South Africa in Literature. A Colonized or Decolonized Country?

Academic Paper, 2014

9 Pages, Grade: 1

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I. Introduction

II. Disgrace; the decolonizing narrative

III. English; Practical or Impractical medium

Works Cited:

South Africa: A Colonized or Decolonized Country

Hussein Salimian Rizi, M.A in Anglophone Literatures and Cultures, University of Vienna, Austria.


Post-colonialism is a complex multifarious phenomenon rooted in the history of imperialism which relates to a large number of nations and countries touched by colonization. This paper aims to apply the main tenets of postcolonial studies on the novel Disgrace (1999) by J. M. Coetzee. This novel leaves the reader with uncomfortable, unanswerable questions of parental relationship, historically-solidified hierarchy of black and white people, language hybridization, grace and disgrace. However, these issues are approached from a quite different perspective. The writer attempts to shed light on this standpoint wherein the decolonized status of black South Africans and helplessness of David Lurie, a white professor from the westernized city of Cape Town, in Eastern Cape are depicted via deconstruction of the long-standing but stagnant and fading binary opposition of white superiority and black inferiority.

Key terms: imperialism; colonized; colonizer; black; white.

I. Introduction

Post-colonialism is a complex multifarious phenomenon rooted in the history of imperialism which derives from the Latin imperium containing numerous meanings including “power, authority, command, dominion, realm, and empire” (Habib 737). Though imperialism is often assumed as a strategy whereby “a state aims to extend its control forcibly beyond its own borders over other states and peoples” (Habib 737), it should be remembered that this sort of control does not necessarily raise the military but also economy and culture. In other terms a ruling state acts delicately but stealthily by imposing “not only its own terms of trade, but also its own political ideals, its own cultural values, and often its own language, upon a subject state” (Habib 737).

Historically speaking, both the Western world and the Eastern world have realized a series of vast empires having spread out over immense territories, often in the name of passing the blessings of their civilization to the subject peoples viewed as barbarians. Needless to say, imperialistic endeavors have lasted till the present day in transformed forms and manners. A potent motive in colonization is propounded by Rudyard Kipling and questioned by Conrad as follows: “imperialism is a means of bringing to a subject people the blessings of a superior civilization, and liberating them from their benighted ignorance” (Habib 738). Consequently the colonizing states subjugate the weaker nations on the pretext of civilization blessing, though it economically benefits only a small group.

After the end of World War II in 1945 there occurred a sweeping process of decolonization of the nations and territories subjugated by most of the imperial powers, among which the release of South Africans in 1994 from the yoke of apartheid is at issue. It should be noted that the collapse of the communist regimes in 1991 left America as the single remaining colonial power, hence colonial struggle is scarcely gone and still continues conspicuously in the Middle East specifically in Afghanistan and Iraq on the pretext of terrorism and chemical weapons. In opposition to the colonization being circulated from one power to the other, postcolonial scholars have propounded theories and propositions in favor of the oppressed.

Postcolonial studies seem to be widening their scope beyond purely literary analysis of texts. They include the matter of race, identity, color, master narrative of Western imperialism, the subordinated and marginalized subject (subaltern), language hybridization, as well as “cultural agency” (Abrams 237). Numerous scholarly papers and books have already been written in this regard, one of which is the seminal work Orientalism (1978) by the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said who established the theory and practice of post-colonialism via his quite fresh, and at some points ground-breaking, ideas and propositions. Orientalism “applied a revised form of Michel Foucault's historicist critique of discourse to analyze what he called cultural imperialism” (Abrams 236). It may be well said that Said picked a befitting term- cultural imperialism- most tangible in sense and definition of the real, dreadful status of the colonized countries. Cultural imperialism is a mode of imperialism imposing “its power not by force, but by the effective means of disseminating in subjugated colonies a Eurocentric discourse that assumed the normality and preeminence of everything ‘occidental’ correlatively with its representations of the ‘oriental’ as an exotic and inferior other (Abrams 236).

The hegemony thrust upon English as the imperial language “installs a ‘standard’ version of the metropolitan language as the norm, and marginalizes all ‘variants’ as impurities” (Aschcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin 7). On the other hand, it is often asserted that the decisive function of language as a medium of power calls for replacing the language of the center in a discourse which is fully adapted to the colonized place and such replacement can be applied through “the abrogation or denial of the privilege of English” and “appropriation” (Aschcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin 38). It does the former by rejecting the metropolitan power over the communication means. The latter can be attained through “the appropriation and reconstitution of the language of the center. Appropriation looks like a tricky process by which the language of the power is taken to convey one’s own message and intention via the power language which is not one’s own. Nowadays, in some African countries such as South Africa and Nigeria and in some Asian countries such as India, appropriation plays a crucial role in getting across indigenous people’s messages via the imperialist language. Within the master-narrative of Western imperialism, the colonial other is not merely subordinated but in effect the cultural agency representing the colonization hegemony and supremacy via texts and narratives, nonetheless such a narrative began to be replaced by a counter narrative whereby the colonial cultures and voice fight their way back into a history written by colonizers.

II. Disgrace; the decolonizing narrative

Disgrace (1999), written during post-apartheid, leaves the reader with uncomfortable, unanswerable questions of parental relationship, historically-solidified hierarchy of black and white, language hybridization, grace and disgrace. Throughout the story, no solid answers are offered or hinted at to these questions, since they are determined to be open-ended. Readers might look baffled by the depiction of whites and blacks and the way they interact and get along because as we draw closer to the end of story, we see no dignity in being a white professor. We detect apartheid’s ongoing traces inflicting South African people after regaining authority and then they seem to be avenging whites due to their long term repression which may have turned into a sort of psychological complex. In other terms “The images of black violence against whites invoked by Lurie are, crucially, images drawn from a white, colonial vision of Africa” (Longmuir 120). So far Africa had been constructed as a dark continent formed as rationalization for European imperialist enlargement. Within the story, David looks down on blacks through his colonial representations of them. As an example, David would see Melanie “the dark one” expressive of a dark spot in David’s life: “Melanie the firstborn, the dark one, then Desiree, the desired one. Surely they tempted the gods by giving her a name like that!” (Coetzee 164). His representation of the blacks deteriorates after Lucy’s rape: “It happens every day, every hour, every minute, he tells himself, in every quarter of the country. Count yourself lucky to have escaped with your life. Count yourself lucky not to be a prisoner in the car at this moment, speeding away, or at the bottom of a donga with a bullet in your head. Count Lucy lucky too. Above all Lucy” (Coetzee 115).

David’s haughtiness and pomposity conjure up to the reader with the idea of subordinate subject or in Spivak’s term subaltern. In other terms, Spivak borrows Foucault’s phrase ‘epistemic violence’ to recapitulate her remarks on subaltern: “epistemic violence [is] the imposition of a given set of beliefs over another” which marked the “remotely orchestrated, far-flung, and heterogeneous project to constitute the colonial subject as Other” (Habib 748). On the same mainstream, South Africans are expected by David to abide by the white discourses, whereas things go on contrary to his expectations; it is David and his like who ought to be a part of the erstwhile marginalized society: “A group of children pass him on their way home from school. He greets them; they greet him back. Country ways. Already Cape Town is receding into the past” (Coetzee 65). Even early on, David's environments appear to have an intense effect on him. Though he tries to keep himself at a distance from country life, he can't help but slowly become part of it, but to add insult to injury he neither gives in it nor is fully able to appropriate the country life: “He is sitting in the front room, watching soccer on television. The score is nil-all; neither team seems interested in winning. The commentary alternates between Sotho and Xhosa, languages of which he understands not a word” (Coetzee 75). Sotho and Xhosa are two of the most commonly-spoken languages in South Africa, and David as a man from the westernized city of Cape Town only speaks English and two other Romance languages which cannot save him. The fact that David and Petrus are watching a match with commentary in Sotho and Xhosa ensures the post-apartheid period wherein the story is narrated as before 1994 Afrikaans and English were the prime languages heard on television. Put at its starkest, the master narrative of Western imperialism is turned upside down with David, the exemplar of white masters, being on the verge of marginalization and turning into a subaltern.

With the above given, the inner conception of imperialism, in particular “cultural imperialism”, is noteworthy here as imperialism “imposed its power not by force, but by the effective means of disseminating in subjugated colonies a Eurocentric discourse” (Abrams 236). Hence, David’s outrage at the deconstruction of the long-standing but stagnant and fading binary opposition of white superiority and black inferiority stems from black replacement as “cultural agency” of white discourses by “a counter-narrative in which the colonized cultures fight their way back into a world history written by Europeans” (Abrams 237). Such a position of marginalization is not easily tolerated by him, though Lucy, having lived with them for a long time, seems to be appropriating black discourses and lifestyle as far as necessary. The way she gets dressed indirectly hints at this point: “A woman in the flower of her years, attractive despite the heaviness, despite the unflattering clothes” (Coetzee 76). Above and beyond Lucy tacitly comes clean with the present conditions wherein the colonized outshine the whites and they wield power and subsequently safety and protection, as Lucy spells it out to David:

No. Wait. Before you get on your high horse with Petrus, take a moment to consider my situation objectively. Objectively I am a woman alone. I have no brothers. I have a father, but he is far away and anyhow powerless in the terms that matter here. To whom can I turn for protection, for patronage? To Ettinger? It is just a matter of time before Ettinger is found with a bullet in his back. Practically speaking, there is only Petrus left. Petrus may not be a big man but he is big enough for someone small like me. And at least I know Petrus. I have no illusions about him. I know what I would be letting myself in for. (Coetzee 204)

Lucy takes a step further and bares her heart to David and gives in to the deconstructed discourse of the colonized and colonizer in the air, i.e. “perhaps that is a good point to start from again. Perhaps that is what I must learn to accept. To start at ground level. With nothing. Not with nothing but. With nothing. No cards, no weapons, no property, no rights, no dignity” (Coetzee 205). Then no wonder that Lucy who walks around bare foot in unflattering clothes would get dressed far differently when attending Petrus’s party because Petrus is now the overriding concern of hers: “Unusually, she is wearing a knee-length dress and high heels, with a necklace of painted wooden beads and matching earrings. He is not sure he likes the effect” (Coetzee 128). Petrus’s overriding trait is highlighted further when David picks up the phone to call the police after seeing Pollux, one of Lucy’s rapists, at Petrus’s evening party, but Lucy dissuades him: “'David, no, don't do it. It's not Petrus's fault. If you call in the police, the evening will be destroyed for him. Be sensible” (Coetzee 133).

Apropos the remarks given, it is noticeable that the wheel of fortune gradually is turning. In his first encounter with David, Petrus quite sarcastically introduces himself along these lines: “I look after the dogs and I work in the garden. Yes. Petrus gives a broad smile. I am the gardener and the dog-man” (Coetzee 64). Though he turns out to be a landowner as the story draws closer to the end and the situation goes downhill for the then masters. The colonized Petrus does crave Lucy’s farm at any cost, even at Lucy’s rape. He offers her his protection in return for her hand as Lucy admits: “I must tell you, this is not the first time. Petrus has been dropping hints for a while now. That I would find it altogether safer to become part of his establishment. It is not a joke, not a threat. At some level he is serious […] It will make me all the more part of the family. In any event, it is not me he is after, he is after the farm. The farm is my dowry” (Coetzee 203). However, a couple of lines earlier on the same chapter, Lucy demands David to “stop calling it the farm” because “This is not a farm, it’s just a piece of land where I grow things […] But no, I’m not giving it up” (Coetzee 200). Likewise her womb wherein she is bearing the child is nothing but a piece of land to grow a thing (child) so as to “become part of his establishment”.

The turn of the wheel of fortune seems to be eating away at David and his relations with the formerly purported colonized. “A dog-man, Petrus once called himself. Well, now he [David] has become a dog-man: a dog undertaker; a dog psychopomp; a harijan” (Coetzee 146). Falling from the sublime to the ridiculous, David now replaces Petrus as a dog man, in other terms “David’s turn to animals is neither sudden nor easy; it is neither a desirable outcome nor a quietus. David's coming to animals occurs only after his blithely quasi-philosophical statements on the nature of the animal prove bankrupt once he is forced to encounter real animals in his day-to-day life on his daughter Lucy's smallholding and in her friend Bev's animal refuge, where he begins to work as a volunteer” (Herron 471). Put at its starkest, the novel’s articulation of disgrace would never attain its goal without the characterization of animals because:

Coetzee's elaboration of the word, concept, gift of disgrace achieves its undeniably impressive deepening and broadening only when the condition comes to articulate not just David's individual fall, or Lucy's rape and subsequent silence, or the state of disgrace that is post-apartheid South Africa, but when it comes to embrace the being of animals themselves: in other words, when the notion of disgrace has expanded to include all animals, nonhuman as well as human. All animals, alive and dead” (Herron 472).

Lucy assures her father that “There are the dogs. Dogs still mean something. The more dogs, the more deterrence. (Coetzee 60)

As the novel goes on “animals nonetheless emerge from under the shadows cast by the more obviously weighty ethical and political matters invoked by the text, namely the ‘white dilemma’ in post-apartheid South Africa” (Herron 473). Then as suggested by Lucy to David, they had better live without “things”, to live “like a dog” (Coetzee 205).

III. English; Practical or Impractical medium

It is certain that the development of Empire is intrinsically intertwined with the growth of English as the hegemonic language in the colonized countries. In other terms “the study of English and the growth of Empire proceeded from a single ideological climate and that the development of the one is intrinsically bound up with the development of the other” (Aschcroft, Griffiths & Tiffin 3), therefore in a mutual manner, with the degeneration of one, the other will not be kept unscathed. David speaks Italian and French, along with English but “Italian and French will not save him here in darkest Africa” (Coetzee 95). Consequently with the languages of power waning, the imperialism subsequently abates.

Impracticality of English emerges out more noticeably with the story going on and drawing closer to the end. In the scene that Lucy presents Petrus’s young wife with the package, she whispers thanks in English to Lucy. Then Petrus says: “Lucy is our benefactor” (Coetzee 129), but the word benefactor is “a distasteful word, it seems to him [David], double-edged, souring the moment. Yet can Petrus be blamed? The language he draws on with such aplomb is, if he only knew it, tired, friable, eaten from the inside as if by termites. Only the monosyllables can still be relied on, and not even all of them” (Coetzee 129). Ironically speaking, English on which Petrus draws on with such confidence is no practical medium for David. This language is “tired, friable, eaten from the inside”, in the same manner the Empire is tired and eaten from the inside in post-apartheid South Africa.

Works Cited:

Abrams, M.H. A Glossary of Literary Terms. 7th ed. Massachusetts: Heinle & Heinle, 1999.

Ashcroft. B., Griffiths. G, Tiffin, H. The Empire Writes Back: Theory and Practice in Post-Colonial Literatures. New York: Routledge, 2002.

Coetzee, J. M. Disgrace. New York: Penguin, 1999.

Habib, M.A.R. A History of Literary Criticism: From Plato to the Present. Oxford: Blackwell, 2005.

Herron, Tom. “The Dog Man: Becoming Animal in Coetzee's "Disgrace"”. Twentieth Century Literature (51) 4, 467-490, 2005.

Longmuir, Anne. “Coetzee’s Disgrace”. The Explicator (65) 2, 119-121, 2007.

Said, Edward. Representations of the Intellectual. New York: Vintage Books, 1994.

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South Africa in Literature. A Colonized or Decolonized Country?
University of Vienna
Literary Theory
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south, africa, literature, colonized, decolonized, country
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Hussein Salimian Rizi (Author), 2014, South Africa in Literature. A Colonized or Decolonized Country?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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