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Book Club Wed Oct 24 2007

Apartheid: A Brief History

Could a story like Disgrace have taken place in the United States? One thinks immediately of the ongoing social-economic and racial strife that plagues our nation and is tempted to say yes. In a story that focuses on the disparities between black and white and male and female, America would be the perfect backdrop to explore social inequalities. After all, who among us has not had first hand experience with at least one form of social injustice? But there is something else fueling the story of David and Lucy Lurie that is unique to their environment. Author J.M. Coetzee is famed for his focus on the change in social relations in post-apartheid South Africa and, as such, it is important to take in a bit of South Africa’s history to better understand the perils of Coetzee’s characters.

* * *

“It was history speaking through them. A history of wrong. Think of it that way, if it helps. It may have seemed personal, but it wasn’t. It came down from the ancestors.” – David Lurie to Lucy

* * *

South Africa has held a long history of racial segregation, far before apartheid became an official government policy. Though whites have always been the minority -- with nonwhites making up the majority of South Africa’s population -- parliamentary membership was limited to whites in the early 20th century and black land ownership was restricted to a small percentage of South Africa’s total area. In 1948, the National Party introduced apartheid as a part of their campaign and, with their win, apartheid became the governing political policy for South Africa. The word itself means “separateness” in Afrikaans and with its implementation, laws were introduced to classify citizens into three major racial groups – white, black, or colored/mixed descent. These laws determined where members of each race could live, what level of education they could receive and what jobs they could hold, going so far as to limit most interracial social contact. Nonwhites were denied any form of representation in the national government and people who openly opposed apartheid were considered communists. These policies would be in effect through the end of the 20th century.

The African National Congress (ANC) was founded in 1912 to fight unjust and segregationist government policies. As a nonviolent civil rights organization, the ANC worked to promote the interests of black South Africans through the use of delegations, petitions and peaceful protests. In the 1940s, younger and more outspoken citizens joined the group and the ANC Youth League was formed by new members Oliver Tambo, Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela. The ANC actively opposed apartheid and in 1955 issued its Freedom Charter, stating that “South Africa belongs to all who live in it, black and white.” Those ANC members who believed that South Africa belonged only to black Africans formed a rival organization called the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC). In an effort to overthrow the ANC, the PAC led mass demonstrations that resulted in the Sharpeville Massacre of 1960, during which police opened fire on black protestors, some of whom were burning the identity papers they were forced to carry. Sixty-nine people were killed and many more were injured. As a response to the massacre, the South African government declared a state of emergency and banned all black political organizations. In the following years Oliver Tambo left South Africa to create an external faction of the ANC; Walter Sisulu and Nelson Mandela were sentenced to life in prison.

* * *

“In the old days one could have had it out with Petrus. In the old days one could have had it out to the extent of losing one’s temper and sending him packing and hiring someone in his place. But though Petrus is paid a wage, Petrus is no longer, strictly speaking, hired help…Petrus is a neighbor who at present happens to sell his labour, because that is what suits him. He sells his labour under contract, unwritten contract, and that contract makes no provisions for dismissal on grounds of suspicion. It is a new world they live in, [David] and Lucy and Petrus. Petrus knows it, and [David] knows it, and Petrus know that he knows it."

* * *

The ANC continued operating in secret while Mandela and other leaders were in prison. It was during this time that Mandela wrote much of his autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom. A 1976 revolt outside Johannesburg led to the reemergence of black politics and renewed the fight against apartheid. In 1984 the South African constitution opened up parliament to Asians, who were then classified as the fourth major racial group, and coloreds, but despite making up 75% of the population, blacks continued to be excluded. It wasn’t until 1990 that, in response to international and domestic pressure and under the leadership of new president F.W. de Klerk, the South African government officially lifted the ban against black political groups, released Mandela from prison, and formally ended apartheid. Four years later, millions of South Africans of all races participated in their first democratic elections and Nelson Mandela became the country’s first black president.

* * *

“What if that is the price one has to pay for staying on? Perhaps that is how they look at it; perhaps that is how I should look at it too. They see me as owing something. They see themselves as debt collectors, tax collectors. Why should I be allowed to live here without paying?” – Lucy Lurie to David.

* * *

The effects of apartheid can still be felt in South Africa today and Coetzee makes this clear in the interactions between the white David and Lucy and the black Petrus, a man who helps on Lucy’s farm, and the three men who attacked them. It is David’s belief that they are not responsible for any feelings of animosity between the races, that they should not be made to pay for what history has done, but Lucy takes a more sensitive approach, conceding that this is something with which she must deal to live in the country of her choosing. Coetzee does not provide an answer as to whether these black attackers came to claim a debt or were simply acting out of random violence, or whether David and Lucy, as white South Africans, owe black citizens a form of payment, but these questions are pervasive throughout Disgrace. For his American readers, for whom race relations continue to be in a state of upheaval hundreds of years after the abolition of slavery, Coetzee forces us to wonder if there are any answers at all.


"African National Congress," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007 © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

"Apartheid," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007 © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

"Nelson Mandela," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007 © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

"Sharpeville Massacre," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007 © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

"South Africa," Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia 2007 © 1997-2007 Microsoft Corporation. All Rights Reserved.

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