Post-Apartheid South Africa
Post apartheid South African flag
Creative Commons AttributionPost apartheid South African flag - Credit: Chris Eason

With some books, an appreciation of the social and political climate isn't strictly necessary to understand either the story or the characters. However, this is certainly not the case with Disgrace, a novel which cannot be understood in isolation from its unique setting of a country trying to rebuild while still struggling to rid itself of the remaining shackles of Apartheid.

When a new majority government led by Nelson Mandela swept to power in South Africa in 1994, a mood of hope gripped all those in the country and throughout the world who had supported the campaign against the repressive mechanism of Apartheid. However, in the midst of the euphoria, there was real fear, particularly amongst sections of the white population, about the future.

Voting signs, South African Election, 1994
Creative Commons AttributionVoting signs, South African Election, 1994 - Credit: jasonwhat


In order to understand the tensions that drive post apartheid South Africa, it's necessary to take a brief look at the way the country worked beforehand and how the Nationalist Government enforced its policy of 'separateness'.The notion of a white elite had been entrenched into the fabric of South African society for so long, it was inevitable that any shift in power would have deep repurcussions on everyone as they struggled to come to terms with the legacy of the past.  It is in this atmosphere, of an explosive, still racially charged country, that Coetzee sets his novel and through the characters such as David, Lucy and Petrus, we learn something of the different forces at work in the new South Africa.


The rise and fall of apartheid - in brief


Sign on a beach in Cape town during apartheid
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeSign on a beach in Cape town during apartheid - Credit: Ullischnulli

Although the roots of apartheid go way back through the history of South Africa, formalised legislation was put in place for the first time in 1948 by the newly elected Nationalist Party. The new government immediately began introducing a legislative framework to enforce their policy of 'separate development' according to race.

Broadly speaking there were four race groups: white, black, coloured and Indian, and the Population Act of 1950, aimed at assigning everyone into a specific race category. Further legislation came in the form of the Group Areas Act, 1950, which designated living areas according to racial group; and the Mixed Marriages Act, 1949 and Immorality Act, 1950, which prohibited marriage/sexual relations between different races. By the 1960s, the government had implemented a set of laws designed to separate every area of life: living arrangements, personal relationships, employment, education and leisure activity, and signs had sprung up all over the place, assigning specific areas to whites/non-whites.

Sign in apartheid South Africa
Creative Commons AttributionSign in apartheid South Africa - Credit: thomas_sly

Naturally, this implementation of so-called grand apartheid led to incredible anger, particularly among the black population. Development wasn't just separate, it was unequal. Whites, generally speaking, had access to the best education and jobs, enjoyed high living standards and were economically well off while, at the other end of the scale, blacks received a limited education, were usually employed in manual labour working for white bosses, lived in poor conditions and, were paid a pittance. Many flocked to organisations, such as the African National Congress and the Black Consciousness Movement run by Steve Biko (who was later killed while in police detention) in an attempt to make their voice heard. During the 1960s and 70s protest often slid into violence, but the real turning point came in 1976 with the Soweto Uprising. What started off as a peaceful protest by students angry at the introduction of teaching in Afrikaans, became a massacre, resulting in widespread death and injury, many of its victims children.


Nelson Mandela shaking hands with F W de Klerk, World Economic Forum, Davos, 1992
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeNelson Mandela shaking hands with F W de Klerk, World Economic Forum, Davos, 1992 - Credit: World Economic Forum

After Soweto, the international community sat up and began to take notice and by the 1980s more and more countries had imposed economic sanctions on South Africa. By 1991, the policy of apartheid was no longer tenable and its withdrawl paved the way for the first free elctions in 1994.



Fast forward approximately three years, and we enter the world Disgrace is set in.

Car Hijacking warning sign
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeCar Hijacking warning sign - Credit: Herby Hönigsperger

Although apartheid is over, the sense of injustice is still raw amongst the previously disenfranchised black population, levels of crime are high, and suspicion and mistrust bubble away beneath the surface. Although a Truth and Reconciliation Commission had been set-up in 1998, aiming to address the issue of crimes committed in the name of aprtheid and foster a process of reconciliation between the different racial groups, many felt it didn't give them the justice they wanted, while others refused to recognise its authority.In many ways, South Africa was just as divided on a psychological level, as it had been in the apartheid era.



Right-wing rally protesting against government reform, 1990
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeRight-wing rally protesting against government reform, 1990 - Credit: Anton Raath

It was a division not just based on traditional racial groupings either, but was tied up with attitudes, an individuals's sense of identity and personal moral and belief systems. While it would be easy to see apartheid as a straightforward battle between black and white, the truth was infintely more complicated, and often saw white not only pitched against black, but against white too, due to historical, social and economic differences. The fact that some white South Africans felt they were becoming the victims of so-called reverse discrimination didn't help ease the tensions felt by a white population, which spanned all the way from the right wing disciples of Eugène Terre' Blanche's, Afrikaner Resistance Movement through to liberal whites who had campaigned for an end to apartheid themselves. Some blacks, of course, didn't see the difference: to them all whites, whatever their beliefs, were both a reminder and a representation of the tyranny of apartheid rule.


In Disgrace, all of these tensions come into play, as through the story of David we are plunged into a unified, yet divided, South Africa. A South Africa in which people struggle to communicate, as they attempt to  claim some sort of power, not only over their country, but over their personal destiny too.


There are numerous resources available on the internet for anyone interested in looking at South African history in more detail. Here's a small selection:

BBC website taking an in-depth look at South Africa under apartheid.

Comprehensive site delving into South African history.

General site exploring all things South African.


The Western Cape - Cape Town

Cape Town is the capital of the Western Cape, part of the area formally known as the Cape Colony, then Cape of Good Hope Province (usually shortened to the Cape Province).


Map of South African Provinces before 1994
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeMap of South African Provinces before 1994 - Credit: Htonl
Map of South African Provinces since 1994
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeMap of South African Provinces since 1994 - Credit: Htonl
Location of Cape Town in the Western Cape
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeLocation of Cape Town in the Western Cape - Credit: Htonl










Cape Town
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeCape Town - Credit: Andreas Tusche

Originally a supply hub for Dutch ships sailing through to Eastern Africa, India and beyond, Cape Town was the first permanent European colony in South Africa. After various British conflicts with the Dutch, it finally came under the total jurisdiction of the British in 1814 and in 1910, when Britain formed the Union of South Africa, Cape Town became its legislative capital.


The photograph was taken from the top of Table Mountain. Due to its natural amphitheatre shape, the area at the heart of the city is known as City Bowl.








Cape Flats area, Cape Town
Creative Commons AttributionCape Flats area, Cape Town - Credit: Thomas Sly

Like everywhere else in South Africa, Cape Town was affected by the victory of the National party in 1948 and the introduction of apartheid. Due to the new government's policy of creating separate living areas according to race, many black and coloured people were forced out if their homes and were subject to forced removals to townships. A particularly notorious instance of this, occurred in District Six, after it was officially designated a whites only area. Many of the people forced out from there were re-located to the area north of the city known as 'apartheid's dumping ground': Cape Flats. 




View over Cape Town from Robben Island
Public DomainView over Cape Town from Robben Island - Credit: Matthias Kniese

While Cape Town draws in plenty of tourists due to its attractive harbour area and its scenic panorama, including Table Mountain and Devil's Peak, in these post-apartheid days people are also able to visit one of the places that became synonymous with opposition to apartheid: Robben Island.   


Entrance to Robben Island
Creative Commons AttributionEntrance to Robben Island - Credit: Brian Burger








Prison on Robben Island



Although Robben Island has had many incarnations during its lifetime, including army training ground and hospital, in 1961 it reverted to one of its main previous uses and became a prison housing political prisoners. Many notable anti-apartheid actvisits were imprisoned there including, most famously, Nelson Mandela. His release, after twenty seven years, on 11 February 1990, marked the beginning of the end for the apartheid state. 

The Eastern Cape - Salem and Grahamstown

Salem and Grahamstown are in the area of the Eastern Cape sometimes referred to as Frontier Country, due to its geographical and historical prominence in the story of South Africa. Like many of the towns and villages within this area, they were involved in the numerous conflicts between the indigenous Xhosa people and the Dutch, then the British. 

The smallholding where Lucy lives is situated just outside the village of Salem, halfway between the towns of Kenton-on-Sea and Grahamstown. Salem, meaning peace, was established in 1820 by British settlers who built stone cottages and set up farms in the area. It gained its name from an incident during the Frontier Wars in the 1830s when the Xhosa people agreed to leave the village after peaceful negotiations.

Impala, Keriega Game Reserve, Eastern Cape
Creative Commons AttributionImpala, Keriega Game Reserve, Eastern Cape - Credit: Steve Cornish

The scenery and wildlife are typical of that found along the eastern Cape, while the village itself is particularly noteworthy for its tiny Methodist church, still standing today. 

The picture of the antelope was taken at Keriega Game Reserve, a short distance from Salem on the Grahamstown road. It is one of the numerous game reserves situated in the Eastern Cape. 








Grahamstown, Eastern Cape.
Public DomainGrahamstown, Eastern Cape. - Credit: Tim Giddings

The city of Grahamstown is a short car ride away from Salem. Named after the Lieutenant Colonel, John Graham, Grahamstown was the first town established by the British in South Africa, starting life as a military outpost. In 1819, it was the subject of an unsuccessful attack led by the Xhosa warrior, Makanda Nxele, as he sought to prevent further incursions into Xhosa territory. After the attack, Grahamstown and the surrounding area became a popular place for British settlers, and for a while it became the second largest city after Cape Town. 

Due to its historical importance as one of the first frontier towns and its long association with British settlers, there are many historical buildings from this era, as well as monuments celebrating the role these early settlers played in the formation and development of Grahamstown.




Memorial for Thomas Charles White,The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George, Grahamstown
Creative Commons Attribution Share AlikeMemorial for Thomas Charles White,The Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George, Grahamstown - Credit: Larry McElhiney

Grahamstown is sometimes referred to as 'The City of Saints', due largely to the fact that it houses fifty two churches covering various different denominations. The cathedral of St. Michael and St. George, now the seat of The Anglican Bishop of Grahamstown, opened in 1830 and became a refuge for many women and children during the frontier wars.

Inside, there are numerous memorials to those who lost their lives during the battles between the Xhosa and the European Settlers. An example is shown on the left. Note the wording: 'slain by kafirs', and 'irruption of the kafir tribes'. 


Cathedral of St. Michael and St. George, Church Square, Grahamstown
Public DomainCathedral of St. Michael and St. George, Church Square, Grahamstown - Credit: Tim Giddings