Cape Town, South Africa, 1986
Age of Iron, like many of J.M. Coetzee's other novels, takes place in his native South Africa. For many years (we're talking 50), South Africa was ruled under a system of racial segregation called Apartheid, which means "separateness" in Afrikaans. Apartheid was held in place as an official policy from 1948 until 1994 (yes, that recently). Under Apartheid, the rights of blacks were severely limited; whites, though the minority in terms of numbers, were completely in charge. In fact, blacks were not even considered to be legal citizens of South Africa, and they were forced to attend separate schools, go to separate hospitals, and receive separate public services.
Age of Iron takes place during a critical period of Apartheid's history. The novel is set in 1986, a time in which Apartheid was still in full force but anti-Apartheid sentiments were getting progressively stronger. A State of Emergency was declared in a number of areas of South Africa during 1985, and by 1986, State President P.W. Botha declared a nationwide State of Emergency too. Rebel groups, often led by militant youth, overthrew a number of local governments and took over. The South African government fired back, imposing curfews, censoring the press, and allowing police to crush any protests as they saw fit. Age of Iron brilliantly illustrates the tensions between citizens and the authorities that existed during this time. We see the black characters who live in the townships feel hopeless unrest, and we see the police overstep their boundaries and try to enforce "order" by resorting to extreme violence.
While much of the novel takes place in the privacy of Mrs. Curren's home, we can see how the changing political and social climate in the world around her starts to affect what used to be her quiet, closed-off life. Florence and her kids begin crashing at Mrs. Curren's place because their own neighborhood is extremely unsafe, the police come shooting every night, and the local youth have overthrown the adults. By depicting a real historical moment marked by chaos and uncertainty, Age of Iron shows us how the line between the private, "safe" sphere of the home and the dangerous outside world becomes blurred.