Shared Cultural Trauma: Inarticulacy as Social Disability in South African Literature

Hannah Pagan



The social model of disability has recently been adopted by the South African government. This paper discusses the concept of the social model of disability in accordance with the oppression of the black population in South Africa during the apartheid regime. By identifying “inarticulacy”, or an inability to speak, as a common social disability for this demographic, this theme can be clearly mapped within South African literature. In drawing primarily on the work of Ato Quayson, this paper considers the importance of this reading in alluding to a “shared cultural trauma” as perpetuated by the institutional structures of South African society, which in turn permeates the black community. An analysis of Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) as connected to the apartheid era, compared with the post-apartheid text of Magona’s Mother to Mother (1998) allows for a proposal that the social disability encountered during apartheid has continued into the New South Africa.


Michael Oliver’s inspiring claim that “disablement is nothing to do with the body” (1996) is one that clashes with the historical focus of bodily impairment in South African literature during the apartheid era. The recently adopted ‘social model of disability’, in which oppressive institutional structures are the cause of disablement, is particularly compelling when applied to depictions of the black community in the literature born out of this period. A common issue for these characters, whether they are actually impaired or not, is the struggle to speak and communicate in their cultural and societal surroundings. By reconciling this struggle with the social model of disability, this essay hopes to provide a new realm of meaning to Ato Quayson’s observation that there is “a coincidence between inarticulacy, racialization, and disability” (2007, p. 149). Namely, through an examination of inarticulate characters in two novels that are suitably disparate in historical context and literary technique, I will discern how this lack of articulacy is demonstrative of the black community as a “disabled” or oppressed population, all being participants of what I term a ‘shared cultural trauma’[1] as a result. I shall ascribe Quayson’s trope of the “disabled as hermeneutical impasse” (2007, p. 50) onto Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians to trace the cultural inarticulacy that is implicit not just through acts of physical impairment but in attempts by Empire to write meaning onto any potential Other[2]. Ultimately reading Magona’s novel Mother to Mother as itself an attempt to open an articulate dialogue will allow me to present this social disablement of the non-white population as intrinsic to the continuation of the shared cultural trauma that permeates the political landscape of South Africa in the aftermath of the 1994 election.


The Social Model, South Africa and Apartheid

The concept of disability is one which has undergone a major overhaul in Western thought over the last fifty years. The traditional theoretical framework for understanding disability, particularly in the United Kingdom, has been underpinned by the following definitions that have distinguished between what it means to have an impairment, a disability:

impairment is any loss or abnormality of psychological, physiological, or anatomical structure or function”¦                                                                                               

disability is any restriction or lack (resulting from an impairment) of ability to perform an activity in the manner or within the range considered normal for a human being       

                                                                                (World Health Organisation, 1980, p. 47; p. 143)

These internationally recommended definitions promote a direct causal link between impairment and disablement. This belief in causality, known as the ‘medical model of disability’, has been criticised by disability activists for reasons such as enforcing a dichotomy between normality and abnormality, innately creating a disadvantage for those considered abnormal (Terzi, 2004). Above all, the medical model is fixed: the categorisation of ‘disability’ relies entirely on the biomedical recovery of the offending impairment. This is not always a possibility for those with permanent impairments such as amputees who rely on the use of a wheelchair in order to regain a certain level of mobility.

The medical model has since largely fallen out of favour with the majority of those within British disability studies (Oliver, 2012). The growth of disability rights movements between the 1960s and the 1980s led to the mainstream comprehension of the inarguable role of society in disablement. As such the social model of disability, pioneered by academic Michael Oliver and the Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation, has since developed into a widely accepted principle, with its own definition of disability:

the disadvantage or restriction of activity caused by a contemporary social organisation which takes no or little account of people who have physical impairments and thus excludes them from participation in the mainstream of social activities.

(UPIAS, 1976, p. 14)[3]

According to Oliver these social organisations range from economic structures to cultural prejudices, “from inaccessible public buildings to”¦ segregated education to excluding work arrangements” (1996, p.33). Thus under the social model, the amputee in the wheelchair is disabled insofar as she is restricted from entering a building due to the lack of a ramp, or fails during the job application process simply due to her impairment.

The social model has since been adopted by the government of South Africa as part of the commitment in the 1996 Constitution to promote equality of rights and freedoms and prevent undue discrimination on grounds including race and disability (Constitutional Court of South Africa, 1996). The resulting white paper, the Integrated National Disability Strategy (INDS) of 1997, outlines a number of social causes of disablement, including poverty and acts of violence as well as poor housing and social welfare systems. These are causes that need to be tackled in order to reinstate those with impairments back into an unrestricted participatory role in mainstream society (South Africa. Office on the Status of Disabled Persons, 1997).

In identifying these methods of disablement from societal participation, it becomes evident that those with impairments have been subject to the same oppressive social structures employed by the National Party-government against the non-white population during the apartheid regime[4]. Indeed, this link is one that can be traced in literary works from the period, with depictions of black characters sustaining impairments, and subsequently being excluded from society.  Quite often this disablement manifests itself as what Ato Quayson (2007) describes as “inarticulacy”[5], occurring usually between two separate cultures. Hence this paper uses in-depth readings of literature to demonstrate that it is possible to map the fundamental argument behind the social model onto the black community, namely to propose that black South Africans too have experienced a disablement from participating in society.

Inarticulacy between Cultures in Waiting for the Barbarians

Despite being an allegorical work, it is through the lens of South Africa and its history of apartheid that J.M Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians (1980) can be best understood as demonstrating the relationship between “inarticulacy, racialization, and disability” that Quayson identifies (2007, p. 149).  The novel places an unnamed imperial Empire on an unknown frontier in an ambiguous time and place, and therefore could exemplify any regime of authoritarianism. Yet as Head (2009) indicates, there are “specific details”¦ that clearly resonate with contemporaneous concerns in South Africa” (p. 48). For example Coetzee’s (1992) own admission that the novel is about the impact of torture, as well as the depiction of a brief and suspicious report of the death of a prisoner (Coetzee, 1997, p. 6), places the novel in direct response to historical events such as the lies from police regarding activist Stephen Biko’s torture and subsequent death in 1977.

With this contextual frame in mind, the focus of the novel is the dichotomy between the authoritative Empire and the perceived forthcoming barbarian threat. The protagonist, the aging Magistrate of the unnamed settlement, is a “man of conscience”, supposedly describing his ambivalent nature to occasionally question the motives of the Empire he serves (Coetzee, 1992, p. 363).  This dichotomy is portrayed by Coetzee through the relationship of the Magistrate with a barbarian girl, abandoned following the acts of torture instigated on the arrival of Colonel Joll. The girl has multiple physical impairments as a result of her encounter, and is found begging on the streets, homeless and in poverty: these are outcomes which are reminiscent of the findings of the INDS. Taken in by the Magistrate, any requests on his behalf for the girl to recall her time spent in the torture chamber are less than fruitful:

                ‘Did they do it to you?’


                ‘What did they do?’

                She shrugs and is silent.

                                                                                                                                                (Coetzee, 1997, p. 31)

This resounding silence confirms the barbarian girl as disabled within her societal surroundings. Her impairments were caused by the oppressive and discriminatory Empire, leaving her disabled and unable, or unwilling to articulate herself.

It is in this respect that the barbarian girl can be seen as fitting Quayson’s trope of ‘disability as hermeneutical impasse’ (2007). This typology, applying hermeneutics in the basic sense of the interpretation and understanding of texts (Baldick, 2008), recognises one of the frustrating difficulties that is often found when encountering disability in literature. Therefore the barbarian girl’s inarticulacy, linked to her disability, invites the Magistrate to interpret her as text: via her body, a method he attempts on numerous occasions during his almost-biblical washing of her various physical impairments, and via speech, when asking her forthright. This is in spite of his affiliation with those that have disabled her: “The distance between myself and her torturers, I realize, is negligible; I shudder.” (Coetzee, 1997, p. 29). Yet according to Quayson (2007) is it precisely the barbarian girl’s inarticulacy that prevents interpretation, as the Magistrate is unable to glean outright from her the truth of her experience.

By examining the Magistrate’s efforts further, however, it is clear that this inarticulacy is founded on a cross-cultural divide. The barbarian girl’s creation of a hermeneutical impasse for the Magistrate is based on her inarticulacy, but this disablement of speech is intrinsically linked to her categorisation by the Empire as a barbarian. One such disablement is in the strained sexual relationship between the Magistrate and the girl, with his attempts to read her maimed body standing in the way of sexual encounter. Yet the Magistrate is still able to sleep with other women within the Empire. In Chapter Three communication between the pair is partially regained, as they are able to engage in a shared “sensual joy” whilst on the trek to return the barbarian girl to her people (Coetzee, 1997, p.69). Through the application of the social model, the disability is lifted because the couple are now outside of the oppressive structures of the settlement.

Inarticulacy returns through the Magistrate’s own experience of torture, which he is subjected to on his return to the settlement. Accused of sympathising with the barbarians, the protagonist has been redefined from Empire to “Other”, and treated as such. His own torture consists of beatings, incurring physical impairments similar to those of the barbarian girl[6]. A harrowing mock-hanging ends proceedings,  with the fact that it takes place as a cultural event indicting the members of the town willing to watch as complicit in the social prejudices of the Empire. The girl is present at this event as a hallucination of the Magistrate, her head bowed as if in understanding. This initiation into this “Other” category therefore allows the Magistrate to finally interpret on some level the experience of the barbarian girl.   As Gallagher notes, his screams of pain described as “barbarian language” (Coetzee, 1997, p 132-133) exhibit an articulacy between the disabled, a “oneness [between] those who suffer” (Gallagher, 1991, p. 130).

There still remains a racialized aspect to this divide. Following these events the Magistrate is subject to homelessness, as was the barbarian girl. His poverty, however, is shortly alleviated by the kindness of the townsfolk, who offer him food and occasional shelter. In return he “sing[s] for his supper” tales of his imprisonment to those “eager to hear [his] side of the story” (Coetzee, 1997, p. 139). Whilst the Magistrate acknowledges that the townsfolk cannot fully understand his experiences, as he could not with the barbarian girl, he is still able and willing to articulate himself. His eventual return to society at the end of the novel signifies how the Magistrate, as a member of the settlement, never fully experiences the same disablement of the barbarian girl. Thus inarticulacy is culturally exclusive, as this inability to communicate only fully occurs on one side of the racial divide. Returning to the context of apartheid, it is clear to see how the experience of the black community was one of racialized ‘disablement’; that is, disabled from articulating their horrific oppressed status.

Inarticulacy and a Shared Cultural Trauma, Post-1994

Compared to the allegorical work of Coetzee, Sindiwe Magona’s Mother to Mother (1998) has been described by Brink (2009) as an “explicitly political act”, one which speaks directly to the shortcomings of the post-apartheid state (p. 12). Her novel is a retrospective glance at the violence of the transitional period from the viewpoint of the “New South Africa”[7]. It retells in an imagined epistolary manner the highly publicised murder of American student Amy Biehl whilst driving through the township of Guguletu, outside of Cape Town. The letters are directed from Mandisa, the protagonist and mother of one of the murderers, to the mother of the fictionalised account of Biehl. Despite the multicultural rhetoric of the “rainbow nation”[8]that embodied both the political landscape and the literature of the time, Mother to Mother appeals to the violent history of black South African oppression, such as the forced removals of black people in Cape Town (Magona, 1998), to lament that South Africa will, in Magona’s own words “predictably have a violent future” (2012, p. 94).

When read in regard to the social model, there are a number of instances of inarticulacy in the novel that suggest the continuation of the predicament of black disablement in South Africa. Unlike the focus on bodily impairment in Coetzee’s work, Magona’s representation of disablement is grounded in psychological and cultural trauma. This is evident in her portrayal of Mxolisi’s childhood muteness, which begins after he unwittingly reveals the hiding place of two older boys to the police, resulting in their murder. Mandisa’s son is described, at the age of four, as already being able to distinguish between “the bang! of a gun firing and the Gooph! of a burning skull cracking”: these are the norms of township life. This murder, however, “struck him mute”, with the onomatopoeia of “struck” a harsh reinforcement of the impact of the event and therefore the oppressive structures in place (Magona, 1998, pp. 146-148). The significance of Mxolisi’s diagnosis at the hospital, that his silence is due to sickness in the heart, resonates with Magona’s assertion that “trauma is in the blood” of South Africans (1998, p. 150; 2012, p. 93). This suggests that inarticulacy, as a trauma caused by disabling structures, is a common and shared experience: a ‘shared cultural trauma’. Indeed, Mandisa’s bitter explanation for her son’s tragic actions furthers this notion, “the resentment of three-hundred years” having led Mxolisi to act inarticulately out of anger (Magona, 1998, p. 210).

In her characterization, Magona succeeds in proving that this shared psychological trauma is one aspect continuing the social disablement of black South Africans. Nevertheless there is another struggle of articulacy present in Mother to Mother, in that Magona’s attempt to communicate the shared cultural trauma that the black population have endured can be seen as lost in translation. Whilst the epistolary structure of the text is promising in its invitation for a response, Samuelson furthers the notion of inarticulacy between cultures in that the dialogue opened in Mother to Mother is not addressed to a white South African woman but a white American woman. Her worry, “Would this “conversation” have been possible for Magona if Biehl had been a white South African?” simultaneously highlights the loss of potential reconciliation through addressing Mrs Biehl, whilst reaffirming my argument: this disability of inarticulacy between the black and white communities in South Africa “did not, and could not, change overnight” (Samuelson, 2000, p. 234-235).

| | |


This essay does not dispute that trauma has been encountered by all demographics in South Africa. Due to the nature of apartheid as the oppressive separation of the white and black populations however, a reading of black social disablement has been justified. I have demonstrated how the application of the social model of disability to the black population can adequately explain the intertwining of inarticulacy, race and (social) disability that Quayson (2007, p. 149) identified, as seen during the apartheid regime. By employing literary embodiments of inarticulacy in novels from both before and after the transition, it is evidential that this ‘shared cultural trauma’ still prevailed despite the rhetoric of the multicultural ‘rainbow nation’. Yet equally we must remember that Magona’s novel was only published in 1998. As Brink notes, “the shift from the “old” to the “new” began to manifest itself rather sooner in”¦ literature”¦ than in politics” (2009, p. 11). Literature therefore must wait for politics to catch up, especially when considering that apartheid has such a lasting social and structural legacy. With regards to the social model of disability, it seems the social disablement of those in the black community will continue to perpetuate this “shared cultural trauma” as an ongoing occurrence, at least until the social structures and institutions have been reset to cater for all.

[1]This is a term rephrased from Attwell's notion of a "shared cultural system" in which “trauma’s effects [have] become entrenched” (2012, pg. 286).

[2]The use of the term “Other” is deliberately invoking Said’s concept of Othering, the process by which non-Western people are considered as Others due to academic, social and cultural biases against them. (Leitch et al, 2010)

[3]I will henceforth use the term “impairment” exclusively to mean the physical or mental loss of function. ‘Disability’, ‘disablement’ and ‘disabled’ will all refer to the restriction of ability or activity as a result of oppressive social structures.

[4]For example, the abject poverty experienced by the impaired as outlined in the White Paper was overwhelmingly rife among black South Africans. As Deegan (2001) explains, this was due to the “fifty years of economic policies that favoured the white minority [creating] an economy characterised by serious structural weaknesses” (p. 115).

[5]I will use “inarticulacy” to refer to any representation of an inability to either speak or communicate in a conventional manner, for example a forced silence.

[6]Like his fascination with the scars of the barbarian girl, the Magistrate finds the people of the town are “surreptitiously fascinated” with his own ugly scar. (Coetzee, 1997, p. 140)

[7]A phrase commonly used by academics such as Deegan (2001) and Herwitz (2003) to describe the new South African nation built following of the abolition of apartheid and the first elections of 1994.

[8]A phrase used by Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu following the abolition of apartheid to invoke imagery of a “nation at peace” (Mandela, 1994).  

This article forms part of the SAHO and the University of York Partnership Project


Attwell, D. (2012) Trauma refracted: J.M. Coetzee’s Summertime. In Ewald, M. and Borzaga, M. (Eds.) Trauma, memory, and narrative in the contemporary South African novel: Essays. Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 283-294.

Baldick, C. (2008) Oxford dictionary of literary terms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Brink, A. (2009). Post-apartheid literature: a personal view. In Boehmer, E. and Eaglestone, R (Eds.) J.M. Coetzee in context and theory. London: Continuum, pp. 11-19.

Coetzee, J.M. (1992). Into the dark chamber: the writer and the South African state. In Attwell, D. (Ed.) Doubling the point: essays and interviews. London:Harvard University Press, pp. 361-368.

Coetzee, J. M. (1997). Waiting for the barbarians. London: Vintage.

Constitutional Court of South Africa (1996). Constitution of the republic of South Africa, 1996: bill of rights. [Online] Constitutional Court of South Africa. Available at:[Accessed 3 January 2015].

Deegan, H. (2001) The politics of the new South Africa: apartheid and after. Harlow: Pearson.

Gallagher, S. (1991). A story of South Africa: J.M. Coetzee’s fiction in context. Cambridge, Massachussetts: Harvard University Press.

Leitch, V., et al (Eds.) (2010). The Norton anthology of theory and criticism. London: W. W. Norton & Company.

Magona, S. (2012). It is in the blood: Trauma and memory in the South African novel. In Ewald, M. and Borzaga, M. (Eds.) Trauma, memory, and narrative in the contemporary South African novel: Essays. Amsterdam: Rodopi, pp. 93-105.

Magona, S. (1998). Mother to mother. Boston: Beacon Press.

Mandela, N. (1994). Statement of Nelson Mandela at his inauguration as President [Online] African National Congress. Available at:[Accessed 2 January 2015].

Oliver, M. (1996). Understanding disability: from theory to practice. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Oliver, M and Barnes, C. (2012). The new politics of disablement. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan

Quayson, A. (2007). Aesthetic nervousness: disability and the crisis of representation. New York: Columbia University Press.

Samuelson, M. (2000). Reading the maternal voice in Sindiwe Magona’s To my children’s children and Mother to mother. MFS Modern Fiction Studies, 46(1), pp. 227-245

South Africa. Office on the status of disabled persons. (1997). Integrated national disability strategy.

Terzi, L. (2004) The social model of disability: a philosophical critique. Journal of Applied Philosophy, 21(2), pp. 141-157

Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation. (1976) Fundamental principles of disability, London: Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation.

World Health Organisation. (1980). International classification of impairments, disabilities, and handicaps: a manual of classification relating to the consequences of disease. Geneva: World Health Organisation.

Collections in the Archives