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Apartheid - Repudiation of Human Ethos: A Study of Nadine Gordimer’s Short Stories


Apartheid - Repudiation of Human Ethos: A Study of Nadine Gordimer’s Short Stories

Dr. R. Pavithra

Assistant Professor of English

Sona College of Arts and Science,

Salem, Tamil Nadu, India



Man’s greed for material possessions forced him to drive away animals from their natural habitat. The minority of human beings has subjugated the majority of flora and fauna. This colonizing tendency of man did not stop with the subjugation of nature. A parallel can be drawn between this act of man and the white man’s colonization of the non-European countries. This paper showcases how the colonizers subjected the natives to endless misery by treating them no better than animals. and also shows how the chosen stories are only tasters to the kind of awakening caused by the literary works of Nadine Gordimer at a juncture in history when the White majority was continually devising new repressive measures against the Black minority.

Key words: Oppression, Apartheid, Black, Racial discrimination.

Essentially man is a social animal. More so in traditional village where the individual is tied to certain conventions. He is the part of a whole organism. Whatever happens to him vibrates through the community and whatever happen to the community necessarily affects the individual. Nadine Gordimer’s short stories highlights the colonizing tendency of man where a parallel can be drawn between the act of man and the white man's colonization of the non-European countries. The colonizers subjected the natives to endless misery by treating them no better than animals. South Africa was an existing specimen of this kind of injustice. The natives of South Africa had separate areas to live in, separate laws to abide by; and separate jobs to do. The white rulers robbed them of their liberty, dignity, peace, human and natural resources.

The interpretations of the people with good will prevailed and the literary works of great writers like Nadine Gordimer fed the movement started by daring souls like Nelson Mandela. The writer in her was alert at a very young age to the harsh realities of the apartheid law. She was consistent and insistent in her fight against the draconian law called apartheid. She did witness the fall of apartheid in her own life time.

Nadine Gordimer bloomed into a writer in the milieu of political and social divide. She contributed to the charged environment as much as that environment contributed to her growth as a writer. She proved that language and literature are the most powerful weapons against injustice. The human environment of her country inspired her to write and her writings in-turn inspired the people who were fighting against the illegal apartheid. Therefore, one cannot divorce an author’s work from the environment or the society in which he or she lives. Dominic Head says, "...there is a relationship between a writer’s creativity and the social context in which he or she operates.... ln working out her identity as a South African writer, acutely conscious of a political structure which distorts social reality, Gordimer has had recourse to various strategies  and various literary gestures.” (Head, l)

Gordimer’s novels and short stories offer glimpses into the human environment in South Africa during the apartheid regime. Nadine Gordimer sensed that the discrimination and the great divide between the haves and the have-nots will result in insecurity to White life. She warned that the comfortable life of the Whites rested on a rickety foundation. The social struggles of the Black majority are sincerely recorded in the works of Nadine Gordimer. More than politics, she discusses the human issues in the long-drawn-out fight against injustice. The life and works of Gordimer mirror the theme of the inequality between the classes and the inherent insanity and bias in the policies oppressions.

Economists caution that too much of inequality and oppression will lead to insurgency and revolt in the long term. Johannesburg is a city known for burglars and robbers. The white suburbs are not safe; the inhabitants of the white suburbs are preoccupied with safety measures to protect themselves and their property. Just as man has to safeguard himself against animals that have been deprived of their natural habitat, these whites are constantly improving on the existing security measures against the impending attacks by black burglar. This is because of the uneven economic development. Unmindful of the needs of the Black community, the Whites usurped their lands and labour. Not resting with that, the White rulers imposed apartheid upon them making the society unfit. The poverty of the Blacks and the affluence of the rich Whites made them seek better security systems and burglar alarms. Apartheid was a policy targeting the natives. The human ethics were blown to the wind. It was in this context that Nadine Gordimer, in spite of being a white, supported the anti-apartheid cause. While supporting the sources of the Blacks, she warned the oppressors about the possible outcomes of prolonged apartheid policy. A society which is obsessed with security concerns can never be happy. It is like a house built upon the sand. The house may fall on the heads of the inhabitants themselves at the slightest provocation.

“Once Upon a Time” is a beautiful short story which recounts the ways in which a fairy-tale family tries to enhance the security of their home. When there are riots in the Black neighbourhood, they get suspicious about strangers. Plaques are put up in front of houses saying, “You have been warned”. There are police, soldiers, teargas and guns to keep the rioters away. When there are more riots, they fit electronically -controlled doors. Next, they attach burglar bars to the doors and windows. This is followed by burglar alarm system. Then the compound walls are raised. Not satisfied with these devices, this fairy tale family finally decides to have razor-bladed coils all-round the walls of the house.

It was the ugliest but the most honest in its suggestion of the pure concentration camp style, no frills, all evident efficacy. Placed the length of the walls, it consisted of a continuous coil of stiff and shining metal serrated into jagged blades, so that there would be no way of climbing over it and no way through its tunnel without getting entangled in its fangs. There would be no way out, only a struggle getting bloodier and bloodier, a deeper and sharper hooking and tearing of flesh (29).

This loop of serrated coil fence is a symbol for apartheid policy. In the story, the son himself gets entangled in the coiled fence. The makers of the Apartheid law were wrong. Poverty, unemployment, and the evil apartheid laws were responsible for turning the Blacks against the Whites. The White man believed that if the apartheid laws were made stricter, he could be at peace. But it was just the reverse. This image is relevant not only to the then African Government, but to all unjust rulers in the world. After all, great literature deals with universal themes by referring to a particular experience.

Marriage and sexual relations across the colour line were made illegal in 1949. As she is rightly called “the warrior of the imagination”, Gordimer threw imaginary challenges to the rulers by placing emphasis on the mixed relations. The short stories “City Lovers” and “Country Lovers” depict the senseless way in which justice is denied to Black girls who have White lovers. The judge takes his own decision when it comes to White guilt. The law protects the Whites and such relationships are hushed up. A writer’s perception helped at a time when it was considered illegal to have relationships with the other races and if such relationships were revealed, the law favoured the Whites and muted the Black voices.

 The short story “Home” portrays how a young European husband begins to suspect his Black wife because of her struggle to release mother who had been arrested for her role in the anti-apartheid movement. She has to be secretive in order to establish contact with the members of an organisation which helps her to initiate legal process of obtaining freedom for her mother. Finally, she reaches home after meeting her mother. Jarring notes are heard in the once-beautiful familial relationship; the husband has these thoughts: “Perhaps there was no lover? He saw it was true that she had left him, but it was for them, that house, the dark family of which he was not a member, her country to which he did not belong” (140). This story reveals the truth that domestic peace becomes a reality only when the human environment is hospitable.

These stories are only tasters to the kind of awakening caused by the literary works of Nadine Gordimer at a juncture in history when the White majority was continually devising new repressive measures against the Black minority. Nadine Gordimer kept the White conscience alive by turning the attention of the world to the psychological and social tensions in a racially divided society. Her fiction holds up a mirror to the strife-torn history of South Africa in the twentieth century. At a time when the voices of the black writers were stifled and most of their books were banned, her books came as whiff of fresh air and gave moral support to the Black activists fighting against the apartheid rule.

Works Cited

Gordimer, Nadine. Lump and Other Stories.  FarrarStraus and Giroux, 1991.

Head, Dominic. “Gordimer, Nadine (1923 -)” from The Literary Enclopedia 3 pp. Online.

Internet. 10 Oct. 2004.