Letters to Ranga

While in South Africa, Bourke-White’s professionalism allowed her to keep her feelings to herself.

Clearly horrified by the racism of the country’s whites, by apartheid, and by the treatment of the African majority, she chose not to offend her white hosts by letting them know what she thought.

As she flew out of Johannesburg to Lisbon and then on to the Azores, however, she poured her bottled up frustration and rage into two lengthy letters written to her Indian friend, N.G. Ranga. An anti-colonial activist, a close associate of Gandhi’s, and an advocate of the rights of landless peasants in India, Ranga had once warned Bourke-White “as to the damage that the well-intentioned ineffective `liberal’ can do….Their seeming liberalism did much more harm than good—a real peril because by creating a cloak of decency that made things look alright which were really rotten to the core.”

Toward the end of my stay it was hard for me to be even polite to people any more. In the beginning, I had to be, for it was a very hard and diplomatic job I had to do, and I did it all—all the officials, the government, and the rest of it.  And very hard to get because they know they are greatly criticized by the outside world, especially in America.

In these letters, a few pages of which are reproduced here from the Bourke-White papers at the Syracuse University Special Research Collections, Bourke-White offered a trenchant analysis of what she had seen in South Africa, from the migrant labor system, to the mining compounds, to the prison farms, to the beer raids.

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