"To know and not to act is not to know."  - Wang Yang-ming.



Nadine Gordimer's novel, Burger's Daughter, begins and ends before a prison door. In the beginning, it is the daughter, Rosa, age 14, who waits outside the prison to visit her mother, recently interned. At the end, it is one of her comrades who waits to visit her. Between these visits, Rosa's father is tried for treason and condemned to life imprisonment, her ailing mother dies, and her father follows her to the grave. Rosa has grown up in a family of communist militants in the struggle against South African Apartheid. Both her parents were leaders of that struggle: her father, a member of the Central Committee of the South African Communist Party; her mother, a trade union official.  On that first visit Rosa is described by one of the others waiting to see prisoners:


"'...The child was dry-eyed and composed, in fact she was an example to us all...Already she had taken on her mother's role, giving loving support to her father, who was to be taken in the early hours of the morning...he knew that his schoolgirl daughter could be counted on in this family totally united in and dedicated to the struggle (p. 12)."'


The novel is about being the daughter of a great man, sharing proudly in his legacy. But, above all, it concerns whether or not she will commit herself to her parents’ lifestyle. It is, after all, the chief question in all our lives: What is to be done? She remembers the two-hundred-and-seventeen days of her father's treason trial:


"...when as a medical student tormented not by the suffering I saw around me in hospitals, but by the subjection and humiliation of human beings in daily life I had seen around me...I found at last a solution to the terrifying contradiction...the contradiction that my people- the Afrikaner people...worship the God of Justice and practice discrimination on grounds of the colour of skin; profess the compassion of the Son of Man, and deny the humanity of the black people they live among. This contradiction that split the very foundations of my life...in Marxism I found it was analyzed...white Marxists worked side by side with blacks in an equality that meant taking on the meanest of tasks- tasks that incurred loss of income and social prestige and the risk of arrest and imprisonment...Here was a possible solution...My covenant is with the victims of apartheid...there will always be those who cannot live with themselves at the expense of fullness of live for others...this court has found me guilty...! would be guilty only if I were innocent of working to destroy racism in my country (p. 24-28)..."


But there is another theme that runs throughout our story and which we will turn to in the final part of this essay. It is the theory of revolution as an inevitable series of stages employed by organizations like the South African Communist Party and the African National Congress: the legacy of Stalinism. She is reminded of this critique by her lover, Conrad (to whom much of the novel's interior monologue is addressed):


"...There were the Moscow trials and there was Stalin- before you and I were even born- there was the East Berlin uprising and there was Czechoslovakia, there're the prisons and asylums filled with people there like your father (p. 41, 42)..."



Although this critique will re-emerge from time to time throughout the novel, it is only today that we can judge it conclusively (and will present our indictment at the end of this essay). But let us proceed with Rosa's story.


After her parents' death their house is sold, and Rosa loses touch with her parents' political circle. She becomes a physiotherapist at a hospital, moves into her own flat, and takes a lover, Conrad. It is with him in mind that her interior monologue concerning political commitment is conducted throughout the novel. They talk about what it was like to be a "red-diaper baby":


"...being brought up in a house like your father's is growing up in a devout family. Perhaps nobody preached Marx and Lenin...They just lay around  the house...the  family bible. It was all taken in with your breakfast cornflakes. But the people who came to your house weren't there for tea-parties...They came together to make a revolution...What did you celebrate in your house? The occasions were when somebody got off, not guilty, in a political trial. A bunch of blacks made a success of a boycott or defied a law. There was a mass protest or a march, a strike...Those were your nuptials and feasts (p. 50, 51)..."


Later, she breaks up with Conrad and leaves her job as physiotherapist:


"•••  I   was living alone for the first time in my life: without a stake of responsibility in that of anyone else. For us- coming from that house - that was the real definition of loneliness: to live without social responsibility (p. 77)..."


She is approached by those wanting to write about her father, which enables us to hear his story and that of the South African Communist Party. Lionel Burger was born to a wealthy  family in the Northern Transvaal and attended school in Pretoria  and Johannesburg. He began his medical studies at Cape Town and completed them at Edinburgh University in the late 1920s. He had first married an aspiring dancer and had a son, who  also became a doctor; then he divorced, and married Rosa's mother, the general secretary of a trade union.  Already immersed in the struggle, his best men were trade union leaders, who were arrested in a raid shortly after his marriage. The South African Communist Party was committed to organizing the trade unions. Since its inception and affiliation with the Third International in 1921, Lenin's thesis on the national and colonial question had been central to its activity.  The national liberation of South Africa was conceived of, according to Stalinist theory, as the first, bourgeois­ democratic stage of a two-stage revolution, whose second stage would lead to socialism. By the 1950s, the ideological differences between the main anti-apartheid organizations- the African National Congress, the Indian Congress and the Communist Party- were eliminated and culminated in the Congress Alliance of the early 1960s. This would be the theory with which apartheid was fought.


As the years pass since the ordeal of her father's trial, imprisonment and the deaths of her parents, Rosa feels a need to distance herself from their political comrades and the struggle:


"...her father's closest associates...left her to come to them. Those that there were: who were not in prison or gone into exile. Many were under restrictions which forbade their meeting one another, including her (p. 95)..."



Her interior monologue (with a now absent Conrad) re-emerges:


"...1 have to believe that when the Russians moved into Prague my father and mother...were still promising the blacks liberation through Communism...Stalin trials, Hungarian uprising, Czechoslovakian uprising...ln 1956 when the Soviet tanks came into Budapest I was still his little girl (p. 115)..."


She is sought out by a daughter of her parents' comrades to aid the movement through the use of the photocopying facilities at her workplace. Being brought face to face with a contemporary who has committed herself to the struggle, Rosa studies her, wondering:


"Why do you go on with it?...You'll print your news-sheet or you'll send out your leaflet...A  few pieces of paper, a few months, and you'll  be caught. You'll be traced easily or someone you've trusted will get twenty rand and sell you...You'll disappear into detention..And you'll go inside. Like them (p. 124,



Her friend tries to explain to her what she realizes Rosa knows all too well. But Rosa replies that their dilemma is no different from other conflicts between generations:


"What conformists: the children of our parents. Dick and Ivy conformists!...

Not them- us. Other people break away. They live completely different lives...Not us. We live as they

lived...were  you given a choice?...


What choice? Rosa? In this country, under this system, looking at the way blacks live- what has choice to do with parents? What else could you chose? (p. 127)..."


Rosa imagines what the biographies of her father will one day say about the ordeals of being a communist militant during the decades-long fight against apartheid:


"There is nothing but failure, until the day of the Future is achieved...specific campaigns...would lead to piecemeal reforms...These actions fail one after another...ln this experience of being crushed on individual issues the masses come, as they can in no other way, to understand that there is no other way: state power must be overthrown (p. 124, 25) ..."


One day she goes into town shopping and runs into Marisa Kgosana, a black South African friend and comrade of her parents who has just returned from visiting her husband, imprisoned along with Nelson Mandella on Robbin Island. She is invited to a party in one of the Black townships. On her way there, Rosa remembers visiting the black townships as a child with her mother:


"How many months since I had crossed the divide that opens every time a black leaves a white and goes to his 'place'; the physical divide of clean streets becomes rutted roads and city centres become veld dumped with twisted metal and a perpetual autumn of blowing paper- a vast vacant lot...the hovels with tin lean-tos sheltering huge old American cars blowsy with gadgets; the fancy suburban burglar bars on mean windows of tiny cabins; the roaming babies, wolverine dogs...vagabond chickens and drunks weaving...No electricity in the houses, a telephone an almost impossible luxury: is this a suburb or a strange kind of junk yard (p. 149, 50)?..."


Arriving at the party, she enters one of the more affluent homes of the poor black township:


"The little house into which we were crowded, family, relatives, friends and furniture...The diningroom

'suite', the  plastic pouffes, hi-fi equipment, flowered carpet, bar counter, and stools covered in teddybear fur were the units of taste established by any furniture  superama in the white city. The crowding of one tiny habitation...the pot-holed, unmade street outside the window...Around me was talk about the selection of black athletes to go abroad with white teams (p. 150)..."


The conversation about blacks in sports inevitably develops into a broader one about apartheid.  Among the participants are members of different generations, races, with both liberal and leftwing politics. This prescient scene is central to the novel, and contains the ideas that will one day shape the future of

South Africa. One of the speakers argues that blacks can depend only on themselves; that whites, however well-intentioned, will always have their own agenda. Another counters this with the example of Lionel Burger, a white who spent his life and died in prison for the struggle. Still another stresses the combination of class and race as fundamental to victory; that it is in black's capacity to withhold their labor as a class that their power lies to defeat apartheid. Then the main issue emerges:


"White liberalism will sacrifice the long odds on attaining social justice and settle for letting blacks into the exploiting class. The 'enlightened' government crowd will sacrifice the long odds on maintaining complete white supremacy and settle for propping up a black middle class whose class interests run counter to a black revolution...


We don't deny the problem. We just know that it cannot exist once we rouse the people to consciousness.


But it does exist...a possible future black exploiting class...the Americans would certainly take the heat off at U.N. and in Congress if white South Africa were to opt for survival by taking in that black sector...could a capitalist society which throws overboard the race factor entirely still evolve here?...


All people want is the same chance as whites!...


They're asking for what they could never get, because 90 per cent are peasants and labourers who haven't a chance of joining any privileged sector...


You've got the nucleus of a black bourgeoisie ready and willing to be co-opted to the white ruling class... Race exploitation with the collaboration of blacks themselves  (p. 156-159)..."


The conversation continues, taking up the issue of violence, the role of the black police and the contrasting politics of the organizations fighting apartheid. The heart of the matter is reached at the end:



"...reform is not the object...racialism is entrenched in capitalism...it's just as impossible to conceive of workers' power in South Africa separated from national liberation, as it is to conceive of national liberation separated from the destruction of capitalism...A national- democratic revolution- bringing to power- a revolutionary democratic alliance- dominated by- the proletariat and peasantry.- Except

the bit about the dictatorship of the proletariat's  been abandoned (p. 164)..."


It is this conception of the stages of revolution- a national-democratic followed by a socialist one- that constitutes the Stalinist theory underlying the organizations fighting apartheid. The abandonment of the

'dictatorship of the proletariat' is another fundamental idea of the politics of Marx and Lenin denied by them. Each is a way of putting off the object of overthrowing capitalism and building a workers' state. One puts it off to the next stage; the other undermines the program of the leading class driving the revolution. In this scene, the author foresaw how the social forces of the present already contained the seeds of future betrayal. We shall return to this theme at the conclusion of our discussion.


Next, Rosa acquires a passport for the purpose of spending a year in Europe. She feels the need to distance herself from the past to decide her own future. Rosa looks back at those at home:


"...I don't know what they said: the faithful. They would surely never have believed it of me...l think about what they must be thinking...listen to me- Conrad, whatever I may have said to you about them, however they may have seemed to me since I have been free of them, they are the ones who matter (p.



She travels to Nice, in the south of France, where she stays with her father's first wife. Accustomed to being under the constant surveillance of the police, she now experiences an entirely different way of life:


"People with nothing to hide from, no one to elude, careless of privacy, in their abundance: letting be (p.



From Nice she moves to Paris. Once again, a 'normal' way of life lies before her:


"...they are not afraid of being found out, the nature of their motives is shared and discussed; because the premise is accepted by everybody: live where it's warm, buy, sell or take pleasure honestly                        that is, according to your circumstances. They recognize their only imperatives as dependence on a tight­ knotted net of friendship (p. 241)..."


She can't help but compare the old way of life with the new:


"...nobody expects you to be more than you are -I mean, there: if you're not equal to facing everything, there...you're a traitor. To the human cause- justice, humanity, the lot- there's nothing else (p. 250)..."


She falls in love with a professor, and moves from Paris to London, where she encounters a ghost from her past at a party of African revolutionaries. He is a young black her father had adopted and with whom she had grown up. His own father had hanged himself while in prison. After the party, she is awakened by the telephone in the middle of the night. She has an angry conversation with her drunken friend that somehow jolts her out of the present:


"I cannot explain to anyone why that telephone call in the middle of the night made everything that was possible, impossible (p. 328)..."


Rosa returns to South Africa, where she takes up an appointment in the physiotherapy department of a black hospital. She resumes her work in the struggle. In her inner monologue, she sums up her politics:


"It's about suffering. How to end suffering.

And it ends in suffering...Like anyone else, I do what I can (p. 332)..."


The novel ends in 1976, when the youths of the black township of Soweto boycott their schools to protest against inferior education. The police answer stones  thrown by students with machine-guns fired into crowds. At each of the funerals of the youngsters killed, the mourners themselves are fired upon and killed by the police. Rosa experiences the uprising first-hand at her hospital:


"...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'...The white doctors and other personnel among the hospital staff drove back and forth between the hospital and the white city of Johannesburg every day...at the risk of being surrounded and dragged from their cars as they moved along the road...no one of the white hospital staff could go into the places from which their patients came. Extracting bullets from the matrix of flesh, picking out slivers of shattered bone, sewing,  succouring, dripping back into arteries the vital fluids that flowed away in the streets...these white people could not imagine what it was like to be living as their patients did {p. 342, 43)..."


After over a year of the Soweto uprising, many were killed, wounded and arrested, among them Rosa and her friend, Marisa Kgosana. In a South African prison that segregated white from Coloured, Indian and African women, the women defy their jailers with secret messages, gifts and the inspired songs of Marisa Kgosana. The solidarity of the women inmates is inspiring to us all. While In her prison cell, Rosa ponders the events of the past year in Soweto:


"...Who could believe children could revolt of their own volition?...Sailors gag on stinking meat, children refuse to go to school. No one knows where the end of suffering will begin {p. 356)."


In "South Africa Today: Apartheid by Another Name", John Pilger, award-winning journalist and film­

maker (who was himself banned for thirty years from South Africa) revisits the end of apartheid:


"...On 11February, 1990, Nelson Mandela stepped out on the balcony of Cape Town City Hall...Free at last, he spoke to millions in South Africa and around the world...Moral power...could triumph over anything...it seemed. "Now is the time to intensify the struggle," said Mandela in a proud and angry speech...The next day he appeared  to correct  himself. Majority rule would not make blacks "dominant". The retreat quickened. There would be no public ownership of the mines/ banks and rapacious monopoly industries, no economic democracy/ as he had pledged with the words: "a change or modification of our views in this regard is inconceivable". Reassuring the white establishment and its foreign business allies...became the political agenda of the new South Africa...”


Next, the author provides  the historical background  to this speech:


“Secret deals facilitated this. In 1985, apartheid had suffered two disasters: the Johannesburg stock market crashed and the regime defaulted on its mounting foreign debt. In September that year, a group led by Gavin Reily, chairman of the Anglo-American Corporation, met Oliver Tambo, the ANC

president...a  "transition" from apartheid to a black-governed electoral democracy  was possible only if "order" and "stability” were guaranteed. These were liberal code for a capitalist state in which social and economic democracy would never be a priority. The aim was to split the ANC...The most important item...was who would control the economic system behind the facade of "democracy"...Most of the victims were denied justice and restitution for the epic crime of apartheid. Almost all of the... extremists...escaped justice..."


A rich black class was promoted, offered generous loans, and allowed to set up companies  which led to a handful of millionaires and corruption. Shortly before his death, when interviewed by Pilger, Mandela said:


"You can put any label on it you like...You can call it Thatcherite, but for this country, privatization is the fundamental policy.


That's the opposite of what you said before the first elections, in 1994.” I said.


“There is a process.” was his uncertain reply, “and every process incorporates change.” From Mandela/s words and the policies of the ANC,  Pilger concludes:


"So economic apartheid has replaced legal apartheid with the same consequences for the same people; yet it is greeted as one of the greatest achievements in world history...Liberation movements can point to real and enduring achievements since 1994. But the most basic freedom, to survive and to survive decently, has been withheld from the majority of South Africans...the ANC...could have actually transformed the lives of millions. Land could have been purchased and reclaimed for small-scale farming...Millions of houses could have been built, better health and education would have been possible. A small-scale credit system could have opened the way for affordable goods and services...A pipe dream?..."


But the betrayal of poor and working-class black South Africa by its leaders was foreseeable. Trotsky's

'theory of permanent revolution’- formulated over a half-century earlier- contained all that was necessary to predict  the outcome. According to that theory “…during the era of imperialism each nation finds itself at a different stage of economic  development. This 'combined and uneven development' determines the strategy of the working-class movement in its relationship with other classes. Before


Trotsky, it was believed that each nation must pass through an inevitable series of stages (e.g. that feudal Russia must first pass through a capitalist stage of development before it could proceed to socialism). The class that provided leadership would vary according each stage. But unlike earlier centuries, when the capitalist classes of Britain and France led bourgeois revolutions, in Russia the bourgeoisie feared the lower classes even more than it did Czarism. Only the small and youthful working class could be trusted to lead the fight. But if the working class was to lead, why should it limit itself to the tasks necessary to achieve capitalism? Why should it not proceed on to socialist tasks, as well? It is appropriate to recall the conversation at the party Rosa attended at the home of her friends in the poor black township:


"...reform is not the object...racialism is entrenched in capitalism...it's just as impossible to conceive of workers' power in South Africa separated from national liberation, as it is to conceive of national liberation separated from the destruction of capitalism...A national- democratic revolution- bringing to power- a revolutionary democratic alliance- dominated by- the proletariat and peasantry.- Except the bit about the dictatorship of the proletariat's  been abandoned (p. 164)..."


The quotation contains the fundamental contradiction exposed by Trotsky's theory of 'permanent revolution': on the one hand, it truthfully maintains that the end of racial discrimination is impossible without the destruction of capitalism; but, on the other, it falsely adds that the destruction of capitalism is possible without the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' (i.e. leadership by the working class, not an alliance of classes). That even a sector of the capitalist class of South Africa shared an interest in national liberation with other classes (i.e. independent economic development in opposition to imperialism), does not mean that it shared their interests in the democratic control of society. According to Trotsky's theory, to deny the 'dictatorship of the proletariat' (i.e. leadership of the working class), is to accept the dictatorship of the capitalist class. The historical record demonstrates that the middle-class or peasantry has never led the struggle against capitalism; it inevitably follows either the capitalist or working class.


To make the revolution 'permanent', the working class needs to organize independently of other classes; and it needs a party of the working class, a leninist party, to do so. This, the theory of                                        both Trotsky and Lenin, is indispensable for the abolition of capitalism. Let John Pilger have the last word on the subject:


“The violent inequality that now stalks South Africa is no dream. It was Mandela, after all, who said, "If the ANC does not deliver the goods, the people must do what they have done to the apartheid regime."



© 2015 By Mark Dickman