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Coetzee on South Africa’s Past: Remembering in the Time of Forgetting
ABSTRACT As an intellectual figure in South Africa, J. M. Coetzee has consistently engaged with the politics of the past, particularly the contemporary ethical ramifications of the colonial past, alongside the more recent and bitter history of oppression under apartheid. As archaeologists, we aim to excavate these engagements through his novels and essays, particularly his long-standing concerns with the Khoekhoe communities of the Cape. In South Africa today, the tensions between remembering and forgetting are palpable and, in the aftermath of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), we suggest that not all forgetting can be cast as therapeutic. Throughout his complex relationships with the nation’s history, Coetzee foregrounds the colonial past and reiterates the ethical responsibilities of remembering so that the patterns of the past are not repeated. [Keywords: South Africa, apartheid, archaeology, colonialism]


N THIS ARTICLE, we argue that J. M. Coetzee has been instrumental in foregrounding the deprivations of colonialism in South Africa—the long history of oppression and discrimination that found its logical and evil outcome in apartheid. It was not simply the immediate horror of the National Party’s racial solutions for the nation that grip our, or Coetzee’s, ethical worldview, but the invidious history of European invasion, colonization, and long-lived genocide that ultimately hardened into the politics of “apartness” witnessed in the 20th century. In excavating South Africa’s histories, Coetzee’s cultural productions constitute increasingly important sites for the analysis of identity, indigeneity, and the politics of the past. Thus, we counter the claims that his narratives take part in a form of colonialist allegorism and thus elide historical responsibility. We do so by focusing on specific texts that underscore his concern with the politics and legacies of imperialism. The tactics of forgetting have come to be so characteristic of South African politics that his writing holds special relevance for the contemporary reader. Coetzee’s work warns his readers that forgetting forfeits learning from the lessons of the past. As archaeologists, we are particularly interested in his placing of history, his complex relationship to historical questions, and his concerns with the longer history of colonialism in South Africa and the individuals and identities it has subsequently produced. We suggest that Coetzee is as important for the past as he is for the present.

HISTORICAL BACKGROUND To situate Coetzee’s own historical and ethical interests, we begin with a brief outline of South African colonial history, specifically at the Cape, because it forms his primary point of reference. Although it is understandable that national attention has been focused on the late-20th-century regimes of oppression, it is crucial to examine the roots of racial discrimination in South Africa—roots that did not begin in 1948, instead preceding even the industrialization of South Africa’s economy (pace Keegan 1996). Rather, we need to return to the beginnings of Dutch colonization of the Cape of Good Hope in 1652 and the consolidation of a slave economy based on a trade connecting East Africa and Southeast Asia. As President Thabo Mbeki reminded the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) in 1999, Jan van Riebeeck planted “a hedge of almond and thornbush . . . to ensure the safety of the white European settlers by keeping the menacing black African hordes of primitive pagans at bay” (Wits 2003:253). This physical separation marked the first apartheid and the onset of colonial and racial oppression in South Africa. It also forms a backdrop for the colonial encounter that constitutes Waiting for the Barbarians (Coetzee 1980), a text considered by many to be his best-known work (Attridge 2005:42), and one we pay particular attention to throughout this article. European settlement of the Cape began with the establishment of a fort run by the Dutch East India Company. At the outset there was no interest in establishing a

AMERICAN ANTHROPOLOGIST, Vol. 108, Issue 1, pp. 88–99, ISSN 0002-7294, electronic ISSN 1548-1433. C 2006 by the American Anthropological Association. All rights reserved. Please direct all requests for permission to photocopy or reproduce article content through the University of California Press’s Rights and Permissions website, at

Waiting for the Barbarians takes place at a frontier outpost somewhere within the reaches of empire. Dutch East India company officials. A BARBARIC PAST Although we survey broadly across Coetzee’s writing. although the mechanisms through which minority rule established control of labor and local populations were to eventually abolish slavery and serfdom in the Cape colony. Specifically. Lipton 1985). Elizabeth Costello: Eight Lessons (2003). One crucial outcome of the slave-based economy was that in the 19th century South Africa achieved the greatest affluence on the continent. From the first intimation of Khoesan resistance to enslavement and unfair trading conditions. Wolpe 1972). as evidenced in his biographical work. Importantly. much of this article is focused on Waiting for the Barbarians—a book that has been described as a pivotal work in the development of Coetzee’s oeuvre. as in the case of Great Zimbabwe.Meskell and Weiss • Coetzee on South Africa’s Past colony. embarked on a series of frontier wars with the aim of driving the Khoekhoe from their land and replacing them with commercial farms run by European settlers and worked by imported slaves (Ross 1993). The residual effect of centuries of slavery and forced labor. southern Africa had long experienced settlement by various African. his first essay in this collection focuses on “idleness” as a construct of . 1993. Under the leadership of Jan van Riebeeck. slaves were primarily imported into. which elaborate Coetzee’s orientation toward the question of historical method. and perhaps as a response to the political vacuum created in its wake. these historical events loom large in Coetzee’s writing and played a formative role in his own education. it is important to point out that the Cape colony constituted a complex locale and the earliest site of continuous European settlement in sub-Saharan Africa. “Like history too. The work of excavating and refiguring the racialized ideologies forged during colonial rule involves visiting sites that lay bare their inner workings. Fraught relations with the indigenous communities. archaeological sites in the Cape. social critiques of Africans and their lack of social organization came to constitute the permissive ideological factor in the economic and territorial projects of empire as it unfolded at the Cape (Crais 1992). the fort was simply envisaged as a base for resupplying its ships with fresh meat and milk obtained from the indigenous Khoekhoe population. In sum. in contrast to the rest of the African continent. categories that ultimately came to be reified in the arena of legal recognition during the colonial transitions from the mercantilist rule of the Dutch East India Company to the imperial phase of British rule (Elbourne 2003). the early 19th century saw an expansion. his choice of genre could be described as non-nonfiction: a hybrid writing of history.E. What abolition had disassembled quickly came to be reassembled within the taxonomies of the “degenerate” races of South Africa (Gilman 1986. continues to constitute a challenge to the politics of recognition within a deracialized South African government (Mamdani 1996). which led imperialists and settlers alike to reiterate the “civilizing mission” of white rule and thus the segregation of black from white (Clark and Worger 2004:3). rather than a reduction. the novel is an investigation into the power of character and the power of circumstance. Boyhood: A Memoir (1997). changed that situation (Marks 1972). Following the demise of slavery. European. were either ignored by colonial officials or. As European settlement expanded. in addition to the tribal ethnicities forged by the British system of indirect rule. As historians and archaeologists have ably demonstrated (Hall 1987. Through this mise en abyme. this means visiting the most iconic bastion of minority rule—the colonial outpost. Hall 1990. rather than out of. As his title character (also a novelist) says therein. the novel suggests how we may explore the potential of the present to produce the future” (Coetzee 2003:39). ascribed to exterior civilizations—as the prospect of African civilization was anathema to the white labor interests of the time (Garlake 1973. in what he calls “the discourse of the Cape” (1988). for Coetzee. By exploring the power of the past to produce the present. colonists came to interpret and characterize their profound differences in critical racialized terms and reductive ethnic taxonomies. Coetzee is clearly proffering his own ethical stance—all the more notable because Coetzee himself delivered several chapters of Elizabeth Costello as university lectures—that finds resonance throughout his quasi-fictional writing on South Africa’s colonial past and its legacy. Lindfors 1996. these same histories and civilizations enabled colonists to take refuge at the Cape in the mid–17th century. of racist ideology within the sciences as well as popular literature. As we argue. South Africa. and fiction. this occurred hand in hand with the importation of slaves to the Cape and the forced labor of local Khoekhoe (Shell 1994). more generally. Archaeological sites documenting sophisticated trade kingdoms dating to as early as 1000 C. the political reification of “race” and “tribe” had lasting effects on South African society. Although often ambiguous and contradictory. As has been said of his novel. Macmillan 1969. However. and in his essays more generally. the British government approached 89 African societies within the modality of conquest. have come to document a Khoesan history that does not neatly fit into colonialera racial or ethnic typologies (Schrire 1992) or similar historical narratives of technological diffusionism that derive from Eurocentric social templates equating social complexity with hierarchical systems of coercive labor (Abrahams 1985). Published in 1980. Our interest in this novel connects to his essays in White Writing (1988). recognized as a universalized representation of South Africa’s colonial history. who objected to the poor terms of trade offered. Wright 1996). alongside the emergent freeburghers. The legacy of such colonial attitudes is addressed directly by Coetzee in a number of novels. social commentary. In positioning the past for the purposes of this article. This labor system was in many ways perpetuated throughout the mineral revolution of the 1860s–80s (see Clark and Worger 2004. and Asian peoples over the centuries. As a result. Mitchell 2002).

And that requires actively drawing on multiple histories: social history. One of the characters in Elizabeth Costello sums up viscerally this broader embrace. but projecting forward. [Coetzee 1990:164] indigenous peoples at the Cape. these racial taxonomies persisted as the core operating logic. Coetzee is most concerned to investigate this dynamic as something that the descendents of the colonial project will inevitably come to inherit and against which they will come to define their own ethical sensibility. Coetzee describes a mutually constitutive relationship between the 17th-century scientific writer and the Khoekhoe that emerges through the critical literary trope of “idleness. [Coetzee 1988] Yet within the sphere of colonial administration. we would be better served turning our attention to what such metaphorical writing does instead of what it means in any narrow sense. empire and history constellate a moment of crisis. As history— even fictionalized or mythical history—such moments inform the narrative of empire itself and both constitute . Coetzee deconstructs this historical imagining. particularly in terms of legal and political recognition. stealthily at first. I accepted that. “I was born into a language of hierarchy.90 American Anthropologist • Vol. intellectual history. animals. of course. In Waiting for the Barbarians. As he puts it. 1 • March 2006 out the subjugation and exploitation of indigenous South Africans. political history. and languages (Coetzee 2003:45). I did not try to set myself apart. in history the Hottentots suddenly seem all too busy. Coetzee argues. Coetzee’s lead character in Age of Iron (1990). Coetzee’s characters in Waiting for the Barbarians define themselves through such a colonial dynamic. plants. temporal. and so on. as Derek Attridge suggests (2005:37–39). It was part of my inheritance. habitats. This move oriented the relationship between colonial administration and the Khoekhoe within the trope of “development”—which came to have immense political ramifications in negotiations for labor and trading rights. The title is taken from Constantine Cavafy’s poem of the same name in which the so-called barbarians enable the empire to array its forces and assemble its hierarchies of power through a show of force (Atwell 1993:71). He argues for a literal reading. the colonial empire. Waiting for the Barbarians locates itself strategically within that portentous moment of suspension when an increasingly defensive imperialism begins making plans for a final reckoning with its enemies. certainly. thereby making “sense” of Khoekhoe existence—an existence not easily parsed into the language of European protoethnography. As outlined above. Here. Coetzee points to the moment when the writer moves toward the register of the historical chronicler in the 19th century. Mrs. tempered by spatial. but then running wild. intriguing with one another. neither could the opulence and cloistered security of many 20th-century white South Africans be afforded without a similar disenfranchisement of the nation’s native peoples. That price I used to think would have to be paid in shame: in a life of shame and a shameful death. here the author’s intentions are undoubtedly to inflect his narrative with the suggestion that all imperialist endeavors might be similarly arranged. unlamented. it was committed in my name. Coetzee underscores this observation in so many of his literary depictions of colonial surveillance. the self-realized needs of colonial expansion and hegemony. Europe has spread itself across the world like a cancer. as a unifying theme throughout of much of Coetzee’s work and one that frames his ethical position. yet necessary for. Both foreground the inherently political nature of choosing to recognize or not to recognize another people as existing on the same historical terms. I feel too much the pathos of its distances” (Coetzee 1982:97). cultural history. Coetzee suspends and interrupts the teleology of the colonial state (Atwell 1993:71). How long ago? I do not know. this similarly constitutes an important space of overlap between his own fictional narratives and the archaeological project. provides an affirmation of this fact: A crime was committed a long time ago. and historical contexts. imputing that since the 17th century. in turn. He reminds us that the images the state produces of its enemies are wholly contingent on. I am part of it. The barbarians are necessary in the formidable identity constitution of their oppressors. No.” This trope. This moment. Curren. these writers. which at its simplest requires the writer merely to chronicle each day the remarkable events of that day. Although this is certainly true of the South African context. the mercantile empire of the Dutch and British would have been impossible with- In another novel. 108. of distance and perspective. one that is grounded in the experience of reading as an event. presages the coming of further repression and cruelty and underscores its paranoid and sinister rationales. Once we move out of the categorical discourse of anthropology . in an obscure corner. there is far less stress on the idleness of the Hottentots. But longer ago than 1916. . spying. the young heroine claims. furthermore. Coetzee explicitly examines this suspension of the historical as it comes to be more than merely an outcome of literary convention (“the discourse of the Cape”) or even something systematically exploited by colonial administrators. . begging. . It is part of me. I do not say it is the language my heart wants to speak. the Khoekhoe. Rather. . driving off cattle. simultaneously existing as perpetrators and legatees of historical disenfranchisement and the politics of forgetting. Coetzee’s project is ostensibly an attack on the imperial project and. emerged in the wake of the inability of the earliest travelogue writers to get a successful taxonomic grip on the Khoekhoe. frequently resorted to prevailing critical Protestant notions of idleness. ravaging all sorts of life—people. . Though it was not a crime I committed. We see the plight of these people. to the discourse of history. In the Heart of the Country. Indeed. Because the Khoekhoe at the Cape eluded the taxonomic identifiers intuitive to the 17th-century European. Like every crime it had its price. So long ago that I was born into it. much as an ethnographer or archaeologist might peel back the recursive identity constructions of “self” and “other” in situated contexts.

And implicating South Africa’s situation with global historical processes. Coetzee remarked that he was inclined “to see the South African situation [today] as only one manifestation of a wider historical situation to do with colonialism. Coetzee is painfully conscious of one’s immediate historical location. he added. the South African government produced a number of initiatives designed to cope with unique pressures: There was a recession. as characterized South Africa’s colonial period and apartheid era. resisting history. late colonialism. in which the heart of darkness is possible in all societies. Abdul JanMohamed (1985) has gone as far as imputing that Coetzee’s texts reside within the dehistoricizing and desocializing tendency of colonialist allegorism. colonial travel writing. Ultimately. however. something that is grounded in the materiality of South Africa’s colonial outposts. whereas others of us find various ways of accounting for such readings of the text. Coetzee’s interlocutors have forcefully argued that while a realist narrative would depend on the construction of a coherent image of historical time. In an interview conducted in 1978 during the zenith of apartheid. giving us all pause to reflect on the inescapably prosaic and personal register in which colonial rule comes to have meaning for individuals. because the latter were effectively silenced. Some have referred to the novel’s spatiotemporal setting as the “historic present. On the other hand. the central figure of the magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians imagines himself inhabiting another temporal order. According to Vincent Crapanzano (1986:95). as . South Africa then gets transformed into an extreme example of a “more general moralized theme of tyranny” and suffering (Barnet 1999:292). Externally. because his lead character takes personal responsibility and suffers the same injustices as the supposed barbarians. and. Critics have argued that Coetzee conveniently sidesteps the political in favor of a moral stance. It was also the case that white South African writers were commonly considered proxies for black writers on the international stage. another set of possibilities for the future. Herein lies another dimension of Coetzee’s ethical stance. claiming that the author’s refusal to historicize the suffering of the dispossessed is a refusal to allow the reader to digest this suffering and then forget it. Apartheid. almost 350 years of colonial oppression and genocide are equally deserving of ethical attention and ineluctably provided the political and economic framework for racial segregation. Sam Durrant (2004:32) describes Coetzee’s novels as works of failed or inconsolable mourning. this forum being one obvious example. the Portuguese colonies in Mozambique and Angola collapsed and the civil war in Zimbabwe escalated. there was a fevered anti-intellectualism in the 1980s: Brink and Bretynbach were condemned whereas Coetzee was ignored (see also Coetzee 1998). Much of this tension rests with Coetzee’s foregrounding of colonialism and his particular interest in the past.” “The central emphases of policy at this time were therefore managerial. he recognizes that the author challenges liberalism’s complicity with fascism. 91 neo-colonialism” (Jolly 1996:135). It is not that Coetzee refuses historical responsibility (contra JanMohamed 1985). He has been called on to name the apartheid regime within the text. and military” (Atwell 1993:74)— much like the processes that inevitably unfold in Waiting for the Barbarians. we glimpse Coetzee’s personal interest in a specifically archaeological past.” which is perhaps an apt framing for both the unsettling location of the narrative and its intended political impacts. Coetzee has been often charged with an ahistorical lack of specificity by his critics. The milieu of the novel is the result of just such a refusal. The state created commissions of inquiry and banned a number of political organizations and individuals—notably those espousing Black Consciousness in what became the “total strategy. with all the expectation and analysis that this entails. Thus. Apartheid may inevitably rest beneath this obvious metaphor. Despite this historical setting. and other canons. South African authors like Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer write about the human condition generally. ultimately limiting the political force wielded by the text and certainly resulting in its banning at the time. and the subsequent depredations of the colonial encounter for indigenous people each play a significant role in Waiting for the Barbarians. an unruly labor movement. leading to independence by 1980. However in his strategic refusal of specificity. Writers like Coetzee were also thrust into the realm of professional academic criticism. On the one hand. his novel works the other way: It must dissolve such an image (Atwell 1993:143).Meskell and Weiss • Coetzee on South Africa’s Past and legitimize the use of force and terror. however. COETZEE EXCAVATING THE PAST An archaeological past. It is the longue dur´ e e and ubiquity of such persecution that Coetzee cautions us to reflect on. the remnants of precolonial life. Readers of Waiting for the Barbarians frequently take the novel’s nonspecific milieu to suggest a form of ethical universalism. anticommunist. rather than a scathing indictment of it. historiography. technocratic. because I think our experience remains largely colonial” (quoted in Jolly 1996:135). was one extreme historical form of totalitarianism. 1995). and its colonial underpinnings. we might see it. In the 1970s. Although not trying to push a reductive or literal reading. Here. The trope of allegory is central. “I’m suspicious of lines of division between a European context and a South African context. in 1976. which have been excavated along the country’s western coast (Schrire 1989. yet as mentioned earlier. Any form of comfort that one could take in the recognition of apartheid’s extreme specificity is then elided and a wider sphere of complicity is sought. the now-infamous Soweto Revolt. Commentators such as Clive Barnet (1999:293) assert that we should also position novels such as Waiting for the Barbarians as metafictional commentary on specific genres of “white writing”—including the pastoral novel. JanMohamed (1985:73) sees this text as an outgrowth of white South Africa’s racial paranoia. in David Atwell’s (1993) view.

Archaeology in South Africa and elsewhere has come to trouble over these colonial-era historical facades: How do they come to mesh with their interiors and their inhabitants? And how did the underclass weave their counterclaims in the multitude of estate slave lodges (Markell 1993). they disassemble the very foundations on which the empire is constructed. another poignant metaphor for the misreading of culture under imperial rule. alongside the politics of forgetting and a willing amnesia. most fundamentally. in the not so distant future. Civilization. Coetzee’s allegory epitomizes the Foucauldian dynamic of power/knowledge by laying bare for the reader how these outer limits of the empire are literally shored up on the sandy temporal ambiguity of the Other (Faubion 1993). and poignantly he finds that he does not possess such a code himself. Yet buried in “lees of crumbling forts” and the “sodden bowels” of the edge of empire (Schrire 1995:2) and indeed “perhaps at the very spot where you stand” (Coetzee 1982:112). an explorer. involves perpetually returning to these sites of amnesia. which enables a more profound reading of the standardized and seemingly endlessly reproduced facade of the colonial project. Like all archaeological endeavors however. make no reference in their legends to a permanent settlement near the lake. and one that concomitantly enacts a certain suspension of local history and authority.92 American Anthropologist • Vol. troubling over the lapses of discourse. underscored by his excavations and night’s vigil spent in the ruins. a scientist. the magistrate. and the omitted histories—even when there is no validating political space from which to justify one’s line of historical concern. Empathy and relativism are key realizations for Coetzee’s character. object by object. side streets. produces a sort of materially situated authority that is neither here nor there. and their porous relation with the exterior—are. This is where he situates his characters. In South Africa. only fragmentary histories can be crafted from such fragile remains: The barbarians. No. and our protagonist despairs. and to reveal these constraints through the evidencing of multiple histories. For the “dunes cover the ruins of houses that date back to times long before the western provinces were annexed” (Coetzee 1980:14). Through his own excavations. present. in the political seam in which the architecture of the colonial “face. Coetzee seems to read in such outposts the colonial dynamic pushed to its most explicit material form. and humanism are all challenged within the novel. Hall et al. 1 • March 2006 be very much at issue. 108. I stand over the head of a magistrate like myself. Following Durrant. become the barbarian to another other. “space is space. He is prepared to imagine that the barbarians of the former settlement might have possessed a code in which it was possible to write history. Past. He reflects. alleyways. interpolating another just like himself. The fundamental obligation of the excavator is to reveal the discursive ruptures that allow for one history rather than another. thus. anthropologist. it is possible that the magistrate will also. He places himself in the picture. in which previously there was only thought to be one (Foucault 1970). or conflating half of one with half of another” (Coetzee 1980:15). Nested within even the most seemingly familiar structural regularities are spaces awash in the local hybridity and personal memories of foreign landscapes (Winer and Deetz 1990) and memories of the spaces that elude the gridlike architectural style of the outpost (Reid et al. particularly as it comes to be reproduced globally. nomads. in the same place in times gone by. if that is what it is. The work of the colonial facade. are attempts to interpret the barbarian way of life before the onset of empire (Atwell 1993:77). In a heap of ashes I have found fragments of sun-dried clay pottery and something brown which fell to pieces before my eyes . face to face with the last barbarian” (Coetzee 1980:15). the most impenetrable facade of the colonial outposts in South Africa—as they come to be juxtaposed with such interior spaces. searching those ruins that lie under the dunes around the settlement” (Olsen 1985:52). a digger for ‘meaning. . In every trace of micropractices and ancient lifeways. perhaps in my digging I have only scratched the surface. the archaeologist positioned at the outpost comes to understand these “discourse-objects” (Foucault 1970) as much more than the homogenous “past” of the barbarians. in fact. life is life. The act of excavation both forces a recognition of the fragility of erased pasts and the incomprehensibility of a past reduced to a frozen perpetuity.” imagined as the stark colonial outpost. 1997). he hopes to decipher the unintelligible or illegible script of the barbarians. everywhere the same” (Coetzee 1980:16). “Perhaps when I stand on the floor of the courthouse. and future are also collapsed in his futile periodicities. Coetzee’s unpacking of the characters that inhabit this space amounts to an important form of excavation. the artifacts pose a constant and dispersed instability that threatens to interrupt such political projects with the possibility of alternative histories. another grey-haired servant of Empire who fell in the arena of his authority. Rather. [Coetzee 1980:15] more than a metaphorical connectivity. 1993)? Often. or tracing one on top of another. In Waiting for the Barbarians. erased pasts continue to The protagonist seeks to decode the past and thus understand the “barbarians” as they are framed and fashioned at the edge of empire. “I have even found myself reading the slips in a mirror.’ a detective. tentdwellers. Both his efforts to write a history of settlement and his antiquarian interests. The archaeological reflex. . the central character. meets the terrain of the “barbarian”—a space always already reduced to ambiguity in the face of the precise architectural terms of the outpost. who are pastoralists. has been described as “an archaeologist. . If there is a cemetery we have not found it. The excavator places oneself into a relationship to the particular ordering of these things. the silences. authority. There are no human remains among the ruins. much less familiar than at first glance. and outbuildings that constituted colonial outposts (Hall 1991.

They are Hottentots pure and uncorrupted. Heritage emerges very much as a popularized sphere where such redemptive politics are at play. 1995)—it remains a political statement of ethical import in a climate of land restitution. Again in Boyhood: A Memoir. In the desire to foreground those histories sites of cultural production. In his now-published childhood memoir (1997). He is expert enough in physiognomy. the past is inflected with therapeutic benefit. the suppression and misinformation about South Africa’s rich prehistory and subsequent volatile colonial history. Achille Mbembe suggests. to that which they are themselves forced to under/overwrite. not surprisingly. this would seem a more obvious avenue for public awareness. an imaginative solution tailored to South Africa’s national and international recovery (Meskell 2005. including the Khoesan (Robins 2002. It has proven difficult in a climate of inclusivity and “rainbow nationness” to reinforce the specificities of deep past because they may prove even more divisive and destabilizing. and so on. has been expert enough as long as he can remember. the strategy is premised on a wounded identity. Wilmsen 1989. and reconstitution. Moreover. Coetzee explores the racialized embedding of his own education and the political subjectivity that underscored all information discussed at school. [2004:32] 93 It is precisely in the space of these historical elisions that the certain redemptive quality of history has brought forth a proliferation of narratives. museums such as the Apartheid Museum or the Hector Pieterson Museum have Although some might fault his naive romanticism— itself a trope that has enacted much damage on the Khoesan (Garland and Gordon 1999. by Jan van Riebeeck. e Much of this history of contact—which is also a history of repression—has been erased over successive decades: The National Party certainly sought to elide African achievements in the past as well as the long occupation of South Africa. is theirs. central yet excluded. even in the veiled language of his school history book. Gordon 1992. memories. Writing against the grain. Racial propaganda was typical of the National Party narrative at the time. upon the Hottentots: that much is plain. given the magnitude of recent histories. But much of Coetzee’s literary attention has been focused on the issues of the Khoesan people of the Western Cape— specifically because he was born in Cape Town and subsequently grew up in the region. the land comes with them. this history that is simultaneously internal and external to the history of civilization. it can be understood as a process of historical recognition that cannot unfold without the elicitation of private memories that reveal the fragility of historical and ethnographic narratives (Davidson 1998). to know there is not a drop of white blood in them. the project of creating history has come to reside as firmly in the domain of memory and mourning as it had previously resided within the colonial archive (Johnson 2003). Kuper 2003. For in the Boland the people called Coloured are not the great-grandchildren of Jan van Riebeeck or any other Dutchman. they must attempt to relate to that which they themselves exclude. something that sets him apart from many South Africans probably even today (Coetzee 1997:66). in press). Because they are themselves narratives. Heritage emerges as a site not only of recovering forgotten pasts but also of reconciliation through the very practice of publicly recognizing and celebrating these marginalized pasts (Mbeki 2004). In this sense. Many dangerous fabrications were promulgated through school textbooks (Esterhuysen 2000.Meskell and Weiss • Coetzee on South Africa’s Past Coetzee’s novels seek to find a way of relating to this ‘underwritten’ history. 2003a). Coetzee describes the killing of Dingaan by Piet Retief as murder. Many disenfranchised South African constituencies. Sylvain 2002). Wits 2003) and continue to prove an obstacle today in rewriting those narratives. focused squarely on 20th-century history and have paid minimal attention to the longue dur´ e of the colonial past. redress. indigenous rights. occupied center stage in the efforts to rebuild the nation. Sharp and Douglas 1996. he recalls his childhood education and his consequent realization that Coloureds were fathered by the whites. whether the right being invoked cites the protection of the environment or the claims of indigenous peoples. Smith 1983. In a bitter way it is even worse than that. has always been. Their metafictional contortions are a way of gesturing toward their own excluded interior. Not only do they come with the land. The recent horrors of apartheid brutality have. In many ways. are looking to this international lexicon of rights. The situation is complicated by the sorts of archaeology that was encouraged—one that most successfully directed attention to millennia-old questions of human ancestry and origins. their own encrypting of the realm of material history. a key avenue for reenchanting tradition and recycling local identities . [Coetzee 1997:62] THE STATUS OF THE PAST IN THE NEW SOUTH AFRICA In the contemporary climate of national rebuilding. intellectual property debates. part of the history of civilization. Yet it remains an ever-present challenge to South Africans who are in the business of memorializing the past to keep multiple versions of the past alive and not to privilege a select set of master narratives that offer a sense of unity at the cost of eliding the fracture and dissonance (see Nuttall and Coetzee 1998a:14). Thus. For the nation and its communities. rather than the last centuries of indigenous settlement and concomitant lifeways (Shepherd 2002. Yet certain pasts have stronger valences. the past has been privileged in redressing the ills of the apartheid regime (Mbeki 2004) and similarly crucial to the creation and sedimentation of identities in the present. particularly as the rhetoric of national heritage has come to be a central medium through which the ANC’s promise of inclusivity is expressed. and readings that have come to have immense political purchase in contemporary South Africa. This process is at once personal and political. specifically in the domain of public life and popular culture.

the enabling infrastructure and linkages made between resources and outcomes often remains tenuous.” “exotic” market appeal. it is the latter kind of work that seems to me more urgent” (1985:47). albeit secondary to the agendas of restitution and civil infrastructure development. as in many contemporary societies. . and stupid native. for the tourist gaze. amenable to popular stereotypes. centuries of exploitation and the perverse curiosity that coalesces around cultural difference are now being played out in response to new international markets and calls for the recuperation of traditional African cultures. In the colonial period. In interviews with some of the children’s guardians. it seems staggering that such abuses continue and that tourists (domestic and foreign) are so comfortable in their complicity. brought there for the purposes of education about the heritage of their own nation. As Elizabeth Garland and Robert Gordon have eloquently argued. speaking of his own motivations and working against such a dynamic. I’m . After the 1994 elections. Andr´ e Coetzee (no relation to the novelist). 108. They are described as the laziest on earth. likening it to the layered concretions of “an archaeological site. they were drawn into the tropes of European class warfare because of their refusal to be drawn into the economy as wage laborers. In our time and place. as the name suggests. filthy. Instead of learning the lessons of history. others dissect these myths. the “Hottentot are underdeveloped” (Coetzee 1988:22). Although the =Khomani won a historic land claim in 1999 and some 37. On this ladder of complexity. they wear skins and live in huts. I am uplifting my Bushmen. their food is unclean. they have few resources and avenues for income and are thus susceptible to the predatory forces of capitalism. this reification is itself rooted in a capitalist value system. Ostri-San’s owner counters with the typical response that the children’s parents are destitute and cannot afford tuition. adroitly critiqued by Coetzee. The environment of repressive tolerance that consistently reproduces such scenarios recognizes cultural difference only insofar as the cultural difference proves profitable and. specifically their children. it became clear that Andr´ Coetzee had in fact “paid” to take e possession of the children: a total of 70 Rand ($10) was paid to two women (Geldenhuys 2004). a Kalahari theme park of sorts masquerading as a heritage experience. combines an ostrich farm and San village. Sitting around campfires in loincloths. pastoralists. early agriculturalists. A Bushman who is well-fed is a yellow one” (Geldenhuys 2004:5). that of the lazy. a dangerous conjunction that plays directly into racial fantasies long held in South Africa. For the European. e and his entrepreneurial efforts in the Kalahari as well as the subsequent fate of the =Khomani San. these market interventions have often been felt in the Western Cape in the rise of what we term new primitivisms and the performance of past. in both essays and novels alike (Coetzee 1988. While tourism may indeed be providing bushmen with substantial benefits. they will be denied the fully modern subjectivity that the (developed) tourists who visit them enjoy. Andr´ the park owner. One such case is the recent furor over Ostri-San. the writer. it is also ensuring that they remain permanently ‘not quite like us. specifically in devastating manifestation in the South African context. In the ecology of objectification. and performing ‘traditional’ activities has been read as an abuse and a violation of all individuals’ rights to education. Coetzee tackles head on the racist inflections of cultural progress. No. and public outrage mounted when the owner refused six of them adequate schooling. revitalizing a program of specifically African heritage was a necessity. Cultural heritage has assumed the status of cultural capital and. like the ostrich. This takes us back to that other Coetzee. Here. advanced precapitalist peasant agriculturalists” (Coetzee 1988:10). the Khoekhoe and San peoples are is the market and the market’s role is particularly apparent in the contexts of tourism and the politics of heritage (Mbembe 2002:266). stated that their “complexion changes from a dull grey to the proper yellow a few weeks after arriving here. When interviewed. the park’s owner.94 American Anthropologist • Vol. Ostri-San. the San are a species. Olsen notes that Coetzee. they are ugly. It is ultimately white investors that showcase indigenous culture for national and international tourists: The performers themselves are typically the resourceless communities who have little to market other than their own “traditional. More surprising in South Africa’s moral economy is the fact that many of these visitors are school children themselves. they are exposed to tourists and that builds character. Coetzee notes that “idleness of Hottentots is denounced in much the same spirit as the idleness of beggars and wastrels [was historically] denounced in Europe” (Coetzee 1988:21). The park showcases the =Khomani San.000 hectares of Kalahari land was returned to them. He critiques the evolutionary schema of ascent. . Given South Africa’s liberal democracy and attention to indigenous rights. it is also compulsory under the new constitution that they have schooling until the age of 15. Andr´ Coetzee claimed that e “it is not necessary. although the government has touted that heritage offers a wellspring for national pride and for economic growth in South Africa. perhaps then as now. In his introduction to White Writing. they are sexually depraved. This participates in another colonialist trope. In his famous essay on idleness in White Writing. claims that although “some cultural artifacts reinforce the myths of our culture. dancing. see also Shepherd 2003b). Many of the performers are children. However. Yet heritage is repeatedly considered one of the prime movers for economic and spiritual empowerment after the depredations of the apartheid state. which have been placed in a suitable habitat. 1 • March 2006 not exposing them to exploitation” (Geldenhuys 2004:5). hunters. . South African law prohibits children under 15 from working. they never wash. Unfortunately. and their language is inhuman. not yet’ ” (1999:283). The very combination belies an obvious slippage between the natural world and those of humans (“live bushmen”). hence. as long as “people called bushmen are characterized as being in the throes of a process of development. When confronted. Coetzee cleverly conjectures.

Coetzee situates traditional forms of anthropology and history as disciplines of surveillance. The future is. it has no reality. they appeared to lounge around their vast farmsteads with bovine languor (Hope 1988). which is itself consciously remaking its current history” (Polakow-Suransky 2002:A36). whereas the Boer settlers of South Africa achieve the pinnacle. It would have to be reformed by considerable discipline “if the ‘Hottentot’ was to have any stake (‘pull his weight’) in the Colony” (Coetzee 1988:26). Second. those descriptions issued from within the Cape colony may have been more representative of literary mores and the writer’s sense of inadequate taxonomic material. One would imagine that after the erasure of history—specifically African histories— from public arenas. recording. tracking down of “obscure” societies around the globe— photographing. a mental construct? But there is something miraculous about the past that the future lacks. given another ethnographic moment. the gendering of activities and their implications and a recognition that San communities were immensely diverse. has declared that “promoting a strong study of the past is a particular educational imperative in a country like South Africa. 2002) has gripped the democratizing geist. Oddly. after all. Of course you might reply that the past is likewise a fiction. Coetzee himself. writers like Burchell in his Travels in the Interior of Southern Africa (1822) had indirectly challenged that view. Coetzee demonstrates. history is not a growth industry in South Africa nor. from pastoralism to agriculture—a move. indeed. Kader Asmal. following the sentiment of Mbeki and others. for example. Coetzee reflects on the role of the past. Elizabeth Costello. HISTORICAL PRESENCE Coetzee’s work gives us pause to reflect on what happened in history and its long-lived ramifications. and the legacy of anthropology in its “insidious betrayal” of a people. only a structure of hopes and expectations. First. and those same conveniences result in his eventual yoking to civilization. and what is history but a story we tell ourselves. has made pointed claims of disinterest in the future. “History is becoming today what Anthropology was in Africa in the 1950s. in the guise of his characters. Linked to this dangerous set of assumptions— which found resonance in every textbook and cultural production throughout the nation during apartheid (see Wits 2003)—was the politicized taxonomy of race. elaborating how historical forces shape present political contexts and identity deformations (see Abdi 1999). the idea that some individuals (read: primitives) were more wed to certain places of which they became an obvious extension of the flora and fauna (Rassool and Witz 1996). is archaeology. He quips that although “we” would not be so censorious of the “idle Hottentots” today. It resides in the mind. and as archive fever (Hamilton et al. Coetzee elaborates that “with our wider historical perspective. Coetzee reminds us that Rousseau also wrote of the “Hottentot” as solitary and indolent savages. in which the notion of work may be said to make its appearance in history” (Coetzee 1988:34). and deciphering their activities. and educational settings that the subject of history would take on new valences and be ever-more popular. while alternatively recentering the importance of history. As Comaroff (2005) notes. specifically in the surveillance and regulation of sexual unions and offspring. From an acknowledged Foucauldian perspective. Yet during that time. he constructs a more nuanced version of 17th-century accounts of indigenous life at the Cape. self-evident. “Nests of idleness” continued to be a phrase invoked by colonial magistrates in the 19th century. including (1) the opening up of records and of new arenas for public expression and ecologies of experience and (2) the “[documentation of] the farthest reaches of apartheid and the struggles of countless people to resist racial oppression” (Clark and Worger 2004:9).” Although South Africans seem to have been exercising their newfound rights of access to historical records and cultural performances. they effectively reinforced a similar ideology. as it happens. it would be a rather different case for the Boers: To foreign visitors. imputing that the Khoekhoe way of life was “characterized by low-level subsistence maintained by the minimal resort to wage-labor (‘laziness’). in which either the populist ANC vision of the past will supplant all others or modes of rewriting will become triumphalist. Other voiced concerns include fear of a reversal of history. cultural productions. wandering in search of greener pastures (‘vagrancy’). According to romantic discourse. articulating a life full of activity and vivacity among Khoesan communities. celebratory accounts that simply replace white centrality with Afrocentric agendas (Erasmus and Pieterse 1999). What is . he reminds us that the challenge of idleness to work and its power to scandalize is as pressing today as it was in centuries past. the Khoekhoe became extreme examples of the undeniable. Coetzee presupposes what we might observe. the discipline that dare not speak its name. Drawing on the legacy of anthropological and historical scholarship. too. this has made little impact on the place of historical disciplines in the academy (Rassool 2000). The latter takes us back to the obsession of the magistrate with the even deeper past in Waiting for the Barbarians. The education minister. 95 In this critical essay. the place of history. In this fabrication. however. Lastly. Terence Ranger said some years ago. Further. and a sometimes casual attitude toward private property (‘thieving’)” (Coetzee 1988:26). it is the invention of tools that lifts “man” from this primitive state of savagery. provocatively states: In fact the future in general does not much interest me. “natural” constitution of colonial South Africa. The past is history. another “naturalized” false construction coalesced around landscape. One of the major tasks for the new generation is to pursue a notion of “transparency” in this new democratic ethos. Bringing the past into sharper contemporary relief. we might also appreciate better what a massive cultural revolution is entailed when a people moves from a subsistence economy to an economy of providence.Meskell and Weiss • Coetzee on South Africa’s Past at the base. When the British took over the Cape colony in 1795.

. and the horror of repetition were all at work in democratic South Africa in the last decade. Although this presages much of what has unfolded in postwar Germany. and degeneration as it is posed in colonial writing and beyond. archaeology must take on an even more salient political role. a shared history. as material witness to the erased elements of the prehistoric epoch and the purposeful elisions suffered by the disenfranchised perpetrated at the hands of their oppressors. But Coetzee consolidates and historicizes this connection: In the national elections of 1948. and collective histories. [Coetzee 2003:38] Here. taking in their train a number of phrases involving blood (blood-consciousness. Coetzee reminds us that these views once stood for science and intellectual opinion. especially in postcolonial contexts such as South Africa. In his novels. political prudence determined that this legislation would not follow that rationale of eugenics or biological destiny but would still mandate race classification. the central individuals are often the “unhomely figures of and for alterity.96 American Anthropologist • Vol. Coetzee reminds us that the generalities of such racialized positions pose clear and present dangers and that the errors of the past might easily be repeated if we are not ever vigilant. pure blood. in general. communities. our fiction of the future is a sketchy. Coetzee draws attention to postwar effects “including a will to forget. not only South Africa. a history whose ideological function was after all to justify the triumph of the West to itself. community. Their bodily presence indicates an unmournable. memory. Although he is quite clear on the historical contexts in these essays. the lessons of history cannot be escaped or deferred. and race dominance. The creation of the past seems to have exhausted our collective creative energies. Here. perhaps even humankind as a whole. as all visions of heaven tend to be. It is not difficult to connect these subtly shifting discourses to the increasingly hostile language and legal framings of the apartheid regime. why should one not foresee the triumph of the barbarian? What is the place of history for Coetzee. they embody precisely that material history of suffering that the narrative is unable to represent. many high level South African politicians were Nazi sympathizers who instigated a program of “racial legislation whose precursor if not model was the legislation of Nazi Germany” (Coetzee 1988:137). fin de si` cle outlook. He sees the future as an immaterial and bloodless affair in comparison. 1 • March 2006 miraculous about the past is that whole nations. lit. 108. Through materiality. degenerate. have succeeded in making thousands and millions of individual fictions—the fictions borne by individual human beings cohere well enough to give us a shared past. shameless bigotry. No. Writing about the old racial terminologies of Nazi discourse (Untermenschen. and so on. we who live in multicultural societies have at one time. Here. to decide which were superior and which inferior and thus to predict what future might be expected for each. so popular in colonial times and existing to this day. must be mindful of the past and about our crafting and retelling of it—specifically. should in certain quarters have gone hand in hand with a pessimistic. that the biologized history created by anthropologists. Quoting scientists and authors alike (Herbert Spencer. race separation. disappeared from public discourse. We do not have a shared fiction of the future. classes. a horror of repetition” and a purging of language that ensured that form of race consciousness would itself be terminated or go underground to emerge later in mutated form. Many South African historians and archaeologists have been acutely aware of the contextual importance of the past and have critically engaged with its representation. flaw. unfit. In particular. Coetzee reminds us that it is not strange that anthropology. this lack of specificity or naming in his own fictional writing finds more pointed ethical confrontation in his essays. however. or currently are. One of the great tasks it set itself was to produce a taxonomy of human races within an evolutionist framework. the erasure of the colonial past and its repressive regimes. Nor is it strange. etc. back before Nazism as well. particularly in the context of South Africa? Returning to the central characterization of Waiting for the Barbarians and answering to some of his critics. barren. tainted blood. He refutes the easy isomorphism of biology and culture found within Social Darwinism. He unpacks the myth. as it became institutionalized—should have centered on the study of race. on the other hand. From this perspective. e [Coetzee 1988:144–145] Coetzee provocatively asks. and Sarah Gertrude Millin). taint. Coetzee critiques prior discourses for their naked. etc. This harks back to Waiting for the Barbarians and the resultant critiques of his oeuvre. Coetzee is arguing that all nations. a material history that . which has come to characterize South Africa in the age of the TRC (see Nuttall and Coetzee 1998b). flaw. degeneration)” (Coetzee 1988:136). thus forming one of the most dominant ideological myths from the 19th century through to the 20th—a biologically inscribed manifest destiny. Coetzee imputes that these claims “stand for biological and anthropological realities.). it similarly has strong resonance with events after the demise of apartheid. The future is different. unverbalizable history. bloodless affair. the ethical narrating of a shared past. Compared with our fiction of the past. complicit in the disenfranchisement and repression of other populations. focusing on the ideas and fantasies around complex fabrications of blood. Writing from a wider ethical embrace. Ernst Haeckel. furthermore. Taking us back before the rise of National Party and its program of racial divide and repression. Further. as it grew to be a respectable discipline—that is to say.) as well as certain terms from the fringes of the science of heredity (taint. archaeological discourse adroitly redresses the politics of forgetting (Meskell in press)—specifically. the archaeological remnants of the past or its representation in musealized (Huyssen 2003) settings are positioned at the interstices of subjective experience. slave races. Coetzee concerns himself with the taxonomies and genealogies of racialized histories and how South Africa finds its own dark connections with fascist regimes. In Coetzee’s view.” the erasure of language. The notion of “forgetting.

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