A few weeks ago a group of church leaders from the Congo visited our congregation. They could speak only French, so we had to work through an interpreted. Over lunch I shared the table with about 8 of them and the interpreted, and we started asking each other questions concerning church and theology. At one point one of the Congolese pastors said that he noted that our church was only white, and wanted to know how that was. I started my answer with the first phrase: “I am sorry, we are wrong”. I stopped so that the interpreted could translate, and would then have gone on to explain some of the complexities I experienced around race in South Africa, and why I think our church, as a white church, is still struggling to live that which I firmly believe is part of the heart of the gospel.

The interpreter had a doctorate in theology, although he has left the field of theology for business. He was also from the Congo, but has been in South Africa for about 20 years or so now. He refused to translate my answer. He reprimanded me, saying that I should say that I’m sorry, and went on to explain, and from what I could hear, justify the white congregation which I pastor. I felt betrayed. I didn’t want him to tell me  not to say sorry. I don’t experience deep feelings of guilt over pastoring a white congregation, but I need the space to acknowledge that this is not the will of God, and the space to honestly struggle with working through our past, and creating  a new world through this congregation (really a long term task I know, but one that we need to be busy with).

Then yesterday I read Eusebius McKaiser’s article on Antjie Krog and Rian Malan. He talks about an “embarrassing Krog-like yearning to be black”, critiquing Krog’s use of “begging”. Although he appreciates Krog’s acknowledgement of the continued privilege of being white, in contrast to Krog’s attempt to rather make blackness a stronger part of her identity, he seem to prefer the strong sense of “unqualified entitlement to speak” found in the likes of Malan. I realized today that I had a similar experience from McKaizer that I had with the interpreted. They both would seem to be very forgiving of our past, and both call for strong white perspectives to be raised withour the “sorry” and the serious quest to become part of an inter-racial community where we not only participate in the public of our democracy, but also in the private world of inter-racial relationships, and developing a culture more in sync with Africa. I know many white people crave this kind of legitimizing of being white from a black voice, and I also know that it could be seen as taking the moral high ground in racial relations, but still it doesn’t seem to be helping me along on my own quest.

What does however help me is black colleagues opening their hearts and homes to me in a space where I can be honest and be friends. Where I can talk about my perceptions about black people (and I experience them to also appreciate that they can talk about how they experience white people), where I can honestly say that I’m sorry, and these words can lie on the table without me needing to feel guilty, but where they know that my honest struggle with my own past require that I need to verbalize the fact that I am sorry. This is the space where I can be white, and acknowledge being white, while at the same time seriously taking on Krog’s struggle to decenter some of the white constructions in myself, and one way of doing this is by learning from black constructions. The words of the interpreter, and that of McKaizer, feels like they are taking away my chance of deconstructing my own whiteness. And if they take away the opportunity to say sorry from me, and take away the change to decenter my whiteness, to become African, I feel like they are in a way telling me that I’m not allowed to work through the emotions and thoughts that I currently experience as a white man in Africa working to become a white African.

This reflection flows from the debate on Antjie Krog’s Begging to be Black, organized by the Centre for Public Theology at the University of Pretoria, in which Jurie le Roux, Klippies Kritzenger and Rodney Chaka participated. Tom Smith wrote a brilliant critical overview of the debate, which I’m not even going to try and repeat. However, I’ve been journeying with my own being Afrikaner since July last year, and would like to continue this journey with reference to the current conversation.

The responses at the above mentioned debate again made me realize how much more thorough I still need to think about my own being, my own Afrikanernes. The detailed and critical analyses of Krog’s book, pointing out some of her own indebtedness to being an Afrikaner, as well as some naiveties in her approach forced me to think about by own almost naively positive reaction to Krog’s work.

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 yes, Krog help me with this. I have called Jurie le Roux “one of the unsung heroes of my life” in the past, and I’ll stick to this, althouh I have realized years ago that we differ when it comes to how we understand our own being part of Africa. As a brilliant philosopher and exegete, he was able to point our some of the problems in Krog’s approach. Using French philosophers one could say he, and others, is able to “break” Krog’s work. But just because it’s broken, doesn’t mean it’s broken. Somehow Krog seem to fail the deconstructionists, whom I love – the little I understand about them, and then in my eyes get up and become helpful in spite of messy formulations, lack of philosophical depth, and lack of theological understanding.

And I think it’s something on a more emotional level that really get’s me into Krog’s work. The way in which she attempts to deny her own European heritage at some stages, but then have to admit her comfort in Germany, they way in which she are uncomfortable with her white Afrikaner tradition, but at times are forced by others to admit her own being advantaged by exactly this which she fights against, and the way in which she simply goes out there, and attempt to live relationally with a broader South Africa.

Through messy formulations and all, I find in Krog’s work something which missiologists called interculturation, an exchange of concepts, ideas. Krog might make it sound as if her attempt is simply to become more African, but in her person she really learn from different cultures, and in her story also give of what she is back to those black’s whom she so easily identify with Africa. Maybe I’ll not beg to be black, not even beg to be African, as if there are some ideal form of African out there which I should strive to become. But please let me be that different Afrikaner.

I want to be the interculturated Afrikaner, the Afrikaner that are actually able to listen to my fellow Africans, to allow them to deconstruct who I am, to deconstruct my own whiteness, to help me become more Afrikaner. No, I cannot deny that I also feel this connection with European and white thoughts, that is part of me. But I want to see that part of me through the eyes of my fellow South Africans. I don’t simply want to continue existence as an Afrikaner, but I want to understand my own being white and being Afrikaner, and understand it in relation to other around me, and through this become more of a white African.

Krog would call this something different. She’ll call this becoming black, maybe. She will sound different when she speak about this than I do. But I see in her work how she finds a reinterpretation of her own identity in relationships with black, colored, indian South Africans, South Africans of different languages and backgrounds. She struggles, she’s critical, and yes, in the end we’ll agree that she remain a white Afrikaner, but she’s more and more of a white Afrikaner that finds identity in relationship to others, and in spite of brilliant critique against her work, in spite of the fact that her work could be broken, it’s not broken for me, because on an emotional level, and in spite of critique also on an intellectual level, she helps me along this journey of becoming that white African, that Afrikaner that’s not the Afrikaner that we know.