Dissertation/Thesis Abstract

Crime as Punishment: South African Literature and the Experience of Violence
by Matlin, Nicholas Harte, Ph.D., New York University, 2014, 323; 3665178
Abstract (Summary)

Talk of crime, central to public discourse in contemporary South Africa, is also politically charged. In the decade immediately following the end of apartheid, white fears of crime were given ample expression in the popular media. The African National Congress (ANC) government responded with denials that flew in the face of the facts, which indicated very high crime rates. Can South African literature help us to understand this expression of fear, and the government's subsequent denialism? Whereas authors of South African crime fiction have found a ready market by tapping into the zeitgeist, one has to read further back to gain deeper insight into the circumstances at present. This dissertation goes back to the 1940s-60s in order to investigate the origins of the ANC government's denials, as well as those of the white fears to which it has reacted. Through an examination of how criminality and criminalization are rendered in literary and political texts published during the first two decades of apartheid, I intervene in, and deepen chronologically, recent conversations among literary scholars, in which crime is treated almost exclusively as a post-apartheid phenomenon. In four chapters, I argue that the consolidation of apartheid and the large-scale criminalization of black aspirations in the 1950s prompted progressive South African writers to reconfigure their conceptions of legality and criminality, an endeavor that required them to negotiate feelings of guilt and victimization. In my first chapter, I analyze Alan Paton's novel Cry, the Beloved Country as acting out white-liberal fears of violent crime as guilty punishment for colonial land theft, the violent act that opened the road for white supremacist rule and structural inequality in South Africa. In the subsequent chapters, I look at efforts during the 1950s and 1960s to call for a new legal dispensation seated on more inclusive and equitable foundations. Whereas in Paton's novel white guilt breeds fantasies of punishment, in the texts I look at in the final three chapters, the capacity for guilt—or the lack of it—becomes legible as an index for judging the legitimacy of the legal order. In Chapter 2, I read journalism and fiction by Henry Nxumalo and Casey Motsisi in Drum Magazine as demonstrating that the mass criminalization of black South Africans during the 1950s resulted not only in an increasing perception of the law as illegitimate, but also engendered a deft critique of South African liberalism. In Chapter 3, I interpret the 1955 Freedom Charter, a mass authored anti-apartheid manifesto sponsored by the ANC and its allies, as a fraught attempt to found a new South Africa untrammeled by the inequalities engendered by colonial land theft. In my fourth chapter, I argue that Nelson Mandela's speech from the dock at the Rivonia Trial posits the founding of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC's armed wing, as instituting a new order of law that curtails violence. As I show through my analyses of writings by Ruth First and Dennis Brutus, this new legal order reintroduces the capacity for guilt as a means to gauge one's complicity in the structural inequalities engendered by both colonial founding violence, and in the criminal violence from which the ANC-led anti-apartheid movement had striven to distinguish acts of political violence.

Indexing (document details)
Advisor: Sanders, Mark
Commitee: Deer, Patrick, Parikh, Crystal, Watson, Jini K., Young, Robert J. C.
School: New York University
Department: English
School Location: United States -- New York
Source: DAI-A 76/04(E), Dissertation Abstracts International
Source Type: DISSERTATION
Subjects: African Studies, African literature
Keywords: Apartheid, Apartheid literature, Crime in south africa, Drum, Ruth first, South africa
Publication Number: 3665178
ISBN: 978-1-321-37481-0
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