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  • Tsotsis:On Law, the Outlaw, and the Postcolonial State
  • Rita Barnard (bio)

Awuyodubula, awuyopansula, awuyokhuthuza, uyodlwengula . . .Ha, dubula mbayimbayi! Ma libhubha liyabhubha . . .Namhlanj 'uthint'ezidl'inhlok'uthint'uBhambathaAwu, Tsots'usuze kaBhambatha namhlanjeUthini? Hhe, awufun'ukuza ngala?Awu, klev'usuze kaBhambatha namhlanje!

Zola, "Bhambatha" (from the Tsotsi sound track)

It is hardly in our power to change the form of the state and impossible to abolish it because, vis-à-vis the state, we are, precisely, powerless. In the myth of the founding of the state as set down by Thomas Hobbes, our descent into powerlessness was voluntary: in order to escape the violence of internecine warfare without end (reprisal upon reprisal, vengeance upon vengeance, the vendetta), we individually and severally yielded up to the state the right to use physical force (right is might, might is right), thereby entering the realm (the protection) of the law. Those who chose and choose to stay outside the compact become outlaw.

J. M. Coetzee, Diary of a Bad Year


From its very first page and arguably throughout, J. M. Coetzee's multivoiced, multigeneric Diary of a Bad Year stages a debate about the origins of the state and its function in contemporary society. [End Page 541] That this topic should engage Coetzee (or, rather, the Coetzee-like narrator and his antagonist) is hardly surprising. In the post–9/11 world, the state—never an easy matter to define—is at once vulnerable and powerful. It is vulnerable not only because its regulatory, protective, and redistributive functions have been stripped in accord with neoliberal economic doctrines, but also because it seems to be facing a new kind of adversary. Its security is no longer perceived to be challenged by other states, but rather by individuals, by outlaws, raiders, terrorists: people who have no interest in playing by its rules. Yet the contemporary state appears in some ways more powerful than before (or more willing to display its power) because the emergence of these outlaws provides it with a justification for overriding civil liberties and sanctioning cruelties in a way that, in Coetzee's (or Señor C's) "strong opinion," brings dishonor to us all (139–45). "The line between minimal government and fascism lite," as Jean Comaroff and John L. Comaroff wryly observe, "is very thin indeed" ("Figuring Crime" 229). The state compels our attention today precisely because of its alarming contradictions.

Coetzee's vision of the state as the power—the bandits—to whom "we" choose to cede our freedom is not as novel or as "African" as it might appear to those in favor of the new managerial dispensation (94–95). It accords in many ways with Philip Abrams's seminal essay "Notes on the Difficulty of Studying the State," which presents the state as "the device in terms of which subjection is legitimated. . . present[ing] politically institutionalized power to us in a form that is at once integrated and isolated and by satisfying both these conditions. . . creat[ing] . . . an acceptable basis for acquiescence" (68). But it is characteristic of the novelist that the temporality—the plot structure, if you will—of our subjection should be of interest. When exactly did we voluntarily accede to the [End Page 542] rule of the state? Can we imagine an alternative to it? The safest answer is that we cannot: we are, as Coetzee declares, "born subject" (4). For it is the state that defines us, gives us identity and personhood, not least in the form of certificates of birth and death. The origins of the state are therefore sensu stricto unimaginable—by "us," that is. We cannot reverse the narrative of our acquiescence and think entirely outside the structures of the state: "The option is not open to us to change our minds," says Coetzee, "to decide that the monopoly on the exercise of force held by the state, codified in law, is not what we wanted after all, that we would prefer to go back to a state of nature" (4). But we can, of course, imagine the unimaginable, as Coetzee likes to do, by creating fables and stories about the origins of the state. Akira Kurosawa's film The...


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pp. 541-572
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