In the Heart of the Country

by J. M. Coetzee

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In The Heart Of The Country In History

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The first white colonizers arrived at the Cape of Good Hope, close to the southernmost point of Africa, in 1652, to establish a refreshment station which might supply fresh food and water to the Dutch East India Company's ships when they stopped there on their way to Dutch colonies in the East Indies. The Company tried to control and limit its employees' contacts with the indigenous peoples, the Khoikhoi (known to the Dutch as the Hottentots) and the San (Bushmen), and to prevent their employees and former employees from expanding white settlements northwards, inland from Cape Town and the lands immediately surrounding it. Nevertheless, as the population increased, and a class of “free burgers,” that is, white settlers no longer employed by the Company, evolved, efforts to trade with the Khoikhoi were made, and expansion into former Khoikhoi grazing lands took place. In the course of the eighteenth century, the Cape Dutch farmers and graziers on the borders of white settlement succeeded (as Magda imagines in her fantasies in #16 and in #40 in the novel) in subjecting the Khoikhoi, who were pastoralists with large herds of cattle and sheep. The Dutch, whose firearms gave them the upper hand, worked partly by large-scale confiscation of the Khoikhoi's stock and partly by laying claim to the grazing lands across which the Khoikhoi and their herds had roamed. J. M. Coetzee's first novel, Dusklands, is set in this period of Dutch exploration of and expansion into the Cape hinterland.

After the British arrived and took over government at the Cape in 1795, the first British governor, Lord Macartney, reported that there was no longer a single group of free “Hottentots” within the colony. The surviving Khoikhoi (their numbers had been greatly decreased by a terrible smallpox epidemic in 1713) had been obliged in most cases to take service with the Dutch farmers. They were employed on annual contracts but were prevented from leaving their employers by the regulation that any child born to them while they were employed on a particular farm must serve the farmer for the first twenty-five years of his/her life. The result for the Khoikhoi farmworker was a life of effective, if not legal, serfdom. A British official at the Cape during the First British Occupation, John Barrow, wrote in his account of the colony about the Khoikhoi people there:

These weak people, the most helpless, and in their present condition the most wretched, of the human race, duped out of their possessions, their country and their liberty, have entailed upon their miserable offspring a state of existence to which the state of slavery might bear the comparison of happiness.1

To this population of subjected people employed on the farms of the colony were added San people, usually captured as children during expansionist frontier wars. The San had been distinguished from the Khoikhoi by their hunter-gatherer lifestyle, the Khoikhoi being nomadic pastoralists. When, however, the Khoikhoi lost their herds and the wide hunting lands of the San were absorbed into Dutch farms, the perceptible distinction between them began to fade, especially when individuals of both groups were forced into service on Dutch farms, and the descendants of both groups are frequently known as the Khoisan. In the same period, these people began to speak the language of their masters, the simplified form of Dutch now known as Afrikaans.


Slaves imported from outside the colony were also used as domestic servants and laborers on Cape Dutch farms, and the laborers nowadays employed on such farms are likely to have...

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ancestors from all the groups from which slaves were drawn, as well as from the Cape Dutch, the Khoi, and the San. During the period of Dutch rule, that is, from 1652 until 1795, men and women from other parts of the world were brought to the Cape to be sold as slaves. They were brought by sea from West Africa in the early days of the colony and later from Madagascar and Mozambique, as well as from the east—Java, Bali, Timor, the Malayan peninsula, and the mainland of India. The norm of labor at the Cape, at least until the end of the eighteenth century, was slave labor, though there were a few free blacks and white workers. When the British took over the Cape in 1795, they made a formal agreement with the Dutch to retain unaltered, at least during the period when they were “occupying” the Cape (as opposed to being the only legitimate governors), the laws which governed slavery.

This first British occupation of the Cape, between 1795 and 1803, was seen as being merely provisional. The British held the colony in the name of the exiled ruler of Holland, the Prince of Orange, who had been forced to take refuge in England during the Napoleonic Wars. In 1803 the Cape Colony was returned to the Dutch, but this retrocession proved to be only a brief interlude: the British returned permanently in 1806. Throughout the first British occupation, successive governors had been aware that public opinion in Britain was increasingly opposed to slavery, and imports of cargoes of slaves had been permitted rarely and only under license from the governor. The slave trade, that is to say the sea traffic in slaves brought from elsewhere, was abolished throughout British colonies in 1807. No more landings of foreign slaves were allowed, and the economic importance of unfree laborers throughout the colony increased as the supply decreased. In 1834 the institution of slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire; it was decreed that slaves should serve a four-year “apprenticeship” to their former masters and then be free to seek other employment as they wished. Technically, from this time onwards there could be no slavery (the condition of the Khoisan on farms might more properly be called serfdom) in South Africa. In fact, without land or stock and scarcely having the means to negotiate with their employers, who were almost always Cape Dutch farmers, very little changed for the Khoisan. The farmworkers in In the Heart of the Country are envisaged as the descendants of people from all these groups—Khoisan, San, and slaves, often with a considerable admixture of European blood, as is the case for most farmworkers in the Cape Province of South Africa.

The ethos of slave-owning survived long amongst the Cape Dutch partly because, when slavery was abolished as a legal institution at the Cape, the arrangements for compensating slave owners were inadequate. Compensation amounted to about one-third of the value of the slave and was payable only in England. Abolition was also deeply resented because the laws of emancipation had been effected in Britain, and the Cape Dutch deeply (and usually understandably) resented British rule. In 1828 Ordinance 50, which granted equality before the law, at least theoretically, to “Hottentots and other free persons of color” was passed at the Cape and caused great anger amongst the Cape Dutch. In the 1830s considerable numbers of Cape Dutch, with their families, servants, and stock, left the Colony and moved northwards to settle in what is now the Free State, Gauteng and Mapumalanga, in a movement now known as the Great Trek. The strongest motives of the people who left the colony and moved northwards were land shortage and the Colony's policy of anglicization, but there was considerable indignation at former slaves and indeed all black people, being, as one trekker wrote, “placed on an equal footing with Christians, contrary to the laws of God and the natural distinction of race and religion.”2


What was in other countries known as the color bar, that is, the distinction between people of pure European descent, and peoples of other races or of mixed descent, has remained in South Africa up to the present day (though it is slowly diminishing) the distinction between “haves” and “have-nots.” The farm laborers in In the Heart of the Country are likely to receive pitifully small wages; when Hendrik insists that he and Klein-Anna must receive their monthly wages, he is not being mercenary or selfish. What is paid them is unlikely to allow for any saving, and, by the end of each month, the previous month's wages will be exhausted. All the laborers depicted in In the Heart of the Country are more or less free to seek employment on other farms, but they are unlikely to find different conditions of employment or life on any other farm. And Magda's perceptions/fantasies about her father's making the “colored” farmhand's wife his mistress derive from a long history of white farmers taking concubines from amongst the laborers on the farm. The children of such unions would in their turn become laborers.

Coetzee has always been interested in analogies between the historical past and the present day. His first novel, Dusklands, consists of two novellas, completely separate in their subject matter. The first, “The Vietnam Project,” is an account by an American propagandist during the Vietnam War of himself and his work. The second, “The Narrative of Jacobus Coetzee,” is an account by an eighteenth-century Cape Dutch man of two journeys which he made to Namaqualand. The resolution of the two novellas into a single novel depends on the reader's ability to understand that both are accounts of colonizing processes and of the subjection (at times amounting to genocide) of indigenous peoples to foreign invading powers.

In the Heart of the Country depends equally but less overtly on analogy. Magda, isolated on a remote farm, is unable to achieve a close relationship with her father because of the rigid patriarchy of Afrikaans/Cape Dutch family life, and she is equally unable to give or receive support or affection from the “colored” people on the farm. She must be seen as a figure analogous with the white South African, especially the Afrikaner. Even the form of the novel, which is conceived of as an internal monologue, that is, a woman talking or thinking alone, represents the loneliness of such people. Family structures prevent intimacy between relatives; beliefs concerning race prevent friendship between employers and employees.


Coetzee has explained that the fact that the Nationalist party came to power in 1948, when he himself was eight years old, was an important shaping influence in his thought. This Nationalist government, which remained in power until the first democratic elections of 1994, was committed to the maintenance of white supremacy through the enforcement of rigid segregation of the different racial groups. In order that it should be understood that the needs and rights of members of different groups were different, the government embarked immediately on a program of legislation which should legally enforce their separation, soon to be known as Apartheid (literally, separate development).

A degree of segregation had been customary in South Africa since the arrival of the colonists, but urbanization, the need of industry for black labor, and the labor shortages within the country during World War II had begun very gradually to erode it.


Traditionally, the Cape Province of South Africa had been the most enlightened on matters of race, and from 1853, some “colored” people in the Cape had the right to vote. When the Nationalist party came to power, its members in the government were committed to removing these people from the common voters' roll. In 1949 Ben Schoeman, a Nationalist cabinet minister, promised “We will take the Hottentots off the white man's voters' roll.” Their right to vote was, however, entrenched in the South Africa Act, which gave the country the status of a dominion within the Commonwealth, and to remove the right would require a two-thirds majority in the South African parliament, something which was only achieved by much legal maneuvering on the side of government. The Nationalists could achieve a simple majority in parliament when they introduced legislation which removed “colored” voters from the common roll. But, when the matter was brought to the Supreme Court, the verdict was that the removal remained illegal without a two-thirds majority. Eventually, in 1956, by packing the Appellate Division of the Supreme Court with Nationalist supporters and greatly increasing the numbers of senators under an arrangement which made it certain that almost all would be Nationalist, the government was able to force the legislation through. From 1956 until the first democratic election in 1994, no “colored” voters could vote in general elections.

The importance of this struggle for Coetzee and for In the Heart of the Country in particular was that for a significant part of the author's youth all South Africa was preoccupied with the question of what rights and status “colored” people deserved. In his autobiographical work Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (1997) Coetzee writes of his childish puzzlement with the paradoxical attitudes of his white family. His mother believes “Coloured people are the salt of the earth … yet she and her sisters are always gossiping about pretend-whites with secret Coloured backgrounds.”3 When he is a little older, he reflects on the fact that “colored” children go to school only when they are very young: “by the time they are his age, ten or eleven, they will have left school behind and be out in the world earning their daily bread.”4 When he has a birthday treat in a café, he feels that it is “spoiled by the ragged Coloured children standing at the window looking in on them.” He depicts himself, even at this early age, as having a degree of insight into his wish that these children were not so visible: “They are spoiling my birthday, it is not fair, it hurts my heart to see them.”5 In In the Heart of the Country Magda, who has been trained to regard “colored” people as nothing more than serfs, struggles unsuccessfully to see them as fully human.


In 1949 the first major piece of social legislation of the Nationalist government, the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, was passed. It was followed in 1950 by an amendment to the Immorality Act of 1927, criminalizing any sexual relations between whites and members of any other racial group. The Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story claims of this Act that:

[b]efore it was scrapped (together with the Mixed Marriages Act) in 1985, Section 16 of the Immorality Act was slated by all, except its architects and some of their followers, as one of the most immoral pieces of legislation ever to be devised anywhere. Certainly, its implementation during its heyday in the 1960s was frequently marked by policemen, binoculars at the ready, hiding in trees to observe offending couples; late night raids; the checking of bed sheets and underclothes for signs of sexual intercourse; not to mention numerous shattered lives and frequent suicides.

When black-white sex became risky in South Africa, white males consumed with the urge for black flesh had only to cross the border into neighboring Swaziland, Lesotho, or Botswana to satisfy their needs. Many of them were Afrikaners.6

Magda's obsession with cross-racial sex, and particularly with the likelihood of her father's breaking the taboo against it in In the Heart of the Country, no doubt has its origins in Coetzee's horror of the climate of suspicion and the excessive preoccupation with sexual behavior created by this legislation. He expressed his belief in his Jerusalem Prize Acceptance Speech in 1987 that such legislation had seriously damaged relations between the racial groups:

In the early 1950s, the heady years when the great city of apartheid was being built, a law was passed making sexual relations between masters and slaves a crime. This was the most pointed of a long string of laws regulating all phases of social life, whose intent was to block forms of horizontal intercourse between white and black. The only sanctioned intercourse was to be vertical; that is, it was to consist in giving and receiving orders.7

Later in the same speech he claims that “[a]t the heart of the unfreedom of the hereditary masters of South Africa is a failure to love” and goes on to say of the colonizing peoples and their descendants that “their talk, their excessive talk about how they love South Africa has consistently been directed toward the land … mountains and deserts, birds and animals and flowers.” This belief that the love of the land and of its flora and its fauna is an unsatisfactory substitute for an affectionate and equal relationship with its peoples is evident throughout In the Heart of the Country, in which Magda frequently expresses her love for the land and the insects which inhabit it.

The Jerusalem Prize speech also contains a fear which is strongly evident in In the Heart of the Country. Coetzee quotes from the South African writer Alan Paton: “I have one great fear in my heart … that one day when they are turned to loving, we will find that we are turned to hating.”8 The vain attempts made by Magda to communicate in a friendly manner with Klein-Anna and Hendrik and to make them members of her household in something of the way that relatives might have been if she had any, demonstrate Coetzee's fear that it may be too late to repair the relationship between the racial groups in South Africa, at any rate by any individual act of goodwill. Klein-Anna is puzzled by Magda's overtures; Hendrik rapes her when she is no longer able to maintain her authority as mistress of the house—or she imagines that he does. Magda is equally unable to believe that her relationship with her employees might really change for the better.


In 1950 two further important pieces of legislation were passed, the Group Areas Act, which demarcated the areas of cities and towns in which the different groups might live, and the Population Registration Act, in terms of which every South African was officially designated as a member of a particular group—with the rights or disabilities attached to membership of that group. When Magda asks Hendrik and Klein-Anna to move into the farmhouse with her, she is defying the strong convention of residential separation which these laws embody, and Hendrik and Klein-Anna are made deeply uneasy by her request.

In 1953 the Bantu Education Act centralized the control of all African schools, which were henceforth to be controlled by the Department of Native affairs. At the same time, the aid to mission schools was greatly reduced in order to force them into the same system. A different and much less academic syllabus for black children was laid down, and the Minister for Native Affairs, Hendrik Verwoerd, who later became the great ideologue of Apartheid, made it clear that this new syllabus was part of the policy of inequality to which the government was committed: “The school … must equip the Bantu to meet the demands which the economic life … will impose on him. … What is the use of teaching a Bantu child mathematics when it cannot use it in practice?”9 The idea that the refusal of education is a kind of oppression is important in In the Heart of the Country, where the disused schoolhouse seems to represent what has happened to the tradition of western education on the farm (and therefore in South Africa). Magda sees it as once attended by the white children on the farm and the children of white neighbors; now it provides shabby accommodation for Ou-Anna and Jacob. She speaks of its once having been evidence of a wish that “the children of the desert should not grow up barbarian but be heirs of all the ages” (#92) and asks whether her father or grandfather has “shoo[ed] the schoolmistress out of the schoolhouse and instal[ed] his hinds in her place, and institute[d] a reign of brutishness” (#92).

The Bantu Education Act decreed that black primary education should be given in the vernacular, that is to say, in the African language of the particular area, and that black secondary school pupils should be taught through the media of both English and Afrikaans. The effect of this was greatly to overload the curriculum with languages, and Afrikaans especially was much resented as the language of the oppressor. On 16 June 1976, when In the Heart of the Country was being written, more than 20,000 pupils in Soweto, the enormous African township adjacent to Johannesburg, protested against a Bantu Education Department ruling that Afrikaans be used as a language of instruction in secondary schools. The police attempted to disperse demonstrators, shots were fired, and the first effective uprising for almost twenty years, now known as the Soweto Revolt, against the Apartheid government had broken out. The rising spread to other parts of the country and ceased only after hundreds of casualties had occurred, and much expensive damage to property had been done. Though the Soweto Revolt was eventually put down, it was clear that the Nationalist government could never again feel so secure. A flight of foreign capital from South Africa occurred, causing an economic recession, and several foreign countries threatened sanctions. Black young people (sometimes known as “Class of '76”) began to leave South Africa for training elsewhere in armed resistance.

In 1977 Winnie Mandela was banished to Brandfort, a remote town in the Orange Free State, and Steve Biko, the leader of the Black Consciousness movement, was beaten to death in police custody. Seventeen organizations and two newspapers were banned in the same year—all this was evidence of the government's loss of confidence in its ability to govern without extreme measures.

It was clear from this point that when change came, it would not be the result of the actions of white liberals but would be brought about by the actions of black people—and would probably involve violence. This discovery that blacks have taken things into their own hands and that white attitudes are almost irrelevant permeates In the Heart of the Country. The critical debate around the work in the early 1980s reflects the wish of critics that South African writers, and especially J. M. Coetzee, who was becoming increasingly eminent in the period, should make a significant input into the struggle.


  1. John Barrow, Travels into the Interior of Southern Africa, volume 2 (London: Cadell and Davies, 1802-1806), p. 93.

  2. Anna Steenkamp, quoted in Dougie Oakes, editor, The Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story. (Cape Town: The Reader's Digest Association of South Africa, 1995), p. 110.

  3. J. M. Coetzee, Boyhood: Scenes from Provincial Life (London: Secker and Warburg, 1997), p. 37.

  4. Ibid, p. 72.

  5. Ibid, p. 73

  6. The Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story, p. 376.

  7. J. M. Coetzee, Doubling the Point: Essays and Interviews (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1992), p. 97.

  8. Alan Paton, Cry the Beloved Country (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1984 [1948]), p. 38.

  9. Quoted in Illustrated History of South Africa: The Real Story, p. 379.


Essay: Introduction


Critical Response To In The Heart Of The Country