The Dynamics of Power
A Review of J.M. Coetzee’s Disgrace
by Kate Wilson
Click on the footnotes to read them 


As I write, South Africa’s international reputation has hit a new low. After the grim farce of the Pistorius trial, comes the brutal manhandling by police of a young black taxi-driver in Johannesburg, who later died of his injuries. This is in addition to the massacre by police of more than thirty striking mine workers in Marikana which gained world attention back in August 2012.1 

Things must seem unfixable to those who have to live with such endemic violence and corruption. Post-apartheid, the same urgent questions remain: how to stop the nearly fifty homicides2 a day, how to make the law function so that it protects and supports citizens in their daily lives - the police are not going to save you, not any more, you can be sure (Disgrace p.100), how to find a unifying national principle which will help transcend racial barriers. President Mandela’s hope of “a rainbow nation at peace with itself” seems a far-off goal without some miracle of self-governance and social integration. 
 
J.M. Coetzee (b.1940; Nobel Prize 2003) published Disgrace in 1999 against
a troubled social and political background which has not changed much over the decade or so since the book first came on to the scene. Writing from the triangulated perspective of three lives,  those of David Lurie, a white Capetown professor, Lucy his daughter, a true countrywoman boervrau, and Petrus, the black patriarch, cunning peasant, Coetzee maps the new loci of power in modern South Africa, logging the quiet but relentless shift from white dominance to black inheritance – a process which Lurie himself is painfully aware of, but cannot name – the real truth, he suspects, is something (…) - he casts around for the word – anthropological (..)’(p.118). The book starts off as a campus novel focusing on Professor’s Lurie’s difficult character and professional troubles – he loses his job because of lewd behaviour – and moves on to another kind of dispossession in the second part, the so-called ‘anti-pastoral’, where Lurie goes to visit his daughter on her homestead in the Eastern Cape in the hope of recovering from his wounds. He soon finds there is no rural idyll to soothe him -‘poor land, poor soil, good only for goats’ (p.64)- rather he discovers that Lucy is unwittingly being drawn into a renewed struggle over land entitlement which had long been fought over and won3, but which is now open to reinterpretation – ‘Petrus had a vision of the future  in which people like Lucy have no place’  (p.118). The end-game of Petrus’ building projects on his own land adjoining Lucy’s small-holding, is, Coetzee makes abundantly clear, white dispossession. Petrus’ new farmhouse looms over Lucy’s small one. Decolonization has begun, a new land invasion in the old style, an unwanted landgrab by strangers bringing the new-fangled equipment of a stronger tribe: ‘from the back of the lorry the two men unload cartons, creosoted poles, sheets of galvanized iron, a roll of plastic piping (…)- the lorry makes a wide sweep around the stable and thunders back down the driveway’ (p.113). The reversal of history is unbearable to Lurie’s white racial pride:  ‘This is not what he (Lurie) came for. Here he is losing himself day by day’ (p.121).4  


Picture credits: J.M. Coetzee in 2006 (Wikipedia)
                    Farm workers near Francistown. (Colonial Office photographic collection held at the National Archives. From Wikimedia Commons.)
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"Coetzee captures with appalling skill the white dilemma in South Africa" 
Justin Cartwright
Daily Telegraph