Waiting for the Barbarians

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Waiting for the Barbarians

by J. M. Coetzee


A novel set at an unspecified time in a frontier town in a fictional Empire; published in English in 1980.


When the Empire’s security forces enter a quiet frontier town and begin rounding up and torturing the “barbarians” who live nearby, the town magistrate is compelled to terms with the state-sponsored violence.

Events in History at the Time of the Novel

The Novel in Focus

For More Information

Born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1940, J. M. Coetzee is probably the best known and most influential South African writer after Nadine Gordimer. Unlike Gordimer, however, Coetzee often avoids strict social realism, instead creating universal, often allegorical fictions that remind us how “oppression and injustice are not limited to South Africa, [and how], in some sense, they are eternal” (Gallagher, p. 10). For this reason Coetzee has been a somewhat controversial figure among African writers, many of whom equate political engagement with a particular kind of realism. Nonetheless, Coetzee has been an outspoken critic of both apartheid and political victimization in all its forms. In 1987 Coetzee won the Jerusalem Prize for being “a fighter for human freedom and dignity,” and for writing in ways that contribute to “the freedom of the individual in society” (Mitgang in Gallagher, p. 11). Waiting for the Barbarians, Coeztee’s “contribution to the international discourse on torture in South Africa,” is often considered to be his most powerful work (Gallagher, p. 118).

Events in History at the Time of the Novel


Waiting for the Barbarians is an allegory in which South Africa is never explicitly mentioned. However, the links between Coetzee’s fictional “Empire” and the practices of South Africa’s Nationalist government are clear. The novel was written in 1979, at a time when, due to the much-publicized death of Stephen Biko in 1977, torture in South Africa had suddenly become the focus of international attention. Biko, whose story is told below, was only one of many revolutionary leaders detained and tortured in South African prisons during the period of Nationalist rule that lasted from 1948 until 1990. This period, characterized by the policy of enforced segregation called apartheid, saw the statesponsored detention and imprisonment of thousands of South Africans who protested the white domination and racial legislation of the Nationalist government. Though reports of the torture of detainees and prisoners in South Africa had circulated since 1948, it was only in the late 1970s that torture became the subject of international discourse and criticism, and that specifics about electric shock treatments and police beatings were revealed to the public. It is in this context that Waitingfor the Barbarians was written.

To understand the practice of torture in South Africa, it is necessary to understand the history and ideology surrounding the Nationalist Party and its policy of apartheid. The Nationalist Party was voted into power in 1948, after years of increasing concern by Afrikaners (whites mainly of Dutch descent) over both the “native question” (race relations) and what they perceived as the continued threat of British influence in South Africa. Afrikaner voters wanted concrete solutions to both problems. The electorate, of course, did not include the black segments of the population (which totaled 80 percent of the population), who were excluded from the vote as from so much else in South African society. Indeed, from the very beginning, “the history of white colonization was one of conquest, plunder, and dispossession of the indigenous Black peoples and societies” (Harsch, p. 15). (A note on terminology is in order here. Historians divide South African society into white, African, coloured [of mixed descent], and Indian, sometimes using “black” to refer to all nonwhites.) From the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries on, Dutch and British settlers had gradually excluded native Africans from the privileges of power, and when the two settler groups joined together to form the Union of South Africa in 1910, there emerged “one of the most extreme forms of racial segregation in the twentieth-century world” (Beinart and Dubow, p. 3).

The segregation policies that resulted from this union included a number of explicitly racial laws restricting the lives and movements of non-whites in almost every sphere.

1911 Mines and Works Act: Segregated workers, giving white employees a monopoly on skilled jobs.

1913 Natives Land Act: Segregated races in rural areas; reserved 7 percent of land for native Africans (67 percent of population); prohibited them from buying land outside reserves from non-Africans.

1923 Natives Urban Areas Act: Segregated races in urban areas; prohibited African purchases of township land.

1936 Representation of Natives Act: Abolished the remnant African franchise, disqualifying African voters in Cape Province.

1936 Native Trust and Land Act: Authorized more land for reserves; increased them to 11.7 percent of the nation by 1939.

(Thompson, p. 163)

As a result of these laws, native Africans were forced to leave their own lands, live on cramped reserves, join the labor market, work for low wages, and carry pass cards (documents of identification used to restrict their movements in urban areas). Black workers could neither strike nor take jobs designated for white workers. It became official policy to maintain white supremacy in South Africa—specifically, after 1948, white Afrikaner supremacy.

Before 1948, however, South Africa’s white British population seemed more supreme than the often-impoverished Afrikaners, many of whom felt resentful at “finding themselves at the mercy of British commerce and culture” (Meredith, p. 19). When United Party co-leader Jan Smuts led South Africa into World War II—Britain’s war, as many Afrikaners saw it—strident Afrikaners lost patience with more moderate approaches to government, and voted the virulent, fascist-influenced National Party into power in 1948, under the campaign slogan of “apartheid.” The National Party promised to return glory to the Afrikaner people. A campaign manifesto explained:

We can act in only one of two directions. Either we must follow the course of equality, which must eventually mean national suicide for the white race, or we must take the course of apartheid through which the character and the future of every race will be protected…. [T]he [National Party] therefore undertakes to protect the white race properly and effectively against any policy, doctrine or attack which might undermine or threaten its continued existence. At the same time, the Party rejects any policy of oppression and exploitation of the non-Europeans by the Europeans as being in conflict with the Christian basis of our national life, and irreconcilable with our policy.

(Le May, p. 202)

Almost immediately after assuming power the Nationalists began constructing a body of laws, policies, and bureaucracies that would develop into the world’s most complex racial system. The system banned interracial marriages and sexual acts between the races. Its laws compelled different racial groups to use separate restaurants, post offices, theaters, buses, and so on; and to use separate entrances and seats in public buildings. As the authorities demarcated separate residential areas for the different racial groups, whole communities were uprooted. Only 11.7 percent of the land was reserved for the African population (nearly 70 percent of the total population) by 1939. As the breakdown shows, the areas demarcated for nonwhite South Africans represented only a small percentage of the country’s total land mass; as a result, many nonwhites had no alternative but to build makeshift shantytowns on the outskirts of white-populated cities. Such overwhelming inequality was a standard feature of apartheid legislation. Unlike the separate-but-equal rhetoric in the United States, there was no suggestion that facilities—such as restrooms at a train station—had to be equal or even exist for blacks in South Africa. In fact, in 1953 a legal decision declared that facilities did not have to be equal. The decision is but one example of a host of similar rulings. Between 1948 and 1971 the government enacted about 150 racial laws, affecting every aspect of daily life—three times the number enacted in the four decades preceding the National Party’s reign.

Torture and the case of Stephen Biko

Such extreme laws did not go unchallenged. In fact, they provoked continual unrest and protest within oppressed communities. The government retaliated by building an elaborate security force to monitor revolutionary activity. The police, as well as intelligence officers, were granted more and more power to deal with political troublemakers in whatever ways they felt necessary. A series of harsh laws were passed to restrict political opposition and extend the power of the security forces. Indeed, one of these laws, the Terrorism Act of 1967, granted the security police the power to “hold virtually anyone for as long as they felt necessary, until he had ’satisfactorily replied to all questions’ … or [until] no useful purpose will be served by his further detention” (Amnesty International Report on Torture, p. 128). As research by the United Nations (U.N.) Special Committee on Apartheid later confirmed, torture was often an integral part of these detentions:

The conclusion is inescapable that cruelty against opponents of apartheid … and that torture by the Security police is condoned, if not actually encouraged, by the Government. Allegations of similar tortures have been made from so many centres and have involved so many local officers … that there is reason to believe that Security Branch officers have been trained in these methods.

(Amnesty International Report on Torture, p. 131)


Official accounts of prison deaths often blamed suicide or accidents for the deaths of political prisoners. In his poem “In Detention,” Christopher van Wyk explores the absurdities of this official rhetoric:

He fell from the ninth floor

He hanged himself

He slipped on a piece of soap while washing

He hanged himself

He slipped on a piece of soap while washing

He fell from the ninth floor

He hanged himself while washing

He slipped from the ninth floor

He hung from the ninth floor

He slipped on the ninth floor while washing

He fell from a piece of soap while slipping

He hung from the ninth floor

He washed from the ninth floor while slipping

He hung from a piece of soap while washing.

(van Wyk in Gallagher, pp. 117-1 8)

According to the U.N. report and the findings of Amnesty International, these “methods” sometimes included psychological techniques like solitary confinement, but were most often physical and brutal in nature. Allegations were made that there “is an appliance for administering electric shock torture in almost every police station in South Africa” (Amnesty International Report on Torture, p. 131). According to Amnesty International, between 1962 and 1971 at least 20 prison deaths in South Africa were believed to have resulted from police torture. Though investigations were sometimes made, neither the police nor government were ever held responsible. As we see over and over again in Waiting for the Barbarians, official reports normally concluded that suicide, or accidents, had caused the detainees’ deaths.

The press sometimes challenged these official claims; in 1964, for instance, the detainee Suliman Salojee supposedly fell from a window and died during a police interrogation, though, as the press noted, the window in question had been heavily barred. When the same kind of rhetoric was used to explain the mysterious 1977 prison death of Stephen Biko, the charismatic leader of the Black Consciousness Movement, a public outcry followed. “Black consciousness,” explained Biko, “is in essence the realisation by the black man of the need to rally together with his brothers around the cause of their subjection—the blackness of their skin—and to operate as a group in order to rid themselves of the shackles” (Biko in Thompson, p. 212). In a series of articles and speeches, a friend of Biko’s, the white journalist Donald Woods, blamed Biko’s death on the police, who themselves claimed that Biko had died of a hunger strike, despite the fact that Biko had been in prison less than a month. Biko had been one of many arrestees in the Soweto uprisings that began in June 1976 after police opened fire on unarmed student protesters. Hundreds were killed during the 16 bloody months of the uprisings, and thousands more, like Biko, vanished into detention.

In response to the outcry over Biko’s death, the South African government banned all Black Consciousness organizations and newspapers, and arrested 47 black and 7 white prominent revolutionary leaders. Afrikaner newspapers repeated the police’s explanation of Biko’s death and, later, when an autopsy revealed damage to Biko’s brain, the newspaper The Citizen suggested that Biko had committed suicide by banging his head against the wall.

Eventually, however, due to continued public demand, an inquest was held into Biko’s death. The inquest revealed many facts of police brutality and maltreatment of detainees. It was discovered, for instance, that Biko had been kept “naked in isolation and was shackled in leg irons and handcuffs” (Gallagher, p. 114). Donald Woods’s wife, Wendy, was present at the inquest. Directly confronted for the first time, like many South Africans, with the mystery of torture, she commented on the security policeman testifying at the inquest:

These men displayed symptoms of extreme insularity. They are people whose upbringing has impressed upon them the divine right to retain power, and in that sense they are innocent men—incapable of thinking or acting differently. On top of that they have gravitated to an occupation which has given them all the scope they need to express their rigid personalities. They have been protected for years by the laws of the country. They have been able to carry out all their imaginative torture practices quite undisturbed in cells and rooms all over the country with tacit official sanction, and they have been given tremendous status by the government as the men who “protect the state from subversion.”

(Woods in Gallagher, pp. 114-5)

Biko’s death became symbolic of South African police atrocities, leading to both popular and international protest. When the inquest resulted in the verdict that Biko’s death was blameless—that he probably died during a “scuffle” with police—public protest became even more vehement (Gallagher, p. 144). News of Biko’s death and the following inquest led the United Nations to declare 1978 as International AntiApartheid Year and to levy economic sanctions against South Africa. Antiapartheid protests were heard around the world, with writers in South Africa addressing the issue through their literary works. Like Wendy Woods and others of her time, the Magistrate in Waiting for the Barbarians is haunted by the face of the torturer, by his “cells and rooms all over the country” (Woods in Gallagher, p. 115).

The Novel in Focus

Plot summary

Waiting for the Barbarians is told from the perspective of the old Magistrate who watches over the affairs of a small frontier settlement on the outposts of the Empire. The Magistrate has held this position comfortably for decades; the town itself is sleepy and quiet, though kept in check by a vague, ever-present fear of the unknown “barbarian” presence existing outside its gates. Though the barbarians function as a scapegoat for the townspeople and rumors of war preparations and attacks circulate continually through the town, the Magistrate knows how little of this talk is based in truth:

There is no woman living along the frontier who has not dreamed of a dark barbarian hand coming from under the bed to grip her ankle, no man who has not frightened himself with visions of the barbarians carousing in his home, breaking the plates, setting fire to the curtains, raping his daughters. These dreams are the consequence of too much ease. Show me the barbarian army and I will believe.

(Coetzee, Waiting for the Barbarians, p. 8)

Unlike the rest of the town, the Magistrate seems to have a basic respect for the “barbarians,” who, in his experience, are neither violent nor aggressive. In his spare time he orchestrates excavations of local ruins, unearthing native artifacts. When Colonel Joll arrives in town, the Magistrate tells him how the native inhabitants go about trapping the flocks of geese and ducks that migrate down the lake every year, and suggests that they go together to observe the local custom of fishing at night:

I suggest that I take him out fishing by night in a native boat. “That is an experience not to be missed,” I say; “the fishermen carry torches and beat drums over the water to drive the fish towards the nets they have laid.”

(Barbarians, p. 1)

Colonel Joll is not interested, however, in learning about the local customs. An official of the ominous-sounding “Third Bureau,” he has been sent to the frontier “under emergency powers” (Barbarians, p. 1). Convinced that “barbarian tribes” are readying themselves to wage war at any moment, the Empire is preparing a counterattack. The task of Colonel Joll is to interrogate and imprison these barbarians, to figure out “the truth.” In other words, Joll is a torturer. He uses a euphemism, “pressure,” to describe the way in which he gets to the truth:

I am speaking of a situation in which I am probing for the truth, in which I have to exert pressure to find it. First I get lies, you see—this is what happens—first lies, then pressure, then more lies, then more pressure … then the truth. That is how you get the truth.

(Barbarians, p. 5)

Waiting for the Barbarians opens with Colonel Joll’s arrival in the town. An old native man and a sick young boy suspected of banditry have been captured and locked up in the granary. Colonel Joll goes in to interrogate them, despite the Magistrate’s assurance that no raiding party would have included a sick boy and an old man in its ranks, and the prisoners’ own insistence that they had been on their way to the doctor. The Magistrate becomes conscious that he is pleading for the two prisoners, and when Colonel Joll tells him that he has “to question them” anyway, and that the Magistrate might find their “set procedures” tedious to watch, the Magistrate retreats to his regular, comfortable routine, leaving Colonel Joll to his business (Barbarians, p. 4). Though the Magistrate cannot hear the screaming, he admits that “at every moment that evening as I go about my business I am aware of what might be happening and my ear is even tuned to the pitch of human pain” (Barbarians, p. 5). The old man dies during the interrogation. The official report states that the prisoner had attacked the visiting officer and in the subsequent struggle had hit his head against the wall and died. When the Magistrate visits the prisoners later, he sees the old man’s corpse still lying on the floor, and the boy lying on some straw, his hands tied in front of him and his body beaten. The Magistrate attempts to care for the boy, by feeding him, instructing the guards to loosen the ties, calling in a doctor, and so on. But the Magistrate knows that he “cannot pretend to be any better than a mother comforting a child between his father’s spells of wrath” (Barbarians, p. 7). He is not out to be a hero. He comes to abhor the increasing violence around him, but is also excruciatingly aware of his own complicity in it, and of the fascination it holds for him. More than anything, the Magistrate wishes he were able to turn a blind eye to the events around him:

If I had only handed over these two prisoners to the Colonel, I reflect—“Here, Colonel, you are the specialist, see what you can make of them!”—if I had gone on a hunting trip for a few days, as I should have done, a visit up-river perhaps, and come back, and … put my seal on his report, with no question about what the word investigations meant. …

(Barbarians, p. 9)

Colonel Joll begins planning raids on the barbarians, hoping to take more prisoners and, in this way, to discover more of the “truth.” As the Magistrate attempts to dissuade him, warning him of the difficulties of navigating the terrain and of the inferior quality of their maps, the Colonel consistently replies in neutral, official language, using banal words like “situation” or “investigation” or “procedure” to mask horrible actions: “we will,” he says at one point, “locate the encampment of these nomads and proceed further as the situation dictates” (Barbarians, p. 12). Throughout the book, the Magistrate attempts to understand and discover what allows such torturers to inflict pain the way they do: “Looking at him I wonder how he felt the first time: did he, invited by an apprentice to twist the pincers or turn the screw or whatever it is they do, shudder even a little to know that at that instant he was trespassing into the forbidden?” (Barbarians, p. 12).

Colonel Joll’s expedition departs, and within days new prisoners begin arriving. As the townspeople crowd around, the Magistrate recognizes the 12 prisoners as peaceful fishermen. “These are fishing people!” he shouts to a guard, “How can you bring them here?” (Barbarians, p. 17). The Magistrate can do nothing but treat the scraggly, harmless barbarian prisoners well until the inevitable day of their torture. When the Colonel and his soldiers return, they reenter triumphant, laughing with excitement and leading a new batch of prisoners “roped together neck to neck” (Barbarians, p. 20). The next day, the Colonel begins his interrogations. The Magistrate feels that “the joy has gone from life,” and, powerless at home, spends more and more evenings with a young prostitute (Barbarians, p. 22). Five days later the prisoners emerge, “sick, famished, damaged, terrified,” and the Magistrate orders them to be fed and returned to their homes (Barbarians, p. 25).

One barbarian woman, as it turns out, is left behind, having been blinded by her torturers, and having had her feet broken. Her father, also a prisoner, had been tortured and killed in front of her. For the rest of the novel, this woman—with her staring blank eyes and broken body—will hold a strange power over the Magistrate. He takes her into his rooms; feeds, bathes, and warms her; and rubs and washes her broken feet. The care of her feet soon becomes a nightly ritual for him. His feelings and intentions regarding the woman are complicated; while he wants to heal her, he is also fully aware of the sadism coloring his actions, and of the mildly erotic pull her tortured body has for him. As he himself notes, “the distance between myself and her torturers, I realize, is negligible” (Barbarians, p. 27). Towards him the woman is passive and submissive, almost indifferent. He tries to imagine what had been done to her, tenderly asking her to describe the torture, and tracing the lines of her scarred body again and again. He goes out to the granary and memorizes the site; he asks the guards to describe those days to him, to tell him about the woman and her father. No matter what he does, however, the woman and her pain remain unfathomable:

Is this how her torturers felt hunting their secret, whatever they thought it was? For the first time I feel a dry pity for them: how natural a mistake to believe that you can burn or tear or hack your way into the secret body of the other! The girl lies in my bed, but there is no good reason why it should be a bed. I behave in some ways like a lover—I undress her, I bathe her, I stroke her, I sleep beside her—but I might equally well tie her to a chair and beat her, it would be no less intimate.

(Barbarians, p. 43)

Even his own motives remain a mystery to the Magistrate; “is it she I want,” he asks, “or the traces of history her body bears?” (Barbarians, p. 59).

At one point, after several months of living with the barbarian woman in this manner, the Magistrate tells her that he is taking her back to her people. He enlists three men to help them and before spring arrives the five travelers set out on a harrowing journey through the frontier. When they finally meet up with a small group of barbarians, the Magistrate orders the woman to speak to them, to tell them why they have come. Then he tells the woman: “now that I have brought you back, as far as I can, I wish to ask you very clearly to return to the town with me. Of your own choice” (Barbarians, p. 71). The woman says no, so the four men head back without her. As they approach their town, they find it much changed; the army has arrived, and the campaign against the barbarians has begun. The Magistrate’s office has been taken over by men from the Bureau, one of whom accuses him of “treasonously consorting with the enemy” (Barbarians, p. 77). The Magistrate is locked up in the same barracks room in which the barbarians had been held before. He sits in this prison every day, unwashed, neglected, thinking of the woman and her father and of the pain and degradation that the empty walls of the room have witnessed. His mind wanders:

Somewhere, always, a child is being beaten. I think of one who despite her age was still a child; who was brought in here and hurt before her father’s eyes; who watched him being humiliated before her, and saw that he knew what she saw… .

I gave the girl my protection, offering in my equivocal way to be her father. But I came too late, after she had ceased to believe in fathers… .

I should never have allowed the gates of the town to be opened to people who assert that there are higher considerations than those of decency.

(Barbarians, pp. 80-81)

The Magistrate is deemed an enemy of the state and his tryst with the barbarians, a secret political meeting. In prison for months, supposedly awaiting trial, he sinks into ever-worse degradation, losing all sense of the pride he once had. At a certain point no one cares about him any longer; he has become a joke of a man, and is allowed to roam freely through town, now that he has nowhere to go. Meanwhile, the campaign against the barbarians continues.

As more and more barbarians are arrested, the town’s treatment of them becomes more public, more overt. At one point a group of prisoners is beaten horribly as crowds of people look on in excitement, encouraging small children to join in the beatings. The Magistrate himself is tortured publicly; made to wear a dress and hung from a tree, he becomes the butt of laughter to a crowd of onlookers. The soldiers take over the town, the war continues, and suddenly the barbarians gain several victories over the Empire, luring the soldiers, says one of them, “on and on, we could never catch them” (Barbarians, p. 147). Unable to make much headway and terrified out of their minds, the soldiers and townspeople begin streaming out of the frontier town and back to the capital. The Magistrate moves back into his rooms, and life becomes almost normal again.

But not really normal. The novel ends with one of the Magistrate’s dreams, a dream of children building a snowman:

It is not a bad snowman.

This is not the scene I dreamed of. Like much else nowadays I leave it feeling stupid, like a man who lost his way a long time ago but presses on along a road that may lead nowhere.

(Barbarians, p. 156)

The torturer

J. M. Coetzee describes Waiting for the Barbarians as being about “the impact of the torture chamber on the life of a man of conscience” (Coetzee in Gallagher, p. 120). The novel itself, while clearly alluding to South Africa and often seeming to allude to the death of Stephen Biko, is ultimately universal in scope, exploring, in broad terms, the relationship between the oppressor and the oppressed, the torturer and the tortured. But to the novel’s Magistrate, it all remains a mystery. He never penetrates the heart of the blinded, brokenfooted barbarian woman, nor the soul of the torturer, Colonel Joll:

I look into his clear blue eyes, as clear as if there were crystal lenses slipped over his eyeballs. He looks back at me. I have no idea what he sees. Thinking of him, I have said the words torture …torturer to myself, but they are strange words, and the more I repeat them the more strange they grow, till they lie like stones on my tongue.

(Barbarians, p. 118)

As Elaine Scarry points out in The Body in Pain, “however near the prisoner the torturer stands, the distance between their physical realities is colossal”; for while the torturer is without pain, the person being tortured is in excruciating pain (Scarry, p. 36). It is this distance that the Magistrate cannot bridge; he cannot access the pain or experience of the tortured (until he is himself tortured), nor can he understand the painlessness of torturing, the way the torturer can perform the acts without his spirit rebelling. As one who lives in the Empire, however, the Magistrate must constantly circle both poles.

Many studies have attempted to shed light on the psychology of torturers, on what allows them to do what they do. While one widely held belief claims that torturers are disturbed, sadistic personalities, more and more people are recognizing that “an understanding of torturers’ behaviour is not separable from the wider context in which it occurs—that is, the social and political context” (Foster, p. 167). Thus, they are less likely to be abnormal individuals than they are to be “quite ordinary people in an extraordinary, abnormal situation” (Foster, p. 167). Indeed, a 1974 study by S. Milgram points out that adherence to state authority is key to explaining the acts of the torturer. The torturer is rarely a member of the ruling class: it may be that the ruling class gives the command, but the task of torture itself is generally a sergeant’s job. Milgram also found that the torturers’ allegiance to the authority commanding him or her would increase in relation to the psychological distance between the torturer and his victim. That is, torturers would obey most loyally if a buffer zone were created between them and the victims—whether that buffer involved being helped by assistants, by being under surveillance, or by the existence of some kind of essential separation between them and the victims. As Amnesty International’s Report on Torture explains, “it seems to be a precondition for torture that the torturer have a world view, no matter how crude, that divides man into the torturable and the non-torturable” (Amnesty International Report on Torture, p. 31).

In South Africa, of course, where the white population has always been a small minority (about 20 percent) of the population, the existence of such divisions led to the legislation of racist laws in the first place. It is clear that many white South Africans feared, on some level, being submerged within the “black masses” that crammed into shantytowns outside the fortified cities. Security measures became more and more extreme as the waves of protest among South Africa’s nonwhite population became more prevalent; in the minds of the minority, stamping out these movements became important enough to justify the use of torture. Torture, argues one analyst, “survives to this day wherever governments believe themselves, or choose to believe themselves, to be beset by conspiracies and subversion” (Ruthven in Foster, p. 173).

The Grand Conspiracy is a fantasy in the minds of authorities, born of a paranoid response to the dissidence around them. … It is the reaction of the elite groups, especially in militarised societies, who stand to lose by social change. The Grand Conspiracy becomes a model of repression to be applied to every contingency. [It] takes on an increasingly ideological tone … [and] … ’foreign’ ideas are seen as a source of the poison that is corrupting youth and destroying society.

(Ruthven in Foster, p. 173)

As Don Foster points out, “the above description captures almost exactly the political and social climate in which torture … has developed as an institution in South Africa” (Foster, p. 173). As should be clear, it also describes almost exactly the feeling expressed by Coetzee’s title, “waiting for the barbarians.”

Sources and literary context

Waiting for the Barbarians was one of many South African literary works in the 1970s to explore the question of torture, which “has exerted a dark fascination on many … South African writers” (Coetzee in Gallagher, p. 112). Though Coetzee refuses to confirm that the “Empire” in Waiting for the Barbarians is analogous to South Africa, it is clear that the sudden worldwide attention on the prevalent use of torture by the South African Police, as well as the image of the much-lionized Biko, shackled and dying, greatly influenced this novel. Other South African treatments of torture include Donald Woods’s Biko, Andre Brink’s A Dry White Season (also covered in African Literature and Its Times), Sophia Sepalma’s A Ride on the Whirlwind, and Mongane Serote’s To Every Birth Its Blood.


Waitingfor the Barbarians was received with both enthusiasm and criticism; people tended either to admire the style and universal themes of the novel, or censure the novel for failing to engage explicitly enough with South Africa’s political situation, a criticism that had been levied against Coetzee’s work before. Robert Post saw Coetzee’s novels as general “statements of opposition” (Post in Gallagher, p. 11). In contrast, another reviewer faulted Waitingfor the Barbarians for not being oppositional enough:

[T]his is a book that will be enthusiastically assimilated into the very system it (vaguely) condemns. In the end it is not a disturbing book, and ultimately it challenges nothing. Coetzee is a fine writer. It’s a pity he isn’t a bolder one.

(Menan Du Plessis in Gallagher, p. 12)

Indeed, in Coetzee’s own words, the South African novel often seems to be received in South Africa with the question “where does this book fit into the political struggle?” (Coetzee in Gallagher, p. 11). In his Jerusalem Prize acceptance speech, he lamented this situation:

South African literature is an enslaved literature. …It is a literature which is not fully human: being more preoccupied than is natural, with power and with the torsions of power, it does not know how to pass from the elementary relations of contestation, of domination, and of subjugation, to the vast and complex human world which extends beyond.

(Coetzee in Gallagher, p. 17)

—Carolyn Turgeon

For More Information

Amnesty International Report on Torture. London: Duckworth, 1975.

Beinhart, William, and Saul Dubow. “Introduction: The historiography of segregation and apartheid.” In Segregation and Apartheid in Twentieth-Century South Africa. Ed. William Beinhart and Saul Dubow. New York: Routledge, 1995.

Coetzee, J. M. Waiting for the Barbarians. New York: Penguin Books, 1980.

Foster, Don. Detention and Torture in South Africa. London: James Currey, 1987.

Gallagher, Susan VanZanten. A Story of South Africa: J. M. Coetzee’s Fiction in Context. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1991.

Harsch, Ernest. South Africa: White Rule, Black Revolt. New York: Monad Press, 1980.

Le May, G. H. L. The Afrikaners: An Historical Interpretation. Cambridge, Mass.: Blackwell Publishers, 1995.

Meredith, Martin. In the Name of Apartheid: South Africa in the Postwar Period. London: Hamish Hamilton, 1988.

Ranuga, Thomas K. The New South Africa and the Socialist Vision: Positions and Perspectives Toward a Post-Apartheid Society. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press, 1996.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Thompson, Leonard. A History of South Africa. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1990.