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Law, subject de/formation and resistance in Bloke Modisane's Blame Me On History.


In this essay, I shall consider the depiction of law and policing in Bloke Modisane's memoir Blame Me on History (1986[1963]), which not only provides an articulate and formally experimental narrative of the life of a black man (and professional writer) under apartheid, (1) in which, as Abdul JanMohamed observes, "the Manichean organisation of colonial society reached its apogee" (1983: 4), but also offers a detailed literary account of apartheid's legal apparatus and police brutality. (2) In part, too, Blame is an account of the demolition by the apartheid government in 1955 of Sophiatown--the Johannesburg township renowned for its racial mix, shebeens, jazz, gangsterism and, above all, its refusal to capitulate to the psychic oppression of apartheid--and the aftermath of its destruction. (3) Modisane considers the apartheid government's determination to raze Sophiatown as continuous with its obsession with extinguishing urban black identity. The death of Sophiatown betokens, at least symbolically, the death of Bloke (1986[1963]: 5). (4)

Blame depicts the agony of life under apartheid for Bloke, the "excess of his wretchedness" (Barthes 2000: 40). His misery has its source, in part, in his understanding, shared by many blacks, that the apartheid legal system was "a discriminatory order which ... denies material advancement" to members of his group (Dugard 1978: 401). Bloke has aspirations to self-improvement that are destined, inevitably, to be frustrated by racial discrimination:

I ... went back to school to matriculate, I wanted to rise above the messenger and the bicycle and the back door; what I did not realise was that I would never, in South Africa, be able to rise above the limitations imposed on me by my colour, more eloquently articulated by Dr Verwoerd: Natives should not be allowed to rise above certain levels of labour. (Modisane 1986[1963]: 81)

Despite Bloke's intellectual sophistication, an Afrikaner assistant working at the bookshop at which Bloke is employed insists on Bloke's addressing him as "Baas" (84) and defends his insistence in a "very loud and rough session" (85) with his non-racist employer. As Peter Fitzpatrick observes, in "comprehensive and draconic legal regimes" such as apartheid,
   Any native who assumed a precipitate civility would be checked by a
   tentacular 'native regulation' or by something more brutally
   informal. Nothing so readily reveals the native as a projection of
   an irresolution in occidental identity itself than the hysterical
   and aggressive response of the colonist to the impertinent evolue
   who successfully takes on civilized abilities, denies deep or
   intractable difference, and thus exposes the fragility of imperial
   rule at its seemingly confident core. (2001: 180)

Bloke is rejected by the class of "semi-educated and responsible Africans ... encouraged to feel less black than their uneducated brothers" (1986 [1963]: 87) for whom he is "nobody's son, brought up in a shebeen", and by whites, for whom he is inadequately educated: "I found myself a displaced person, caught between and rejected by the two worlds with which I presumed a mental level" (88).

As a comment on apartheid, one of Blame's chief purposes is to clarify what is brutalising and historically determining (as the title of the memoir suggests) about the structure of colonialism in the particular form of apartheid, and the psychic disfigurement it produces. The memoir is a reflection on the impact of state power during apartheid, the multiform violence of the law and the police in particular, on what has been termed by Gwen Bergner "raced masculine subject formation" (1995: 80), and by Fanon as "the state of being a Negro" (1986: 13, emphasis in original).

Blame offers a reflection on apartheid law and policing as manifestations of colonial power, a critique of the structure of colonialist ideology, and a demystification of the devious techniques of obligation and persuasion calculated to secure the co-operation of the colonised. A major theme of Blame is the attempt to construct the colonised subject's consciousness by gaining his mental assent to colonialism's foundational doctrine of "white[ness] as the sovereign law and black[ness] as its transgression" (Parry 1987: 28). Involved in this project is the shaping of black subjectivity through the discriminatory classifications of legal discourse and through representations of the inferiority of the racial Other that the colonised is manipulated into internalising. Blame includes reflections on the police's disruption of Bloke's family (and fantasy) life, his alienation, his loss of perspective and the dissolution of his identity as he becomes a "negated subject" (Mbembe 2001: 173), as well as his loss of self-respect, accompanied by a desire for whiteness.

As at least one critic has recognised, Modisane's autobiography has Fanonian characteristics (Goldsmith 2002). In my reading, it performs a kind of Fanonism avant la lettre, anticipating as it does some of Frantz Fanon's leading insights (most prominently, an appreciation of the colonial agon as fundamentally Manichean). There is no evidence to suggest that Modisane was influenced by Fanon's work, which had not been published in English translation when Blame appeared in 1963 and which only became influential in the South African black consciousness movement in the late 1960s. Nevertheless, the themes which were to inspire Fanon are already central in Blame, including his analysis of the social configuration of colonial society and its impact on the psychology of the colonised.

History and context

To appreciate the gesture that Blame represents, it is necessary to project it against the backdrop of South African politics of the 1940s and 50s, in particular the increasingly repressive racist laws, enforced by a government determined to structure South Africa in accordance with the Nationalist ideal of racial purity, (5) and the shifts in the strategies of black resistance to those measures.

Although racially discriminatory laws and policies predate the introduction of formal apartheid in 1948, (6) with the ascent to power of D F Malan's Nationalist Party, the nature of statutory racial discrimination altered. As Michael Chapman observes, the "rhetoric of trusteeship, as advocated by Smuts, fell by the way as one repressive measure after another was advanced in parliament and passed into law" (2001: 184). Between 1948 and 1960, statutes were promulgated outlawing mixed marriages (the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act of 1949), increasing penalties for inter-racial sexual intercourse (the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950), classifying people according to race (the Population Registration Act of 1950), and enforcing residential separation of the races (the Group Areas Development Act of 1955). In addition, legislation was passed compelling blacks to carry passes at all times, granting special powers to the police to suppress unrest, reserving public amenities for 'Europeans' or 'Non-Europeans' and imposing curfews. Together, these enactments controlled the influx of blacks into urban areas and the conduct of those already there, maintaining black urban dwellers "in a twilight zone of powerlessness and rightlessness" (Dyzenhaus 1991: 41). The Natives Resettlement Act of1954 inaugurated the process of forced removal of residents from the Western Areas of Johannesburg, including Sophiatown.

The ideological orientation of the African National Congress (ANC) (initially, the South African Native National Congress, established in 1912) was, at least until the 1940s, predominantly Christian Humanist. Influenced by the passive resistance tactics of Gandhi and his followers, its primary strategies of resistance to oppressive laws were propaganda and peaceful protests. The 1940s witnessed the emergence and rise of the Congress Youth League within the ANC. The Youth League, which progressively consolidated its influence on the ANC leadership, criticised it for adopting strategies of reaction, including futile lobbying tactics, as well as for what it perceived as yielding to oppression; and for failing to advance the cause of African freedom. The Youth League, 'Africanist' in orientation and dismissive of black and white liberals, placed emphasis on confrontation, advocating a strategy of mass action centred on boycotts, but including strikes, civil disobedience and non-co-operation.

The failure of South African Indian passive resistance between 1946 and 1948 to secure the repeal of racist legislation and, in 1952, the rejection by the Prime Minister of an ultimatum signed by ANC leaders James Moroka and Walter Sisulu, calling for the repeal of six discriminatory laws, impressed on the ANC the need to adopt more forceful tactics than hitherto. In June 1952, the ANC organised the Defiance Campaign, a campaign of civil disobedience, in which black participants broke curfew laws, entered through "Whites Only" entrances and used facilities reserved for whites. The Defiance Campaign failed to bring about the repeal of racist laws, although it did provoke aggressive behaviour from the police and heighten the popular sense of injustice.

Although representing only a small coterie with a minor influence, the dissenting Africanists within the Youth League inform Modisane's political outlook as it is reflected in Blame. These dissenters believed ethnic nationalism to be the ideology of the masses, requiring only to be articulated by the leadership in order for the masses to rise up. South Africa was no different from any other colonised country, its fundamental contradiction a racial one that could be resolved only through conflict. A group of Africanists seceded from the ANC in 1959 to form the Pan-Africanist Congress (PAC) under the leadership of Robert Sobukwe.

Distressed by the Youth League's going respectable at the time of the Defiance Campaign--by what he considered its retreat from its 1949 Programme of Action in favour of passive resistance and the principles of multiracial alliance--Modisane came increasingly to identify with the views of the dissenting Africanists and then the PAC, whose ideology is present in Blame (Chapman 2001: 6). In 1946, Youth League founder Anton Lembede had referred to the black urban proletariat's "loss of self-confidence, inferiority-complex [and] a feeling of frustration", and had appealed to a racially assertive nationalism in arguing for the need to overcome the psychological inhibitions produced by racial oppression (quoted in Lodge 1990: 21). Blame's interrogation of Bloke's alienation bears witness to the pathology to which Lembede refers.

Before his departure from South Africa, Modisane was outwardly an apolitical dandy and a womaniser, fond of white girls, who served champagne in his "elegant room with bookshelves, resounding with classical music" (Nicol 1991: 290). Yet Blame represents his recognition that this behaviour was the product of an inferiority complex produced by the conditions of colonialism and its laws. Reflecting on Modisane's stance in Blame, Es'kia Mphahlele remarks: "I think he was regretful of the kind of life he'd led ... after he left [South Africa] he became influenced by the PAC and remorseful about what he'd done and hence the bitterness with which he writes" (quoted in Nicol 1991: 292). Although Modisane never forcibly resisted apartheid's laws while resident in South Africa, his memoir, influenced by the Africanist ethnic nationalism of the Youth League and, to some extent, the Pan-Africanism of the PAC, represents an act of textual resistance to apartheid and its laws.

Apartheid law

Throughout Blame Modisane evokes the oppressive nature of apartheid law, which he views as the primary instrument for the subjection of blacks. He obsessively names legislative enactments, including the Natives (Urban Areas) Act of1945, the Government Notice of1958 and the Group Areas Act (1986 [1963]: 132). These laws serve to enforce apartheid's policy of segregation and of creating separate 'nations' so as to bring about "the breaking up of people into tribal units ... [thanks to which they would be] encouraged to live, think, react as an ethnic group with ethnic interests" (104).

Other legislative enactments mentioned include discriminatory interdictions which reserved amenities for whites or which reinforced black inferiority: "I was soon to find myself being forced--by the letter of the law--to use separate entrances into the post-offices, banks, railway stations, public buildings; it became a criminal offence for me to use the amenities set aside for whites" (123). His mind "screams against" apartheid law, whose outlawing of miscegenation, for example (181), reflects Afrikaner Calvinism's ideological misuse of religion in providing racial oppression with a cloak of seeming moral justification.

In Modisane's view, apartheid law's regulation of the public sphere is surpassed in injustice by its regulation of the private domain--what David Attwell refers to as its "attempt to police intimacy" (2005: 3). For Modisane, this aspect of legal regulation is epitomised by the Immorality Amendment Act of 1950, a "pornographic statute" (1986 [1963]: 212). He is "incensed" by the patrolling and controlling of the private: "it was objectionable enough for the government to regulate our public lives, but this intrusion on our private lives made me recalcitrant" (11).

Modisane is determinedly ideologiekritisch in his account of the way in which the Rule of Law - according to which legality operates as a shield to protect citizens from abuses of state power and consequently has inherent moral value and is a necessary feature of civilised societies--is turned into an abstraction that operates to enforce obedience to law from those whom it subjugates. Like white liberals such as Alan Paton, who was "brought up to respect ... almost revere, the law" (1986: 310), Modisane has been "educated into an acceptance of the primacy of law and order" (1986 [1963]: 123). The internalisation of respect for law acts, for a time, to reconcile him to his subjugation. He "accepts rather than defies [the] effrontery" of legal discrimination and exploitation (123-4) because he has internalised what is certainly under the conditions of colonialism a falsehood: that to be respectable is to have respect for law. As he records, "I accommodated carrying a pass because it was the law . I respected the law because I was law-abiding" (124).

Colonialism simultaneously entices and induces blacks to obey the law by representing such obedience as a virtue of the civilized, and hence by defining blacks who spurn the law as unrespectable and uncivilised; with the qualification, however, that "if I was law-abiding and accepted the denials of this discriminatory civilization, that if I conducted myself--even though I was subhuman--like a civilized man, I might, God willing, be accepted and welcomed into the exclusive club in about 2000 years" (1986 [1963]: 178). The alternative, to become "recalcitrant and angry, lawless and violent", Modisane explains, would result in the black subject being "certified as Bestial, Savage and Barbaric" (90).

Modisane realises that the moral ideal of the Rule of Law imbues the word "law" with an "honorific ring" (Harris 1997: 144), which serves to invest particular laws, and by extension the arrangements they constitute, with moral legitimacy. "In1950 apartheid ... became invested with the respectability of law and order, the standard Western men revere about justice and life; I realised that cruelty and injustice will be accommodated the moment they become the will of the law" (1986 [1963]: 128). The assumptions of the liberal ideal of the Rule of Law are in this context falsified by the reality of Modisane's life in a society in which "the law is white and justice casual" (63).

Paton's liberal support for the Rule of Law certainly did not preclude his criticising unjust laws, but it did in most cases stand in the way of his advocating law-breaking as a form of resistance to apartheid. For him, "[t]he law remained, in theory at least, a representation of something 'righteous' .... [His] general insistence on operating within the law became a political Achilles heel" (Black 1992: 62, 70). For Modisane, by contrast, the Rule of Law loses its high moral standing within the colonial context, where it is vitiated by the following contradiction: "[t]he boast of colonialists has always been that theirs is the divine function to prepare and educate Africans for positions of responsibility; but all through Africa the natives have been placed outside the process of the democratic rule of law" (1986 [1963]: 217).

Modisane's view that law coincides with and is indistinguishable from violence--"Violence ... is contained in the law, the instrument of maintaining law and order" (1986 [1963]: 59)--agrees with Derrida's analysis of the apartheid legal system. Unlike many other nation-constituting acts of violence, Derrida observes, the establishment of a constitutional framework in apartheid South Africa "remained a coup de force", its "anticonstitutional constitution" an expression not of Rousseau's general will, but "only a particular will, that of a part of the population, a limited sum of private interests, those of the white minority" (1987: 18). As he explains, the originating violence of the establishment of a constitutional order is forgotten only under certain conditions. These were not met in South Africa, since "the violence was too great, visibly too great ... The white community was too much in the minority, the disproportion of wealth too flagrant". As a result,
   the violence of the origin must repeat itself indefinitely and act
   out its rightfulness in a legislative apparatus, whose monstrosity
   fails to pay back: a pathological proliferation of juridical
   prostheses (laws, acts, amendments) destined to legalise to the
   slightest detail the effects of fundamental racism, of state
   racism. (1987: 18)

Colonial law requires for its effectiveness (and so authorises) material violence: the brutality of the police that Modisane depicts as well as the violence it encourages through its refusal to rein in their excesses (1986 [1963]: 63). Yet Modisane is aware that it also functions as symbolic and psychological violence, as a categorising interpellation that manipulates the black man into internalising colonialism's construction of the identity of the colonised as the inferior Other. He experiences the discriminatory interdictions ofthe law as emasculating, even castrating (123-4); he has been "chewed up" by the law, "the basis and instrument of [his] oppression" (299).

Modisane's characterisation of law as 'violent' also comprehends the idea that the story of apartheid law is the story of the imposition of colonial order rather than justice, thereby exemplifying Aquinas's contention that unjust laws "are instances of violence rather than laws" (Aquinas, quoted in Kretzmann 1988: 117). In his description of law as "banditry", Modisane is of the same mind as Gary Boire, who observes, following Fanon, that colonial law "is simultaneously 'law' yet transgression" (1999: 588). And this is true not only of apartheid legislation but also of adjudication, where the procedural safeguards observed in other jurisdictions are overridden in cases in which the accused are black men charged with killing white policemen. In such cases, vengeance overtakes justice as the primary consideration (1986 [1963]: 153-155).

Modisane's understanding of the law as a vehicle of colonial power, a "legalising violence" (Boire 1999: 600) as well as a legalised violence, underpins his repudiation of the liberalism of whites like Paton, for whom "the law is the law, it must be obeyed" (Modisane 1986 [1963]: 299). In Modisane's understanding, since law is a vehicle of colonial power ("I have ... learned that the law may be manipulated--by the process of law, not to conform to principle--not only to protect the interests of the few, but to maintain and perpetuate them in positions of arbitrary authority" (1986 [1963]: 217)) and a form of violence, effective resistance to apartheid demands that he break the law. As he puts it, since "[t]he discriminations are written into the law, to protest against the discriminations is to be produced against the authority of the law" (299).

The police

Modisane is no less concerned to impugn the apartheid police, whom the apartheid state portrays as "heroic defenders of order against terror, treason and savage insurrection" (Comaroff and Comaroff2004: 810), and to expose their activities for the violent exercise of power they constitute. The material violence inflicted by the apartheid state occurred mainly through the administration of "law-preserving" force brought to bear by the police, who weighed upon the black citizen, as Walter Benjamin puts it, "as a brutal encumbrance through a life regulated by ordinances" (1978: 287).

Modisane's experience exposes the police as the agents-in-chief of colonial repression. It is through their actions that Bloke first comes to "realise the brutal and dominant presence of the white man in South Africa" (1986 [1963]: 35); the police figure in Blame as "the official, instituted go-betweens, the spokesman of the settler and his rule of oppression" (Fanon 1967: 29). Modisane's characterisation of the police as "the storm troopers of law and order" (1986 [1963]: 151) comports with Fanon's judgement that the police
   by their very presence and their frequent and direct action
   maintain contact with the native and advise him by means of rifle
   butts and napalm not to budge. It is obvious here that the agents
   of the government speak the language of pure force. The
   intermediary does not lighten the oppression, nor seek to hide the
   domination; he shows them up and puts them into practice with the
   clear conscience of an upholder of the peace; yet he is the bringer
   of violence into the home and into the mind of the native. (1967:

The violence inflicted by the police, for whom blacks are only "representatives of a despised race" and who themselves signify to blacks "only one thing: the nearness of trouble" (1986 [1963]: 201), and the psychologically debilitating effects of police violence on their victims form a theme running through Blame. The police, "armed with rifles, revolvers and sten guns" (108), oversee the removal of residents from Sophiatown. Instances of violence are recorded, none more sadistic than the police's dispersal of the crowd assembled to protest during a strike on May Day 1951:
   The mounted police steered their horses into the crowds, galloping
   into men and women, charging into mothers with children strapped to
   their backs; screaming women and children were running from one
   horse and baton into another; men were collapsing under baton
   wallops; falling to the ground before the galloping horses ... It
   is inhuman to suggest that I thought the police were enjoying
   themselves, like a man at a duck shooting. There were these two
   mounted contestants racing for a black figure, two polo players
   swinging at a ball.... (142-3)

The police intrude violently on Modisane's personal life. In the course of a raid on Sophiatown, they pound on his door, demanding to inspect his pass. Modisane records that "there was very little difference in the tactics of both the police and the tsotsis, both would kick and bang at the door" (112). He characterises this invasion of domestic space, during which the police trained their torches on his wife "cowering behind the sheet she was clutching over her breasts", as a "violent experience" marked by "unnecessary brutality" (113).

Modisane's narrative accords with Benjamin's insight that "the assertion that the ends of police violence are always identical or even connected to those of general law is entirely untrue" (1978: 287). The violence exercised by the police exceeds what is required to enforce the law. Returning to Sophiatown after having visited a girlfriend at night, Bloke is stopped by a policeman, who demands to inspect his pass. Since he does not have his pass on him, Bloke attempts to escape punishment by ingratiating himself with the policeman, confirming to him his acceptance of his supplicant status by addressing the policeman as "my baasie" (1986 [1963]: 57). He deflects criminal charges by exploiting the policeman's fantasies of black women as sexual sirens and figures of corruption, a caricature invoked from time to time by white men who, standing accused of contravening the Immorality Act, disputed the charge on the grounds that they were "unwilling partners" (216).

The policeman allows Bloke to continue on his way, but not before "playfully kicking [his] bottom, but there was enough power behind it to make it brutally painful" (1986 [1963]: 59). The kick is not authorised by law, which empowers the policeman only to challenge, arrest or release him. It is this official violence in excess of what the law permits that confirms the accuracy in this context of Giorgio Agamben's claim that the police "are not merely an administrative function of law enforcement; rather, the police are perhaps the place where the proximity and the almost constitutive exchange between violence and right that characterises the figure of the sovereign is shown more nakedly and clearly than anywhere else" (2000: 104). In Blame, police violence, far from being held in check by law, is deployed in furtherance of the political objectives of the apartheid state, with which the policeman is ideologically aligned.

Subject de/formation and resistance

The psychic trauma experienced by Bloke in Blame recalls Fanon's account of the colonised male's subject formation or, more precisely, deformation under the weight of colonial law and police severity. Conversely, the white European family, according to Fanon, replicates the nation in microcosm, thereby producing normalised citizens:
   There are close connections between the structure of the family and
   the structure of the nation ... In Europe and in every country
   characterised as civilised or civilising, the family is the
   miniature of the nation. As the child emerges from the shadow of
   his parents, he finds himself once more among the same laws, the
   same principles, the same values. A normal child that has grown up
   in a normal family will be a normal man. (1986: 141-2)

In Fanon's account, the male subject moves seamlessly between patriarchal law and state law, reconciling himself with both his father and paternalistic state law and "in a flourishing finale to Freud's family romance, takes his powerful place within the male social imaginary--a new member as it were of the old club of men" (Boire 1999: 592). For the colonised male child, by contrast, the transition from the Law of the Father to the Law of the Fatherland is a site of trauma and alienation: he becomes "abnormal on the slightest contact with the white world" (Fanon 1986: 143).

The process of abnormalisation is in Bloke's case inaugurated by the police's emasculation of his father, the embodiment of authority and the primary role-player in his subject formation. Modisane records: "My father, Joseph, was always the signal of authority, unapproachable, the judge symbol; the only time he came close to me was to administer the cane or lay down the law of Moses, and this six-foot-two giant towered above my world, the only real force I ever feared, the authority I respected" (1986 [1963]: 20). An incident in which Joseph intervenes after Bloke has been unjustly punished by a stranger further elevates him in his son's eyes, casting him in the role of heroic protector of family security (22-3). But, when the police demand to see Joseph's pass, addressing him disrespectfully, and his father dutifully complies with their diktat, Bloke's "hero image disintegrate[s], crumbling into an inch-high heap of ashes" (24). His father becomes for him "the authority I could no longer respect" (24).

Is Modisane's depiction of his father's submissiveness to the police's enforcement of the pass laws in part intended as a comment on the inadequacy of the conciliatory attitude of the leaders of the ANC prior to its shift in strategy from Christian ameliorism and peaceful lobbying to the more forceful tactics advocated by the Youth League? On this reading, Blame embodies a kind of quasi-Fanonism avant la lettre, suggestive both of Modisane's response to the ANC leadership's failure to resist apartheid effectively (which resulted in his eventual identification with the PAC) and of his own failure to resist while he lived in South Africa.

If his father's treatment at the hands of the police inaugurates a process of psychological disintegration, witnessing their humiliation of his mother instils in him a sense of his own powerlessness as a black man in a society in which whites have the monopoly of power: "I was helpless in the coffin of my skin, it offered no protection to my mother from the delinquency of the police constables who saw only the mask representative of the despised race ... I wished I was white" (1986 [1963]: 36, emphasis added). Under the gaze of the state, the colonised male subject perceives himself, traumatically, as a fetishised object of lack, a despised stereotype: "white is the standard of civilisation; what is not white is black, and black is the badge of ignorance and savagery" (59).

The discourse of colonial law and the contemptuous gaze of white policemen construct the black male as the "negative of the white man" (1986 [1963]: 208), that is, the embodiment, through projection, of the reviled and disavowed proclivities--sexual potency (213), base instincts, evil--of the neurotic European self. The traumatic psychological consequences of this process are documented in Blame. Forced to recognise himself as the despised object of the white gaze, manipulated into internalising the image of blacks engendered by apartheid law, Bloke is sucked into a vortex of self-depreciation, becoming, as Boire puts it, "an ambivalent palimpsest of broken emotions, thoughts and feelings" (1999: 601). He regards himself as "injured and twisted" (1986 [1963]: 216), a "hollow man" (120), "alienated" (178), and views his life as devoid of meaning (117). His psychological deterioration, which produces a weakening of agency--"a broad omission of the commitment to fight" (139)--is an instance of what Fanon describes as "a collapse of the ego": "The black man stops behaving as an actional person" (1986: 154).

If the effect of multiple legal injustices on Bloke's psyche is to "defy [his] manhood ... driving [him] out of[his] mind" (1986 [1963]: 123), his treatment at the hands of the police effaces his masculinity in the sense in which Mtutuzeli Matshoba describes his emasculation following his interactions with police reservists:
   By dodging, lying, resisting where it is possible, bolting when I'm
   already cornered, parting with invaluable money, sometimes calling
   my sisters into the game to get amorous with my captors, allowing
   myself to be slapped on the mouth in front of my womenfolk and
   getting sworn at with my mother's private parts, that component of
   me which is man has died countless times in one lifetime. (1979:

Bloke's marriage deteriorates (1986 [1963]: 47) and eventually breaks down under the weight of his increasing frustration, occasioned by the emasculating effects of legal interdiction and police violence, as well as by his demeaning racial categorisation encoded in the law. Fiki, his wife, is black, and black women are "not good enough; only the state of being white could satisfy me" (220). Bloke's attraction to "every white woman I met" (220) resonates with Fanon's formulation of the black man's desire: "I wish to be acknowledged not as black but as white ... who but a white woman can do this for me? By loving me she proves that I am worthy of white love. I am loved like a white man" (1986: 63). Sex with a white woman affords him what a black woman cannot: "self-esteem" (Fanon 1986: 154).

Bloke abandons himself to amoral hedonism--"sex and vice"--which he rationalises as a Nietzschean strategy of self-affirmation: "in an existence of negatives ... the act of a licentious existence must, in fact, be a positive reaction" (1986 [1963]: 208). Sexual seduction without emotional involvement is for him an antidote to the disempowerment effected by the law and the police: "Through sex I proved myself to myself. I am a man" (212). Yet the empowerment afforded by sexual conquest is fleeting and ultimately unsatisfying: "the journeys through the night provided very little real satisfaction; the conquests were like the effect of drugs or a state of drunkenness, and when they passed they left in their wake an emptiness even lonelier than that which had set me on the pursuit" (210).

As Bloke comes to realise, the evanescent sense of freedom and power afforded by his sexual exploits is a paltry substitute for political resistance to apartheid and its injustices. He comes to appreciate that apartheid and its laws are resistible: the narrative arc of Blame is a coming to terms with the need for violent resistance--what Benjamin terms "hostile counter-violence" (1978: 300). He comes to the realisation that apartheid (to borrow Fanon's description of colonialism) "is violence in its natural state, and it will only yield when confronted with greater violence" (1967: 48). "Disillusioned beyond reconciliation" (1986 [1963]: 139) after the demolition of Sophiatown, Bloke registers the possibility that "I, who hate and fear violence, will be forced to appeal to the arbitrament of violence" (120). Subsequently, the contemplation of violent resistance hardens into resolve: "With the Pan-Africanist, I say, this is my fight, I must do it alone; I have passed the point of debate, the issue is quite clear. I will kill" (247).

Blame reflects Modisane's awareness that resistance to legalised violence must take place not only on the level of the physical, but also the discursive. He expresses a readiness to resort to physical violence, but his memoir resists apartheid primarily by documenting its effects and by confronting apartheid law at the level of its language, the textual vehicle of colonial power. In a postscript, a section-by-section exegesis of his pass book, he connects the signifying system of law's bureaucratic discourse to the social conditions it produces in order to undercut the claims to legitimacy of the apartheid government's legislative enactments, the restrictive coerciveness of which he emphasises primarily through the device of repetition: "I cannot sell my labour to the highest bidder. I cannot live in a residential area of my choice ... I cannot worship in the church of my choice" (1986 [1963]: 308-9).

Above all, Blame is a reflection on the violence inflicted upon the masculine colonised subject. Modisane notes the way in which the brutal categorisations of colonial power deprive the male colonised subject of an individualised identity:
   The de-personalisation of the African has been so thorough that I
   have no name, none of them care to know whether I have one and
   since there was very little point in having a name ... I adopted
   the label Bloke; it was a symbolic epitome of the collective thing
   I was made to be. The African is a collective which cannot be
   classified and distinguished apart, or hated apart, as an
   individual. (1986 [1963]: 242-3, emphasis added)

Bloke, the name Modisane adopts as a "shield against the thing I was" (167) (a fantasy based on Leslie Charteris's character Simon Templar, "the Saint"), is also Everyman, an appellation emptied of specificity. This passage, referring as it does to "de-personalisation" and "a collective", is strikingly similar to a passage in The Colonizer and the Colonized (1965), in which Albert Memmi explains that a usual "sign of the colonised's depersonalisation is what one might call the mark of the plural. The colonised is never characterised in an individual manner; he is entitled only to drown in an anonymous collectivity" (1965: 85).


Although primarily concerned with recording the destructive effects of apartheid's legal violence, Blame is also, in the process, a reconstruction of the colonised Self as a subject capable of counter-hegemonic agency, and no longer condemned to inauthenticity. Modisane's flight from South Africa in 1959--he went into exile first in the United Kingdom and subsequently in West Germany--should not obscure Blame's status as an act of textual resistance to apartheid law and policing. Modisane resists by placing on record the distortions of subjectivity produced by wicked laws and callous police, and, as a counterweight to that, by describing the construction of a politically conscious, revolutionary Self, emancipated from the illusions and mystifications of colonial ideology.


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(1.) As Lewis Nkosi observes, Blame challenges the structure of 'realist' autobiographical narrative, showing as it does "a dedication to a superior form of realism which succeeds partly because the author is alive to the fact that reality itself is elusive to the process of Time as an orderly sequence of events" (1965: 133). Mark Sanders records the way in which the text has proved "intractable" to critics by exceeding the narrative structures imposed on it (1994: 52).

(2.) Law has been elided or has featured only peripherally in previous commentaries on Blame. See for example Sanders (1994), Goldsmith (2002) and Titlestad (2004).

(3.) Modisane was one of a group of black writers ("the Drum Generation") who captured in their texts the violence and vibrancy of Sophiatown. Others include Lewis Nkosi, Nat Nakasa, Es'kia Mphahlele, Todd Matshikiza and Can Themba. For a discussion, often anecdotal, of Drum and its reporters, see Nicol (1991). See, for an overview, Gready (2002).

(4.) The National Party government decided to demolish Sophiatown for the following reasons. After 1948, preoccupied with securing a docile labour force, it imposed tighter restrictions on the urban influx and residence of workers, an initiative that included Sophiatown, which was attractive to those intent on evading the pass laws, owing to its congestion and to a lack of effective controls. Moreover, Sophiatown was perceived by the government as a centre of African resistance, as it was occasionally a site of outbreaks of popular violence and conflicts between residents and police. Finally, the prevalence of gangsterism, a violent and elusive current of resistance to legal regulation in Sophiatown, was a source of anxiety. See Lodge (1990: 98-100).

(5.) The National Party was elected to power in 1948 and remained in power until 1994. Under its rule, the racist legislation described in this essay--and much more--was passed and implemented.

(6.) Discriminatory laws were a primary instrument of colonialism in South Africa from its inception, and included, after the proclamation of the Union of South Africa in 1910, the 1911 Mines and Works Act, which reserved jobs for whites, and the Natives Land Act of 1913, which allocated less than ten percent of South Africa to blacks, who constituted almost seventy percent of the population.
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Author:Lenta, Patrick
Publication:Current Writing: Text and Reception in Southern Africa
Article Type:Report
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Jul 1, 2010
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