Coetzee as Contractarian: Disgrace as Political Theory by Joshua Richman

This article was written by Joshua Richman and forms part of the South African History Online and the University of York Collaborative Project.


                Despite John Maxwell Coetzee’s Disgrace being the most critically engaged with novel in the South African canon, there remains an ambiguity regarding the purpose of Lucy’s rape and her decision to marry her rapist’s associate. Attempting to explain these instances as rooted in Coetzee’s referral to Hobbesian thought, the paper analyses the text’s subversion of the Lockean, Euro-American intellectual framework that shaped South Africa’s 1996 constitution. In portraying rural South Africa as a Hobbesian state of nature the text, while not overtly referencing the nation’s attempt to rewrite its constitutional foundations, nevertheless takes an implicit position in relation to these issues. Tracing Coetzee’s subversion of Western intellectual discourse’s relevance in speaking for South Africa, the paper demonstrates his avocation of a more locally rooted philosophical framework that should serve as its basis.

Building on Jean and John Comaroff’s analysis of the “European mission to emancipate humankind” (114), this paper argues that in creating a new post-apartheid state, South Africa was confined by the dialogue of Western political thought. Constructing an argument in two parts, I will begin by tracing the connection between John Locke’s social contract theory and the 1996 constitution[1]. Specifically, I will analyse the connection between the Property Clause (Section 25) of the Bill of Rights and Locke’s political philosophy, arguing that the former’s entrenchment of property rights was the inevitable result of an international neo-liberal, and indeed Lockean, consensus. This Western assumption of capitalism’s axiomatic value manifests itself within the cultural rhetoric of the Rainbow Nation. Having traced Locke’s South African presence, I will bridge political theory and literary studies by addressing the critical silence concerning Lucy’s rape in J. M Coetzee’s Disgrace (1999). Reading the text as a challenge to the constitution’s reflexive incorporation of Lockean doctrine, I will examine David Lurie’s position as a culturally Eurocentric voice who, as Disgrace’s centre of consciousness, subverts the South African constitution by describing events in Hobbesian, and therefore similarly Western, rhetoric. While this perception dominates the novel, I will ultimately draw on Ian Ward’s notion of “helping the dead speak” (254) to demonstrate Coetzee’s fundamental consistency with the Comaroffs’ call for political theory to move to a non-Western, “ex-centric site” (6). Here, I will explore the Byron opera as indicative of Lurie’s eventual acceptance of Western theory’s inability to speak for South Africa.

John Locke in South Africa

While not referring to contractarianism directly, in claiming that “Western enlightenment thought [has] posited itself as the wellspring of universal learning” (113), the Comaroffs hint at the distinctly Euro-American tradition of using social contract theory as the basis for legitimising government. That Rousseau’s famous enlightenment work The Social Contract locates itself within contractarian debate exemplifies this connection. Although one may question the relevance of this historic method in explaining today’s South Africa, the discipline witnessed a 20th century renaissance through John Rawls’s return to a hypothetical, “original position” as the starting point for constructing a model of government (15). In recognising contractarianism’s enduring relevance, James Buchanan highlights the “constitutional” stage of the modern contractarian process by arguing that society constructs a constitution that provides a “protective state” and facilitates our peaceful co-existence (88)[2]. The contractarian idea of government regulating rights is thus mirrored by the modern constitutionalist process of codifying the relationship between the citizenry and their government. As such, I interpret The Comaroffs’ identification of Western theory’s pervasiveness as inclusive of contract theory.

Locke’s contractarian model constitutes a prominent influence over Section 25 of South Africa’s Bill of Rights. Fundamentally, both outline government legitimacy as predicated upon its intention to honour the property rights that precede it. For Locke, government is a means of “Regulating and Preserving ... Property” (268). Were a regime to violate man’s natural right to ownership (as is appropriated through “his labour” (287)), it would be illegitimate and vulnerable to rebellion (356). The Property Clause outlines a similar relationship between government and property, with Ntsebeza emphasising the National Party’s success in “ensuring that the property of existing white owners would not be jeopardised” (113). The Bill’s subsequent declaration that “no law may permit [the] arbitrary deprivation of property” (sec. 25, subsec. 1) assuaged the New Party’s fear that the logic of decolonisation would prevail, by conforming to Locke’s concept of legitimate government, with the word “arbitrary” reinforcing Locke’s condemnation of overreaching authority. This entrenchment of capitalist values is part of the constitution’s broader acceptance of Western theory, in which Locke remains a prominent figure.

Identifying this Lockean influence is helpful when considering Section 25’s ambiguities regarding South Africa’s land question. Subsection 2’s provision that property can be expropriated “in the public interest” (sec. 25, subsec. 2a), alongside Subsection 4’s explanation that this “includes the nation’s commitment to land reform” (sec. 25, subsec. 4a), recalls Locke’s law of subsistence that: “as much Land as a Man Tills, Plants, Improves, Cultivates, and can use the Product of, so much is his Property” (290).  Significantly, both provisions attempt to curb the unchecked accumulation of wealth, with Section 25 allowing for the redistribution of colonised land and Locke positing that man can only appropriate what he is capable of consuming without spoilage: man must leave “enough, and as good” for others (291). While both approaches indicate a superficial attempt at redistribution, Ntsebeza’s identification that only “3 per cent of the land had been transferred to African hands” by 2004 (119) echoes the contradiction C. B. Macpherson reads within Locke’s thesis. Where Ntsebeza notes the constitutional paradox of pursuing a “comprehensive land redistribution programme [while] recognising land rights acquired through colonialism” (108), MacPherson argues Locke’s incorporation of imperishable money renders it “neither unjust nor foolish to accumulate any amount of land” (208). In implementing the World Bank’s “willing seller, willing buyer” principle (119), South Africa failed to solve its land question, instead reverting to Lockean international pressures that entrench property rights at the expense of redistribution.

This Lockean proscription of redistributive intent is implied in the Comaroffs’ assertion that “European historicism allows only one trajectory to non-western societies” (115). That is, “they must undergo a metamorphosis ... to Western capitalist modernity (ibid.). By the 1990s there was an international consensus surrounding the axiomatic value of Western liberal doctrine, with Francis Fukuyama famously describing the period as witnessing the solidification of “capitalist liberal democracy” as the “end point” of history and final stage of government (289)[3]. While this statement has since been qualified, the neo-liberal consensus of natural property rights constituted a significant influence over the new South Africa where Locke, as the “Father of Liberalism” (Sharma, 440), was translated into a modern context. Ntsebeza’s argument that the constitution’s entrenchment of property rights was an inevitability of the “tremendous pressure from both local and international capital” (127) should be rooted in an awareness of Locke’s enduring prominence in modern constitutional debates. Despite the Cold War’s end allowing for the possibility of negotiation, international economic pressures were so constraining that South Africa had only “one trajectory” available.

In describing “capitalist-modernity” as the “the great aspirations of liberalism” (116), the Comaroffs offer scope for an analysis of Locke’s contractarian presence within South Africa’s cultural discourse. In explanation, beyond the obvious multicultural connotations of South Africa being a whole body of united races and colours, Tutu’s and Nelson Mandela’s rhetoric of the Rainbow Nation invokes a connection to the Bible’s Noahic Covenant, which in itself exudes liberal aspirations to property. In Genesis, God famously blessed Noah and his sons by instructing them to “be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth” (The Bible: Authorized King James Version, Gen. 9. 1) while stressing that he has “given you all things” (Gen 9: 3). This reinforces the notion of man having a natural claim to land and property[4]. Mandela’s proclamation that “each of us [is] intimately attached to the soil of this beautiful country [in] a rainbow nation at peace with itself” (Manzo, 71), emphasises the importance of liberal contractarian thought within a South Africa that articulates man’s natural connection to the land as the fundamental expression of state participation. Recognising this cultural embodiment of the capitalist mindset allows for a modern Rawlsian definition of the social contract as a base structure, where several “major social institutions [form] one scheme of cooperation” (47). Beyond the constitution, South African culture has thus suppressed its colonial history of land seizure to facilitate the political entrenchment of Euro-American liberal aspirations.

John Locke Meets Petrus

Turning to Disgrace, Salman Rushdie argues that the text fails to qualify as great literature by not “shed[ding] enough light” on the “dystopic world” of violence and rape (41). This view resonates with the critical silence of Aggrey Klaaste who takes offence at “the story of black men raping a white woman” (9) and Lucy Graham who seemingly only finds solace in Lurie’s equal culpability “as a rapist” (443). These analyses overlook the nuance of a text that through Lurie engages with, and then challenges, the constitution’s Western influences. Timothy Wright’s view that The Life & Time of Michael K grapples with “South Africa, global modernity [and] the social contract, as formulated by Hobbes” (55) can be shifted to an awareness that Disgrace, through the intertextuality of Lurie’s devotion to the Western canon, initially participates in what the Comaroffs describe as the European “lexicon of liberal universalism” (115). Importantly, Lurie conducts his challenge to the new South Africa’s capability to protect his daughter through a Western conception of property rights, interpreting Lucy as living within a Hobbesian state of nature. In this sense Rushdie underestimates the text’s ability to “shed light” on the contractarian debates that the rape implies.

Christina Steenkamp’s description of post-apartheid South Africa as thrust “into a quagmire of fear and mistrust” (21) is given literary form through such instances as Bill Shaw’s view that living in South Africa is “like being in a war all over again” (102). This description resonates with Hobbes’s notion of a state of nature where life is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short” (76) and every man exists in a “perpetual war ”¦ against his own neighbour” (140). The link between Coetzee’s texts and Hobbes’s philosophy is of such prominence that Anton Leist emphasises how both writers are “acquainted with periods of civil war” (Leist and Singer). Considering Lurie’s reappropriation of Hobbes’s philosophy gives this interpretation particular weight. Whereas Locke argues that men have natural rights to property and self that precedes government, in Hobbes’s state of nature “man has a right to everything [sic], even to another’s body” (80). In objectifying the act as “another incident in the great campaign of redistribution” (176), Lurie challenges the Lockean state by reading Lucy’s rape and subsequent pregnancy as signifying a Hobbesian lack of autonomy over the body[5]. Continuing the constitutional debate along Eurocentric lines, his subversion of the liberal narrative marks an engagement with the philosopher often read as Locke’s antithesis.

Lurie’s perception of South Africa as a Hobbesian state of nature is made evident through the prominence of fear in Disgrace and Leviathan. His reflection on Lucy’s rapists as having “drank up her fear, revelled in it [and doing] all they could to hurt her, to menace her, to heighten her terror” (160) mirrors Hobbes’s argument that fear of “death, wounds, and imprisonment” (87) constitutes the rational basis for transitioning from our natural position to a commonwealth. Beyond the sentence’s structural escalation of Lucy’s terror, Lurie’s choice of language recalls the contractarian notion of fear as linked to consumption. While Locke interprets government legitimacy as the effective regulation of our inalienable natural right to property, Hobbes argues that we must confer our right to all things onto an artificial body or “Leviathan” who forces our obedience and ensures “the peace and security of the people” (120)[6]. In having the attackers drink Lucy’s fear, Lurie foreshadows his later observation that Petrus exploits terror to consume her rights and property.

Responding to this danger, Lurie and Lucy shun Locke’s idealistic social contract as unable to speak for the real South Africa and represent their natural condition. Their alternative contract initially conforms to Euro-American political theory in that they cast Petrus in the role of a pseudo-Leviathan protector. In Chapter 16, Lurie questions how Lucy can make a life “when she is liable to be attacked at any moment by thugs” (138). This prompts Petrus to announce that “Lucy is safe here” (138) and that “I will protect her” (139). Petrus thus fulfils the Leviathan’s contractarian role of forcing submission in order to allow men to “live peaceably amongst themselves, and be protected” (110) (note his explanation of his role as the one “who must be keeping the peace” (137)). This reading is reinforced by Lucy’s description of her contract. She interprets Petrus as offering “an alliance, a deal [where] I contribute the land, in return for which I am allowed to creep under his wing. Otherwise ... I am without protection” (203). While this contractual exchange has attracted feministic concern, I argue that Lucy’s response to her rape is intended to subvert the axiomatic assumption that Locke’s idealistic social contract is applicable to South Africa. Accordingly, her negotiation and consent is rooted in the implicitly Hobbesian account that she is willing “to do anything, make any sacrifice, for the sake of peace” (208).

The transference of property as a means of legitimising authority reads well with both Steenkamp’s emphasis of violence’s importance in “acquiring social benefits such as honour and prestige” (47), and Jan Penrose’s argument that “the Control of space is an extremely potent component of power relations” (279). Hobbes’s description of the “artificial” Leviathan that lives among us (3) is also endowed with great prestige through its namesake of a biblical sea-monster that induces terror and awe. Such attributes are evident in Lurie’s description of Lucifer as, “though he lives among us, he is not one of us. He is exactly what he calls himself: a thing, that is, a monster” (34). On his return to the farm, Lurie describes Petrus’s new house as “Grey and featureless, it stands on an eminence east of the farmhouse ... it must cast a long shadow” (197). This perception of Petrus’s material worth recalls the iconic image of Hobbes’s Leviathan as a mass body of featureless subjects that wields considerable power, as represented by a sword. The word “shadow” is evocative of his looming presence over Lucy’s dwelling, a concept that mirrors the pictured Leviathan’s colossal presence over the country he governs. Again, Lurie’s choice of language reinforces his Eurocentric definition of Petrus as a pseudo-Leviathan.

By the end of the novel Lurie no longer challenges South Africa’s constitution on Western grounds. Foregoing his reliance on Euro-American philosophy, he concedes that although “he speaks Italian, he speaks French [they] they will not save him here from darkest Africa” (95). In this sense he forgoes the Eurocentric lexis as unable to speak for South Africa, echoing the Comaroffs’ call for a more immediate starting point when constructing states “whose genealogies do not reach back directly into the European Enlightenment” (127). This shift in attitude to political thought is represented by the Byron opera. Considering Ian Ward’s comparison of reading theory to “helping the dead speak” (255), the intellectual process is reappropriated as reading dead writers in modern contexts. Through attempting to create “music that will bring back the dead” (156), Lurie initially sought a dialogue with these historic writers of the European canon, his own “immortal longings” being expressed through Teresa’s instance that “she will not be dead” (209). Coetzee however signifies growth through Lurie’s acceptance of the folly in continuing to rely on Western ideas. After shunning the grandiose musical form for the more colloquial banjo, the structurally significant final line reinforces his dismissal of European ideas. Kimberly Wedeven Segall argues that Lurie’s declaration, “Yes, I am giving him up” (220) marks his departure from “his romanticized ego”, as facilitated through the “crippled dog[’s] function as the final object” (46). No longer seeking a connection to immortal Europe, he accepts that the dead cannot speak for South Africa.


Analysing the literary moments that engage with contractarian thought, this paper has given voice to the critical silence that surrounds the aftermath of Lucy’s rape. While the feministic concerns of Graham et al. are important, I have asserted the salience of contractarian thought in interpreting literature and as such, have read the incident in relation to Lurie’s subversion of South Africa’s neo-liberal consensus. Drawing on the Comaroffs’ concept of Western liberal doctrine as imposing its own simulacrum onto the new South Africa, I explained Nstebeza’s argument that the current constitution is “the main obstacle to large-scale land redistribution” (107) as caused by Section 25’s Lockean entrenchment of property rights. While Lurie initially articulates his subversion of this framework within the same Euro-centric lexis to which the constitution conforms, he now accepts that “Byron in Italy is going nowhere” (214), recognising the madness of using Western political thought to create the new South Africa. In giving up this endeavour, Lurie offers scope for a more organic and immediate political theory that can define the state, as signified by the potential implied by Lucy’s child and Coetzee’s post-human fascination with animals as an attempt to revisit ethical theory. Through this emphasis on the “ex-centric”, non-Western site, I therefore submit the value of reading Disgrace as political theory.


[1]This essay uses the contractarian approach to social contract theory that reasons we consent to a covenant out of self-interest, not duty. Traditionally this marks our transition from a hypothetical state of nature to a government that can better regulate our rights. As Jan Narveson puts it we consent “first because we are vulnerable to ... others, and second because we can all benefit from cooperation” (148).

[2]Coetzee challenges this idea in the first chapter of his Diary of a Bad Year.

[3]Note the distinction between this international acceptance of liberalism as emphasising free market values and Desmond Tutu’s explanation of its historic South Africa’s status as “a swear word” that signifies white manipulation (70). This essay is primarily interested in the former’s influence in shaping the new South Africa.

[4]Locke refers to the “Grants God made of the World to ... Noah, and his Sons” (286) as the basis for his theory of property. While Tutu and Mandela do not invoke the Noahic Covenant to imply an inherent Lockean link, in choosing this metaphor they unconsciously conform to a wider cultural framework that accepts the axiomatic value of Eurocentric approaches to property based political thought.

[5]Roman Silvani’s argument that Coetzee “presents the body as a site upon which politics and history are played out and made apparent” (12) is an effective challenge to Rushdie’s dismissal of Lucy’s rape as failing to illuminate the “the dystopic” world of Lurie’s South Africa. Rather, literature is as a space where the bodily experiences of the individual signal wider societal ramifications. In Disgrace this takes the form of Euro-American contractarianism.

[6]The issue of alienating rights is important in South Africa’s constitution. Unsurprisingly, it incorporates a Lockean endowment of “non-derogable” status to “Life”, “Equality” and “Human Dignity” (Sec. 25, Subsec. 5c).

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Last updated : 03-Feb-2017

This article was produced for South African History Online on 28-Apr-2015