JM Coetzee incites an ANC egg-dance

The ANC's celebration of Coetzee's Nobel Prize while castigating him as a racist is crass expediency. By Patrick Laurence.

Summary - When JM Coetzee won the Nobel Prize for Literature for 2003, president Thabo Mbeki congratulated him “on behalf of the South African nation and indeed the continent of Africa”, and the ANC expressed the hope that his award would inspire young writers across the continent. Yet this is the man the ANC has called a purveyor of the ‘ideology of racism’. In its submission to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) hearings on racism in the media in April 2000, the ANC accused Coetzee of providing ideological justification for racism by endorsing JBM Hertzog’s ‘primitive child’ stereotype of indigenous blacks in his novel Disgrace. Coetzee’s image of immoral, savage black men, the ANC argued, influences journalists who then perpetuate it in their reporting, thus sustaining the stereotype in the collective psyche of white South Africans. The ANC can reconcile these two views either by retracting its HRC submission or by representing it as a condemnation of Disgrace but not of Coetzee’s creative genius in general. But it has done neither. Indeed, ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama has stated that the ANC stands by its HRC submission. Ngonyama sees no contradiction between condemning Coetzee as an ideologue of racism and rejoicing in his award. He compares it to recognising FW de Klerk as a joint winner of the Nobel Peace Price without condoning his racist government. Mandela’s reaction to Coetzee’s award raised an issue that both Mbeki and the ANC ignored in their official statements: Coetzee’s move to Australia in 2002, which may have been prompted in part by the ANC’s attack on Disgrace two years earlier. Mandela stated: ‘He may have emigrated but we shall continue to claim him as our own.’ He was justified in claiming this as almost all of Coetzee’s works are rooted in South African soil and his skills were nurtured in the agony and beauty of this country’s history. Mandela’s attitude contrasts sharply with that of Xolela Mangcu of the Steve Biko Foundation, who believes that the ‘Australian’ Coetzee was awarded the prize because he is white. In other words, not only is Coetzee an ideologue of racism, but the Nobel Prize is itself a racist award based on Eurocentric notions of what constitutes good literature.

The image of the African National Congress celebrating the triumph of a person that it has categorised as a racial ideologue is absurd, given the ANC's long and arduous struggle against racism and its repeated affirmation of non-racialism as a value to live and, if necessary, to die for. Yet it is firmly imprinted on the retinae of observers, except those who are wont to turn a blind eye to events they do not wish to see.

It takes no great effort to recall president Thabo Mbeki, congratulating JM Coetzee on winning the Nobel Prize of Literature for 2003 "on behalf of the South African nation and indeed the continent of Africa", as if the author is a favoured son of the nation and not a man who has been condemned by the ANC as a purveyor of the "ideology of racism". Nor is it difficult to recollect the ANC similarly congratulating Coetzee and expressing the hope that the honour accorded to him, like that bestowed on an earlier South African winner, Nadine Gordimer, will serve as an inspiration for young writers in South Africa and on the African continent.

Neither Mbeki nor the ANC have attempted to reconcile their congratulatory statements with the ANC's submission to the Human Rights Commission (HRC) hearings on racism in the media in April 2000. Submitted within a year of the publication of Coetzee's highly praised novel Disgrace, the submission, lamenting the racial divisions and inequalities bequeathed to South Africa by "centuries of colonialism and apartheid", distinguishes between subjective and objective manifestations of racism.

From that premise it argues, firstly, that the subjective manifestation provides the ideological underpinning for, and justification of, racism, and, secondly, that the objective manifestation is the actual practice of racism or, to use ANC-speak, "social relations" characterised by racial oppression and discrimination. Lest there be any misunderstanding the ANC statement declares that "racism is most pernicious" when it is bolstered by an ideological framework.

It quotes an assertion by the founder of the National Party, JBM Hertzog, the Boer general who went on to become South Africa's third prime minister. Its purpose in doing so is to illustrate what it means by ideological justification of racism. The statement reads in part: "As against the European the native stands as an eight year old against a man of mature experience - a child in religion, a child in moral conviction; without art and without science; with the most primitive needs and the most elementary knowledge to meet these needs…"

Coetzee is accused by the ANC of endorsing Hertzog's "primitive child" stereotype of indigenous blacks in Disgrace, of representing as brutally as he can the white perception of the post-apartheid black man, and of resurrecting Hertzog's savage eight-year-old "without the restraining leash around his neck". The ANC statement infers from Coetzee's prize-winning novel that whites continue to believe in the stereotype of immoral, savage black men, though they are forced to acknowledge that black men are increasingly ascendant in South Africa today, that South Africa has become their territory.

The ANC statement deduces further that "many" practitioners of journalism in South Africa carry the same stereotype in their heads and are influenced by it in their reporting and interpretation of events in post apartheid South Africa. Thus Coetzee is implicitly accused of reinforcing racial stereotypes in the minds of journalists who, in turn, sustain them in the collective psyche of white South Africans.

The ANC can theoretically reconcile its exaltation at Coetzee's Nobel triumph with its HRC submission in one of two ways: either by retracting the submission or by explicitly presenting it as a condemnation of Disgrace but not of Coetzee's creative genius in general. To do so would involve characterising Disgrace as an a-typical aberration. It has neither withdrawn nor modified its submission, however. ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama has instead emphatically reaffirmed the ANC's commitment to its HRC submission.

Ngonyama does not - or cannot - see a contradiction between condemning Coetzee as an ideologue of racism and rejoicing in his being awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Just as the ANC recognised that former president FW de Klerk was a winner (with Nelson Mandela) of the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1993 without recognising or condoning his racist government, so, too, Ngonyama reasons, it recognises Coetzee's Nobel literature award without condoning Disgrace. The ANC's official reaction to Coetzee's triumph is, however, more than mere recognition of the fact. It is a celebration of Coetzee's accomplishment as a source of inspiration to young writers in Africa.

The celebration juxtaposes uneasily with the ANC's reiterated belief that Coetzee is a racist ideologue, just as Mandela's congratulations to De Klerk in his acceptance speech in December 1993 of the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo nestles awkwardly with his public castigation of De Klerk two years before as the "head of an illegitimate minority regime" that publicly talked peace with ANC while covertly "waging war" against the movement and its followers.

But in his reaction to Coetzee's triumph, Mandela - who relinquished his position as the ANC's national leader more than two years before the ANC's submission to the HRC racism hearings - deals with an issue that Mbeki and the ANC conveniently ignore in their official statements: Coetzee's relocation to Australia in 2002, a physical shift which may have been partly prompted by the ANC's vehement attack on Disgrace two years before.

Mandela, rightly lauding the remarkable achievement of "a small country on the southern tip of Africa" producing two winners of the Nobel prize for literature, declares: "He may have emigrated but we shall continue to claim him as our own". There is substantial justification for Mandela's assertion. With the possible exception of Coetzee's latest novel, Elizabeth Costello (Secker and Warburg, R180), Coetzee's novels and essays are anchored in and sustained by South African soil, literally and metaphorically. South African can legitimately lay claim to him as a novelist nurtured in the turmoil, agony and beauty of its often tragic but always engaging history.

Mandela's rightful claim to Coetzee on behalf of South Africa contrasts sharply with the attitude of Xolela Mangcu, executive director of the Steve Biko Foundation. Mangcu, judging from his column in Business Day, believes that the "Australian" Coetzee was awarded the prize because he is white. He takes the ANC's submission to the HRC a stage further: not only is Coetzee a putative ideologue of racism but the Nobel prize for literature is itself reputedly a racist award based on a Eurocentric perception of insightful creative writing worthy of international acclaim.


In Disgrace Coetzee bring his immense literary talents to bear on a disturbing theme in contemporary South Africa: the recurring and brutal attacks on farming folk by marauding intruders, in which most of the victims are white and the assailants almost invariably black. Coetzee's dramatis personae reflect that colouration. He does not invent it. When the disgraced father in the novel (David Lurie) tries to comfort his daughter (Lucy) after she has been raped by three intruders on her Eastern Cape small holding, he says, "It was history speaking through them… A history of wrong". His words invoke past injustices, wars of dispossession, racial oppression and the resentful anger that they bred in the indigenous black population. Beyond the present sociological context of farm attacks there is a deeper context of history and historical retribution. In a subtle way that is devoid of didacticism and pedantry Disgrace contextualises the anger and pain and eventual resignation of David and Lucy. It is a profoundly creative novel, not a racist diatribe.