Wednesday, December 10, 2003

The BBC reports today that JM Coetzee has broken his customary reclusiveness and is traveling to Stockholm to receive his Nobel prize for literature.

The most interesting part of the Beeb's report is right at the end:

"Coetzee is not well-known in his native South Africa and few newspapers bothered to report his Nobel win, said the BBC's Barnaby Phillips in South Africa.

"Local newspapers have shown no interest... and black intellectuals say he is not a worthy winner," he said in a report for the BBC's Today programme on Radio 4.

Interviewing white South Africans in a Johannesburg suburb and black students at Witwatersrand university, Phillips found few people who had heard of the writer or knew about his Nobel."

Is this an accurate description of South Africa's attitude towards Coetzee in particular and the arts in general? I think it probably is. Throughout its history, South Africa's public sphere has been dominated by monolithic political discourses which crowded out and were intolerant of a separate, and possibly subversive, artistic space. Thirty years ago artists in SA were hounded for being 'communist' or indeed, 'liberal', now they're hounded for being 'racist' or 'negative'. Does this explain our apparent apathy or indeed suspicion of artists? Not entirely, but it does go some way.


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