Gordimer says Rosa's role in society is imprinted on her from a young age by her activist parents, and she grows up in the shadow of her father's political legacy. Scholar Carol P. Marsh-Lockett writes that everyone sees Rosa as Lionel Burger's daughter with duties and responsibilities to her father, and not Rosa the individual. In fulfilling these expectations, she denies herself an identity of her own. JanMohamed says it is only when Conrad encourages her to look beyond her self-sacrifices that Rosa starts examining the conflicts in her life, namely her commitment to help others versus her desire for a private life. In an attempt to resolve these conflicts, Rosa contemplates turning to blacks, but she is wary of this because, according to the book's anonymous narrator, white South Africans tend to use blacks as a way "of perceiving sensual redemption, as romantics do, or of perceiving fears, as racialists do". JanMohamed notes that Rosa's father was a romantic who established genuine friendships with blacks to overcome his "sensual redemption", but she is unsure of where she stands. Visel says that Rosa's only way to free herself from these commitments to her family and the revolution is to "defect" and go to France. John Cooke, in his essay "Leaving the Mother's House", notes that "By putting her defection in such stark terms, Gordimer makes her strongest statement of the need, whatever the consequence, of a child to claim a life of her own".
Many of Gordimer's works have explored the impact of apartheid on individuals in South Africa. Journalist and novelist George Packer writes that, as in several of her novels, a theme in Burger's Daughter is of racially divided societies in which well-meaning whites unexpectedly encounter a side of black life they did not know about. Literary critic Carolyn Turgeon says that while Lionel was able to work with black activists in the ANC, Rosa discovers that with the rise of the Black Consciousness Movement, many young blacks tend to view white liberals as irrelevant in their struggle for liberation. Rosa witnesses this first hand listening to the black university student in Soweto (Duma Dhladhla) and, later, in London, her childhood friend "Baasie" (Zwelinzima Vulindlela), who both dismiss her father as unimportant.
Author and academic Louise Yelin says that Gordimer's novels often feature white South Africans opposed to apartheid and racism who try to find their place in a multiracial society. Gordimer suggested options for whites in a 1959 essay "Where Do Whites Fit In?", but the rise of Black Consciousness in the 1970s questioned whites' involvement in the liberation struggle. Stephen Clingman has suggested in The Novels of Nadine Gordimer: History from the Inside that Burger's Daughter is Gordimer's response to the Black Consciousness Movement and an investigation into a "role for whites in the context of Soweto and after".
Gordimer wrote in an essay in What Happened to Burger's Daughter that "The theme of my novel is human conflict between the desire to live a personal, private life, and the rival claim of social responsibility to one's fellow men". Dominic Head says that Gordimer's novels often experiment with the relation of "public and private realms", and that Burger's Daughter "represents one of the peaks in this experimentation". Boyers notes that the theme of "public and private", and the relation between them, is balanced in the book "so as to privilege neither one not the other".
According to Packer, another common theme in Gordimer's novels is the choices ordinary people who live in oppressive regimes are forced to make. Literary critics Turgeon and Carli Coetzee explain that when she realises that whites are not always welcome in the anti-apartheid liberation movements, Rosa repudiates her father's struggle and leaves the country. Marsh-Lockett says that part of Rosa's struggle is forging her own identity, and this decision to rebel against her dead father is a bold step, although she does return later to South Africa to become a committed activist and ultimately a political prisoner. But, according to Coetzee, what Rosa achieves is what her father never could: to have a life of her own while still remaining politically committed.