Under apartheid, South African writers fought race hatred; now they are accused of it.by Christopher Hope / December 20, 2003 / Leave a comment
When John Coetzee won the Nobel prize for literature this year, South Africans did not dance in the streets. “A novelist little read or understood in his own country,” wrote Le Monde, when the award was announced. That was putting it mildly. I don’t recall much festivity, either, when, a few years back, he won the Booker prize for a second time with Disgrace. Admiration abroad and dismay at home, where Coetzee has been called a sexist, racist impostor.
What lies behind the puzzlement, the derision, is the feeling that “they,” that is “the west” or “the north” in new South African speak – meaning much the same place as “the outside world” in old South African speak – are ganging up on “us,” by rewarding writers who run the country down. For what is under attack is not Coetzee’s writing but his attitude to life, liberation, and the new South Africa. He is a seditious, cerebral novelist, obsessed by questions of loneliness, liberty and guilt. And that is politically worrying, and unSouth African. Coetzee, wrote one commentator, was a “western” writer who happened to live in Africa – for “western” read “white.”
Ten years after South Africa broke with its past, skin colour is still king. It is the bogey of the past, rising up to haunt the new day, writing promissory notes to “freedom” and “the future” while up to its neck in ancient debts to race, nation, party and a peculiar notion of political perfection which only the chosen attain.
It is very odd. Here is a society so drugged by pursuits of sporting prowess that when the national rugby team loses a string of games it is acceptable for a fan to invade the pitch and punch the referee. But when one of our authors wins every prize in sight, we duff up the writer.
There never was a time when this wasn’t so. South African writers have always been caught between the politicians and the philistines, often the same people wearing different hats. The last white regime was convinced that most writers were in cahoots with pinko-liberals in foreign lands, plotting the subversion of true sons and daughters of the African soil – by whom they meant themselves. Those who shape and polish words need watching, if not whacking.
The Dutch, who first colonised the tip of Southern Africa, disposed of the problem quite…