South Africa entered after Smuts’s prowar followers outvoted those of the antiwar Hertzog, prompting Hertzog’s resignation.

Most Afrikaners were outraged at being forced to fight what they saw as Britain’s war, and in the 1943 election the GNP won two-thirds of the Afrikaner vote, though it lost the election. Meanwhile, as the nonwhite urban population increased, threatening to equal that of whites, the “native question” became pressing. Smuts’s policy had been vague; although, like most Afrikaners, he believed in white superiority and supported segregation, he offered no concrete solutions or resolute actions. In this respect the virulent GNP had the advantage over him. In 1948 Malan’s National Party was voted into power, under the new campaign slogan apartheid. The slogan would crystallize into the notion that South African society consisted of distinct nations, each of which must live in its own separate area or homeland, and that blacks should be able to enter the white homeland only temporarily, as workers.

From segregation to apartheid

From the beginning, “the history of white colonization [in Africa] was one of conquest, plunder, and dispossession of the indigenous Black peoples and societies” (Harsch, p. 15). Only in the twentieth century, however, was the ideology of segregation perfected, in response to the unsettling effects of modernization and industrialization. In contrast to many colonies in the Americas, in South Africa the native populations suffered no great demographic losses, and were able to satisfy the white settlers’ need for a labor force. Cheap black labor created the enormous wealth of the diamond and gold mining operations, constructed buildings and roads, and provided various domestic and commercial services within the expanding white population. It is true that most of white South Africa regarded blacks as barbaric, desired separation to preserve white “purity,” and feared being submerged within the “black masses.” However, the wealth enjoyed by many whites was gained through the exploitation of black workers, which made complete separation impractical. The result was “myriad laws, ordinances, and regulations that govern[ed] Black life” to insure white profit (Harsch, p. 13). The Union of 1910 had brought together South Africa’s two dominant white groups—British and Afrikaner—at the expense of 80 percent of its population; from this union emerged one of the most pervasive systems of racial separation in the twentieth century.

Historians of South Africa usually distinguish between segregation, operative from 1900 to 1948, and apartheid, in effect from 1948 to 1990. Segregation was based on a number of laws that restricted nonwhites in almost every sphere. These laws included the 1911 Mines and Works Act (segregating workers); the 1913 Natives Land Act (segregating the races in rural settings and prohibiting land purchases by nonwhites); the 1923 Natives Urban Areas Act (segregating the races in urban settings); the 1936 Representation of Natives Act (completely abolishing the African franchise); and the 1936 Native Trust and Land Act (expanding the 1913 Natives Land Act). As a result of these laws, black South Africans were forced to leave their own lands, live on cramped reserves, enter the labor market, carry pass cards, and work for extremely low wages. Blacks could neither strike nor take jobs reserved for white workers. As Smuts explained to parliament in 1945, “all [white] South Africans are agreed … except those who are quite mad … that it is a fixed policy to maintain white supremacy in South Africa” (Smuts in Harsch, pp. 54-55).

In many ways apartheid was an extension and elaboration of segregationist measures; what was distinctive was the ideology and moralizing accompanying it. Whereas segregation had become more difficult to justify in a world that placed an increasingly high value on racial equality, apartheid claimed to divide ethnic groups vertically, making them equal but separate. One cabinet member described apartheid as the separation of “heterogeneous groups … into separate socioeconomic units, inhabiting different parts of the country, each enjoying in its own area full citizenship rights” (Eiselen in Le May, p. 208). Daniel Malan explained the policy in similarly euphemistic terms: “[L]ike a wire fence between two neighboring farms, [apartheid] indicates a separation without eliminating necessarily legitimate contacts in both directions, and although it places reciprocal restrictions on both sides it … serves as an effective protection of one another’s rights” (Malan in Le May, p. 208). But, while most supporters presented apartheid as an ideal, equality-based solution to South Africa’s racial problems, in effect it legislated and provided a morality for continued white domination over South Africa.


We can act in only one of two directions. Either we must follow the course of equality, which must eventually mean national suicide for the white race, or we must take the course of apartheid through which the character and the future of every race will be protected.... [The National Party] therefore undertakes to protect the white race properly and effectively against any policy, doctrine or attack which might undermine or threaten its continued existence. At the same time, the Party rejects any policy of oppression and exploitation of the non-Europeans by the Europeans as being in conflict with the Christian basis of our national life....
(Le May, p. 202)

When Malan’s National Party came into power in 1948, it became the first South African government to consist of only Afrikaners. The party proceeded to “right” what it perceived as past wrongs against Afrikaners by releasing Afrikaner prisoners, privileging Afrikaners over the British in the workplace, and lengthening the process by which British immigrants could attain South African citizenship. At the same time, the Nationalists turned their attention to the “native problem,” constructing “an apparatus of laws, regulations and bureaucracies” that would develop into “the most elaborate racial edifice the world had ever witnessed” (Meredith, p. 54). Interracial marriages, as well as sexual acts between the races, were banned; different racial groups were compelled by law to use separate restaurants, post offices, theaters, buses, and so on, or to use separate entrances and seats in public buildings. As residential areas for each racial group were demarcated, whole communities were uprooted to effect widespread racial separation.


ANC—African National Congress: Founded in 1912, the ANC is the oldest of South Africa’s liberation movements. It provided black Africans with their first opportunity to join a political organization devoted to their interests.

CPSA—Communist Party of South Africa: The CPSA was devoted to socialist revolution in South Africa. Established in 1920, the CPSA was the first serious attempt to form a revolutionary party in South Africa.

CYLCongress Youth League: The CYL was formed in 1944 by young men impatient with the conservativism of the ANC. Primarily an ANC pressure group, the CYL attempted to invigorate and hasten the struggle for black liberation.

COD—Congress of Democrats: Set up in 1953 by radical whites, many of whom belonged to the CPSA before it was banned, the COD was a multiracial dissident group that later became a key part of the Congress Alliance of 1955.

PAC—Pan-African Congress: Formed in 1959, the PAC set itself in opposition to the more conservative ANC. Its goal was black domination of South Africa, and its methods were more militant than the older group’s.

SAP—South African Police: Formed at the 1910 Act of Union, the SAP was responsible for enforcing racial segregation and apartheid, and for putting down all resistance.

BOSS—Bureau of State Security: Formed after Balthazar Johannes Vorster came to power in 1966, BOSS was a privileged and powerful agency devoted to state security Along with the SAP, BOSS was the dominant force in the intelligence community.

FRELIMO—Mozambique Liberation Front: In 1974 Portuguese rule collapsed in Mozambique and Angola—both neighbors to South Africa—and Frelimo came to power. Frelimo’s victory inspired South Africa’s black population; the group is mentioned often in Burger’s Daughter.

Regarding this last piece of legislation (which became known as the Group Areas Act) in 1950, the Minister of the Interior explained:

We believe that if we remove the points of contact that cause friction, then we will remove the possibility of that friction and we will be able to prevent the conflagration which might one day break out. This is what the Bill stands for .... Its object is to ensure racial peace It has been .... designed to preserve White South Africa while at the same time giving justice and fair play to the Non-Europeans in this country.
(Meredith, pp. 54-55)

Though apartheid rhetoric promised separation but equality, the areas demarcated for nonwhite South Africans, who were by far the country’s majority, represented only a small percentage of the country’s total land mass; as a result of this act, many nonwhites had no alternative but to build makeshift shantytowns on the outskirts of white-populated cities. In fact, overwhelming inequality was a standard feature of the ostensibly “equality-driven” apartheid legislation. Between 1948 and 1971, 151 racial laws were enacted, affecting every aspect of daily life—three times the number of racial laws enacted in the four decades preceding the National Party’s reign, which would last until 1990.

Communism and antiapartheid liberation movements

Apartheid and the segregation measures preceding it were not met without resistance by either nonwhite or white South Africans. The African National Congress (ANC) was the first of several local organizations to become involved in the struggle for black political rights. Founded in 1912, the ANC was conservative in nature and composed primarily of prominent, Christian black men.

For the most part, African nationalist groups like the ANC saw communism as antithetical to their purposes. They generally condemned its class analysis approach as a strategy on the part of communists to limit the strength of control by Africans while using government channels to promote the Communist Party.

When the white National Party came to power in 1948, the relationship between black African nationalists and the mostly white CPSA altered significantly. Common opposition to apartheid brought the CYL (still part of the ANC) and the CPSA into cooperation, through their mutual goal of developing mass resistance to government oppression. This willingness to cooperate was more practical than ideological, however. When the CPSA was outlawed in 1950, the ANC remained unaffected by communist ideas, but because of this banning and intensified government opposition against both groups, communists and black African nationalists strengthened their alliance. In the 1950s, when racist legislation was further bolstered by the new Minister of Native Affairs, Hendrik Verwoerd, the ANC was forced to become more strident. It was in this decade that “the young lions” like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisilu, Oliver Tambo, Potlako Leballo, and Robert Sobukwe came to the fore—all “educated men who were unwilling to wait, as their elders had done, for some indefinite future when white men should have experienced a change of heart” (Le May, p. 215).

In June 1955 what came to be known as the “Congress Alliance” was formed among several different revolutionary groups, including the ANC, the South African Indian Conference, the National Union of the Organization of Coloured People, and the Congress of Democrats (COD), a white organization with communist connections. The Congress Alliance produced the Freedom Charter, a document demanding the abolition of apartheid and calling for universal suffrage, land redistribution, and other rights for nonwhites in South Africa. The government responded with a series of police raids in which papers were seized and people arrested, and, a year later, it accused 156 revolutionaries of high treason. Stating that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white,” the Freedom Charter anchored the nonracial revolutionary tradition of the Congress Alliance in a founding document (Lazerson, p. 2). Despite and because of these nonracial ideals of peace and brotherhood, relationships remained racially charged.

In other cases, there was overt hostility to white reformers. In 1959 the ANC split, and the PAC was formed. The argument between the ANC and PAC mainly concerned the role of non-blacks in the African nationalist struggle, as well as the widespread influence of communism within the Congress Alliance. Unlike the ANC, the PAC devoted itself to totally replacing rule by the white minority with rule by the black majority. The PAC’s sentiments in this regard would also characterize the Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) that emerged in the early 1970s under the slogan “Black man you are on your own!” Indeed, as Rosa Burger discovers in Burger’s Daughter, the white presence in antiapartheid liberation movements was often fraught with tension.

Enforcing apartheid—the South African Police

The South African Police (SAP) “were always in the front line in the enforcement of apartheid” (Cawthra, p. 1). Formed by the 1910 Act of Union, the SAP retained the features of the colonial military units preceding it—units such as the Cape Mounted Police and the Natal Mounted Rifles, which had helped conquer the black populations. The SAP was responsible for enforcing pass laws (which required black Africans to carry identification cards permitting and recording their entry into white areas), liquor laws (prohibiting blacks from drinking certain kinds of alcohol), and other restrictive, racially based edicts. It was also responsible for putting down any type of resistance. Consisting mostly of Afrikaner men by the 1940s, SAP became increasingly political as black militancy grew more widespread. For the most part, policemen saw nothing unusual in being placed in political positions and countering antigovernment threats. Their approach to the black population was “essentially authoritarian and confrontational”; by 1947 almost half of all prosecutions were for racially based crimes (Cawthra, p. 12). When Malan’s National Party took office in 1948, the new government viewed the SAP as its first line of defense and increased the size of the force.

When, in the 1950s, the ANC began a program of noncooperation and civil disobedience—in 1952, for instance, Mandela led his followers in a passive resistance campaign—the police responded by jailing thousands of protesters. A series of violent confrontations between the SAP and antiapartheid protesters led the government to enact more repressive laws and to declare a state of emergency. The 1950 Suppression of Communism Act gave the SAP license to detain and imprison hundreds of mostly white revolutionaries, who were not always communists. Revolutionary forces fought back, engaging in the “cloak-and-dagger stuff Rosa Burger describes in Burger’s Daughter (Gordimer, Burger’s Daughter, p. 141). In the first half of the century, the SAP had set up a Detective Branch to counter political “agitators”; in the second half this branch evolved into the Security Branch, or political police, who monitored and interrogated everyone suspected of antigovernment activity. Through intelligence efforts, the Security Branch was able to crack ANC and PAC underground networks, imprisoning hundreds of black nationalists.

In the 1960s—when Balthazar Johannes Vorster served as South African minister of justice and then as prime minister—the police acquired even more power. Vorster believed that decisive action was needed to counter increasing revolutionary activity, and “steered through parliament a string of laws which increased the state’s powers to banish, restrict and detain its opponents” (Cawthra, p. 15). By broadly defining what constituted terrorism or subversion, these laws allowed police to detain people indefinitely without trial and made it easier for the courts to convict political prisoners. Torture of detainees became routine. By the middle of the decade, the security police had put down most armed resistance but continued to hunt down potential enemies of the state. The police “stamped on the merest flickers of opposition,” forcing potential enemies out of the country or placing them under house arrest (Cawthra, p. 15). When Vorster became prime minister in 1966, he created the Bureau for State Security, or BOSS. Along with the SAP, BOSS became one of South Africa’s main intelligence forces. South Africa had effectively become a police state, with executions occurring so often that one scholar estimated that nearly half of the world’s executions at the time were taking place in South Africa (Cawthra, p. 16).

Two of the SAP’s most notorious acts occurred in 1960 and 1976; the levels of police brutality shocked the international community. In 1960 the PAC declared a nonviolent campaign in which large crowds would appear at police stations to surrender their pass cards and demand arrest. Thousands of unarmed blacks showed up at police stations nationwide and still more stayed home from work. Shooting into the crowds, police killed 87 and wounded 27 others in Sharpeville; in Langa they killed 17 more and wounded another 46. Their violence provoked a storm of criticism abroad and inspired massive protests across South Africa. Initially the government made concessions to blacks, temporarily allowing them to travel without pass cards, but in the long run little changed; as one historian puts it, “Sharpeville was the turning point where nobody turned” (Le May, p. 221). In 1976 another mass protest ended in police violence. When the government insisted that Afrikaans be used along with English for secondary school instruction, 15,000 blacks took part in an illegal protest march in Soweto. The police again opened fire, and this time the violence lasted a year, as protesters burned schools, attacked apartheid collaborators, and rioted in various locations across the country. Descriptions of the long, devastating Soweto Revolt appear at the end of Burger’s Daughter:

The School riots filled the hospital; the police who answered stones with machine-guns and patrolled Soweto firing revolvers at any streetcorner group of people encountered, who raided High Schools and picked off the targets of youngsters escaping in the stampede, also wounded anyone else who happened to be within the random of their fire. The hospital itself was threatened by a counter-surge of furious sorrow that roused the people of Soweto to burn and pillage everything the whites had “given” them in token for all, through three centuries, they had denied the blacks.
(Burger’s Daughter, p. 342)

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Burger’s Daughter opens with a flashback: a young Afrikaner schoolgirl, Rosa Burger, carrying an eider-down quilt and a red hot-water bottle, waits outside the prison in which her mother is being detained. As a witness remembers, “the child was dry-eyed and composed, … an example to us all of the way a detainee’s family ought to behave” (Burger’s Daughter, p. 12). On that day Rosa’s father, Lionel Burger, had put the plight of others before his own, “going from police station to police station, trying to establish for helpless African families where their people were being held”; he knew “that his schoolgirl daughter could be counted on in this family totally united in and dedicated to the struggle” (Burger’s Daughter, p. 12). Rosa’s mother and father were famous white communist revolutionaries who dedicated their lives to the struggle for a free and equal South Africa. Constant surveillance, clandestine meetings, and prison stays were parts of their everyday existence. The magnitude of their cause was so great that Rosa, now 27, with both parents dead (her father having died a hero in prison), has had her own identity subsumed within that of her famous parents, and most potently within that of her father. When her father, who had been a doctor, served his final, lengthy prison sentence, Rosa was obligated to visit him twice a month, bringing him books and coded messages from the outside world. As she herself remarks,

My mother is dead and there is only me, there, for him. Only me. My studies, my work, my love affairs must fit in with the twice-monthly visits to the prison, for life, as long as he lives—if he had lived .... I have no passport because I am my father’s daughter. People who associate with me must be prepared to be suspect because I am my father’s daughter. And there is more to it, more than you know—what I wanted was to take a law degree, but … I had to do something else instead, anything, something that would pass as politically innocuous....
(Burger’s Daughter, pp. 62-63)

The bulk of Burger’s Daughter takes place after the death of Rosa’s parents (about a year after the death of her father), and centers on her search for an identity and a life outside of her parents’ world. The narration shifts between first and third person. When the narrative is presented in her voice, Rosa addresses an ex-lover, her father’s first wife, and her father. Set in South Africa, Part One concerns the hidden political worlds in which her parents circulated. Most of the people with whom Rosa has contact at this point are her parents’ friends and colleagues, their children, and various hangers-on; through flashbacks as well as the efforts of one of Lionel Burger’s biographers, the reader learns of the Burgers’ past, and the events surrounding Lionel’s trial, imprisonment, and death. Being under constant surveillance, the daughter of political agitators, Rosa has learned to keep secrets, speak in codes, relay sensitive messages, and mask her feelings—“cloak-and-dagger stuff,” as she wryly calls it (Burger’s Daughter, p. 141). Rosa attempts to explain such a life to an exlover:

If Lionel and my mother … if the concepts of our life, our relationships, we children accepted from them were from Marx and Lenin, they’d already become natural and personal by the time they reached me. D’you see? It was all on the same level at which you—I—children learn to eat with a knife and fork, go to church if their parents do, use the forms of address by which the parents’ attitudes—respect, disapproval, envy, whatever—towards people are expressed. I was the same as every other kid.
(Burger’s Daughter, p. 50)

It was a life marked by both exhilaration and tragedy. The Burgers’ house was open to people of all races and to revolutionaries whose families became entwined with their own. Intense political discussions took place around the swimming pool, the same pool in which Rosa’s brother later drowned as a child. One black revolutionary’s son, called “Baasie,” or “little boss,” lived with the family because his father, a member of the African National Congress, moved around too much to be able to care for him. On the rare occasion when both of Rosa’s parents were in prison at the same time, Rosa was sent to her aunt and uncle’s country hotel, while Baasie was sent to his grandmother; Rosa’s relatives were traditional Afrikaners embarrassed by Lionel’s politics and at the same time proud to be associated with someone so famous and respected. Indeed, throughout the novel Rosa will encounter those who thrill to be in the presence of one who seems so politically dangerous and upright—people who always define Rosa through the legend that was her father.

A year after her father’s death, however, Rosa attends a gathering in which, for the first time in the novel, she encounters a “new political factor” that suggests her father’s “political relevance is almost over” (Daymond, p. 60). During a long debate, a young black revolutionary, Duma Dhladhla, speaks of her father in less than reverential terms: “He knows what he was doing in jail. A white knows what he must do if he doesn’t like what he is. That’s his business. We only know what we must do ourselves” (Burger’s Daughter, p. 160). Later Dhladhla explains:

White liberals run around telling blacks it’s immoral to unite as blacks, we’re all human beings, it’s just too bad there’s white racism, … we must work out together the solution… Whites don’t credit us with the intelligence to know what we want! We don’t need their solutions.
(Burger’s Daughter, p. 160)

Shortly thereafter Rosa starts arranging her departure from the country. Because of her political associations, she is under constant surveillance and is denied a passport. She has to rely on an influential Afrikaner to finally obtain one for her. Her reason, as the Afrikaner man understands, is clear: “I want to know somewhere else. The mother, the father; their destination, here or anywhere, did not have to be hers” (Burger’s Daughter, p. 185). At a decisive point during these preparations, Rosa witnesses a brutal scene: a drunk black man is beating a donkey violently with a whip, an act that to Rosa at that moment seems “the sum of suffering” (Burger’s Daughter, p. 210). Though she realizes that, as a white woman, she could easily stop the donkey’s suffering, she does nothing:

I drove on. I don’t know at what point to intercede makes sense, for me … I drove on because the horrible drunk was black, poor, and brutalized. If somebody’s going to be brought to account, I am accountable for him, to him, as he is for the donkey. Yet the suffering—while I saw it it was the sum of suffering to me. I didn’t do anything. I let him beat the donkey. The man was a black.
(Burger’s Daughter, p. 210)

It is this scene that finally compels Rosa to leave South Africa—“after the donkey,” she says, “I couldn’t stop myself. I don’t know how to live in Lionel’s country” (Burger’s Daughter, p. 210).

Part Two of Burger’s Daughter takes place mainly in the south of France, where Rosa stays with Katya, her father’s first wife, whom she’d seen only in photographs. Her new life is strikingly different from the one she has left behind: sensual, languorous, filled with sunbathers and lovers, people living for present pleasures rather than the distant, intangible “Future” that had driven her father and his colleagues (Burger’s Daughter, p. 264). Here Rosa relaxes in the company of Katya and her circle, in a place where she is recognizable only as a foreigner, an English speaker—“nobody could see me, there, for what I am back where I come from”—and where she can stay in a room made for “a girl, whose sense of existence would be in her nose buried in flowers, peach juice running down her chin” (Burger’s Daughter, pp. 229-30, 231). When she tells a young man that her father had died in a prison in South Africa, he responds by explaining that his father had collaborated with Nazis, and had been sent to prison also. “We have to forget about [our fathers],” he says. “It’s not our affair. I’m not my father, êh?” (Burger’s Daughter, p. 243).

Rosa does seem to forget, for a while; from Katya, who had recognized “‘a whole world’ outside what [Lionel] lived for,” Rosa attempts to learn how to “defect from [her father]” (Burger’s Daughter, p. 264). She meets and begins a passionate affair with a married French academic, Chebalier. The affair brings her into a new awareness of herself as a sensual being, who, as Bernard Chebalier’s mistress, “isn’t Lionel Burger’s Daughter; [and is] certainly not accountable to the Future” (Burger’s Daughter, p. 304). Soon Rosa is planning to live permanently in Paris, in an apartment Chebalier will find for her and with working papers that he, through various contacts, will obtain for her. First, however, she goes to London, where Chebalier will join her for a romantic vacation. While she waits there, Rosa is befriended by a young Indian couple, who take her to a party where she encounters other South Africans. Afterwards, and for the first time since she left South Africa, Rosa begins attending political gatherings and allowing herself to be known as Lionel Burger’s daughter. At one of these meetings she recognizes her childhood playmate, Baasie.

To Rosa’s surprise, Baasie is aloof and disdainful. He is offended when she calls him by his childhood nickname, and informs her that his given name is Zwelinzima Vulindlela. That night he calls her and, despite her sleepy protests, makes her hear him out. Echoing the earlier sentiments of Duma Dhladhla, he says he did not like the way she had spoken that night about her father:

Everyone in the world must be told what a great hero [Lionel] was and how much he suffered for the blacks. Everyone must cry over him and show his life on television and write in the papers. Listen, there are dozens of our fathers sick and dying like dogs, kicked out of the locations when they can’t work any more. Getting old and dying in prison. Killed in prison. It’s nothing. I know plenty of blacks like Burger. It’s nothing, it’s us, we must be used to it, it’s not going to show on English television.

(Burger’s Daughter, p. 320)

Rosa is sickened by Zwelinzima’s contempt for her. Immediately after his phone call and apparently without telling Chebalier that she is leaving, Rosa returns to South Africa in the novel’s brief third part. “I can’t explain to anyone,” she narrates, “why that telephone call in the middle of the night made everything that was possible, impossible” (Burger’s Daughter, p. 328). Despite her happy, passion-filled sojourn in France, Rosa decides that she “cannot be other than a creature of her time and place…. cannot be other than Lionel’s child” (Daymond, p. 168). She takes a job at Baragwanath Hospital and begins working with crippled black children there, whose numbers increase when the Soweto revolt sends them in droves, shot and otherwise wounded, to the hospital.

No one can defect.
I don’t know the ideology:
It’s about suffering.
How to end suffering.

And it ends in suffering. Yes, it’s strange to live in a country where there are still heroes. Like anyone else, I do what I can. I am teaching them to walk again, at Baragwanath Hospital. They put one foot before the other.

(Burger’s Daughter, p. 332)

On and after October 19, 1977, a number of people are detained, arrested, or banned in South Africa, including Rosa, who “was taken away by three policemen … waiting at her flat when she returned from work on an afternoon in November” (Burger’s Daughter, p. 353). In prison she encounters some women she knows, including the beautiful, black Marisa, who sings hymns that “the other black women took up and harmonized” (Burger’s Daughter, p. 355). Because she has a spinal ailment, Marisa is allowed to visit Rosa’s cell twice a week for therapy, and during these visits “laughter escaped through the thick diamond-mesh and bars of Rosa’s cell” (Burger’s Daughter, p. 355). One day Katya receives a letter from Rosa that includes a reference to a water-mark of light entering her cell every sundown—something Lionel Burger had once mentioned about his cell. On this note the novel ends.


In jail the novel’s Marisa sings ANC freedom songs and a hymn by Miriam Makeba—a popular, exiled black singer of South Africa (Burger’s Daughter, p. 355). Freedom songs were an important part of African resistance in the 1950s and thereafter. The songs included defiant lyrics such as those below, taken from protest tunes of the times:

  • “We Africans! We cry for our land and they took it. Europeans must let our country go”
  • “Jan van Riebeek has stolen our freedom” (referring to the Dutch founder of the first white community in South Africa)
  • “Hey Malan! Open the jail doors. We want to enter. We volunteer....”

(Anderson in Byerly, p. 223)

Black consciousness and white revolutionaries

In Burger’s Daughter Rosa Burger witnesses a shift in relations between blacks and white revolutionaries fighting for a new South Africa. Whereas Lionel Burger had been able to work closely with the black revolutionaries of the ANC, by the time Rosa reaches adulthood, Black Consciousness has become a powerful political movement. The Black Consciousness Movement (BCM) and the man who became known as its father, Stephen Biko, viewed whites—and particularly white liberals—as irrelevant in the South African national liberation struggle. The presence of whites in almost every black political organization was interpreted by the BCM’s leaders as supreme arrogance, an implication by whites that blacks could work only with white leadership and guidance. Biko argued that blacks, accustomed to oppression and feelings of inferiority, could acquire strength only by distancing themselves from whites and by building black consciousness. In Burger’s Daughter these ideas influence Duma Dhladhla and Zwelinzima Vulindlela, both of whom suggest that there is no place for Rosa in their revolution.

The question of the white role in the South African struggle vexes the novel’s Rosa Burger; it also affects Nadine Gordimer, a white woman and writer living in South Africa. Discussing the complex relationship between races in South Africa before apartheid ended, Gordimer explains:

There are vast areas of actual experience—rubbing shoulders with blacks, having all kinds of relationships with blacks.... It’s not as simple as it sounds … all kinds of conflicts, of a very special nature.... arise between black and white.... I do believe that when we have got beyond the apartheid situation—there’s a tremendous problem for whites, unless whites are allowed in by blacks, and unless we can make out a case for our being accepted and we can forge a common culture together, whites are going to be marginal, because we will be outside the central entities of life here....

(Gordimer in Bazin and Seymour, pp. 168-69)


As an Afrikaner, Bram Fischer was fairly rare among South Africa’s white revolutionaries. Fischer was born in 1908 in the Orange Free State, where his grandfather had been prime minister and his father president of the Orange Free State Supreme Court. In fact Fischer’s grandfather had been responsible for the enactment of the 1913 Natives Land Act, one of the first laws to ensure the dispossession of blacks in South Africa. By aligning himself with the black cause, Bram Fischer rejected his heritage even more forcefully than other white revolutionaries—all of whom, given apartheid’s rules, at some level had to abandon (and be abandoned by) their own people for the sake of a nonracial social ideal. In the 1940s Fischer helped the ANC draft a new constitution and also served on the CPSA’s Executive Committee; he became an advocate for political prisoners too, whom he defended in South African courts. For his various political activities Fischer was arrested in 1964, but he fled during his trial in order “not to remain a spectator, but to act” (Fischer in Lazerson, p. 101). Captured in 1966, Fischer was sentenced to life in prison. He was diagnosed with cancer in 1974 and died shortly after being released to go live with his brother.

In 1982 Gordimer published an article, “Living in the Interregnum,” in which she identifies herself with that part of the white South African population struggling to understand how they might offer themselves to a new South Africa. She discerns that “blacks must learn to lead and whites to follow, blacks to talk and whites to listen” (Daymond, p. 170). Gordimer offers a more optimistic view of the role of white South Africans in the nation’s political struggles, and records “a black friend’s encouraging comment, ‘whites must learn to struggle.’ To her it conveys a faint hope that whites will be able to look for some effective way, in the living of their own personal lives, to join the struggle for liberation from racism’” (Daymond, p. 170).

Sources and literary context

In the first chapter of her collection of essays, Writing and Being, Gordimer describes the moment in which the inspiration for Burger’s Daughter came to her:

I was waiting outside a prison to visit a friend detained for political interrogation, and there was the schoolgirl daughter of [an anti-apartheid activist friend of mine], presented to me, as it were, in the group of prison visitors….

What was she thinking?

What was her sense of a family obligation that chose for her to stand there among the relatives of thieves and murderers?

She was in a gym frock and blazer of a conventional private school for young ladies; how did her genteel bourgeois teachers and classmates receive a girl whose father was in prison for treason against the State that protected their white privilege?

(Gordimer, Writing and Being, p. 8)

Gordimer had long been interested in the lives of white South African revolutionaries—writing, for instance, about Bram Fischer, the Afrikaner revolutionary on whom Lionel Burger is based. Burger’s Daughter is Gordimer’s first piece of fiction to center upon such a figure, prompting one critic to ask: “What has made it possible for Gordimer to finally write Burger’s Daughter?” (Daymond, p. 60). M. J. Daymond argues that Gordimer, like Rosa, was able to begin this process of self-questioning only after the age of Lionel Burger had ended—when the confidence of white revolutionaries had shifted to self-consciousness, and when the vigilance of the Black Consciousness Movement signaled that whites might no longer have a secure place within a future South Africa.


Initially banned in South Africa, Burger’s Daughter consequently gained a wide and receptive international audience. Those protesting the ban included Heinrich Böll (The Lost Honor of Katharina Blum), Paul Theroux (The Great Railway Bazaar), and John Fowles (The French Lieutenant’s Woman), as well as the Association of American Publishers, the Freedom to Write Committee, and the PEN American Center. In response to this outcry, South Africa’s Publications Control Board appointed a special literary committee to report on the novel. The committee judged the book to be biased and even called its literary integrity into question.

Critics elsewhere in the world had a different opinion. In the New York Times Book Review Anthony Sampson called Burger’s Daughter Gordimer’s “most moving novel, going to the heart of the racial conflict in South Africa” (Sampson, p. 1). A. J. Mojtabai complimented Gordimer on the novel’s universality:

Miss Gordimer … living in the thick of real trouble, is subdued, sober, very sober, indeed. She scarcely raises her voice, yet her voice reverberates over a full range of emotion. Her precision is very fine, her discriminations are reflective and subtle, her mind marvelously awake. She remains stubbornly in place, linked to the earth and to recognizable inhabitants and institutions of the earth. She is not a regionalist—or, if she is, her region includes ours, wherever we may be.

(Mojtabai, p. 7)

According to Nadine Gordimer herself, the strongest praise came from the actual schoolgirl who, standing among a group of prison visitors, initially inspired the character of Rosa Burger. Before the novel’s publication, Gordimer sent a copy of the manuscript, along with a long letter, to the now-adult schoolgirl. The woman did not respond for several weeks. One afternoon she came, unannounced, to Gordimer’s house, carrying the manuscript.

She said, “This was our life.”
And nothing more.

I knew this was the best response I should ever have to that novel. Perhaps the best I should ever have in respect of any of my fictions….

For she was not speaking of verisimilitude …. ; she was conceding that while no one can have total access to the lives of others …. the novelist may receive, from the ethos those lives give off, a vapour of the truth condensed, in which, a finger tracing upon a window-pane, the story may be written.

(Gordimer, Writing and Being, p. 12)

—Carolyn Turgeon

For More Information

Bazin, Nancy Topping, and Marilyn Dallman Seymour, eds. Conversations with Nadine Gordimer. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1990.

Byerly, Ingrid Bianca. The Music Idaba: Music as Mirror, Mediator, and Prophet in the South African Transition from Apartheid to Democracy. Ph.D. diss., Duke University, 1996.

Cawthra, Gavin. Policing South Africa: The SAP and the Transition from Apartheid. London: Zed Books, 1993.

Daymond, M. J. “Burger’s Daughter: A Novel’s Reliance on History.” In Momentum: On Recent South African Writing. Ed. M. J. Daymond, J. U. Jacobs, and Margaret Lenta. Pietermaritzburg, South Africa: University of Natal Press, 1984.

Gordimer, Nadine. Burger’s Daughter .London: Jonathan Cape, 1979.

_____. Writing and Being. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995.

Harsch, Ernest. South Africa: White Rule, Black Revolt. New York: Monad Press, 1980.

Lazerson, Joshua L. Against the Tide: Whites in the Struggle Against Apartheid. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 1994.

Le May, G. H. L. The Afrikaners: An Historical Interpretation. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell, 1995.

Malinowski, Sharon, ed. “Nadine Gordimer.” In Contemporary Authors New Revision Series. Vol.28. Detroit: Gale Research, 1990.

Meredith, Martin. In the Name of Apartheid: South Africa in the Postwar Period. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.

Mojtabai, A. G. “Her Region is Ours.” New York Times Book Review, 24 August 1980, p. 7.

Sampson, Anthony. “Heroism in South Africa.” New York Times Book Review, 19 August 1979, p. 1.

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