Alienated Booker winner

In his interesting profile of J M Coetzee, Jason Cowley describes Disgrace as a vision of South Africa (25 October). But in fact it is a study in alienation. The main character - an extraordinarily truthful portrait of the disaffected would-be "European" imagination - ends up in a blind alley, to put it politely. None of the other characters is sympathetic or provides much insight into the soul of the new country. The inner life of new South Africa is preponderantly black. Most of the writing Cowley mentions comes from the white 10 per cent of the population who still speak with the voices of domination and privilege. Black voices have not yet found the confidence to express the spirit of the townships.

This spirit is the soul of the new South Africa. It is tough, resilient, proud of the political achievements of the struggle and determined to enter into full ownership of the country.

Within the townships there is also a sector of alienation which is immeasurably more relevant to the new country than the disaffection of the white middle-aged. Talk to teenagers in Soweto: they will sweep aside your preconceptions about South Africa, such as the one repeated by Cowley, that the ANC is headed for an "elected dictatorship".

The black voice is muted by poverty, and the profile of black opinion is masked by appearances. The issues, too, in South Africa are dimmed by lack of congruence between white influence and black need. But in their essence they occupy more human territory than that explored by the winner of the Booker prize.

Gil Elliot & Anita van de Vliet
London NW1

This article first appeared in The New Statesman Interview - David Ramsbotham

1999-11-01