” Today I realize that this is the worst of all: that I can no longer single out my enemy and give him a name. I can’t challenge him to a duel. What is set up against me is not a man, not even a group of people, but a thing, a something, a vague amorphous something, an invisible ubiquitous power that inspects my mail and taps my telephone and indoctrinates my colleagues and incites the pupils against me and cuts up the tyres of my car and paints signs on my door and fires shots into my home and send me bombs in the mail, a power that follows me wherever I go, day and night, day and night, frustrating me, intimidating me . . . ” (III 7, p.237)
Set against the Soweto riots of June 1976, A Dry White Season is a direct indictment of South Africa’s racist regime. The book gives reader a chilling glimpse into the inner sanctum of the racially segregated country’s ruling class. What A Dry White Season gruesomely reveals about this regime is utter defiance of our accepted premises and basic conditions—that society is based on order, on reason, and on justice. And that, whenever anything goes wrong, one can appeal to an innate decency, or common sense, or a notion of legality in people to rectify the error. But the government portrayed in this novel obliterates such decency completely.
But as far as Gordon is concerned, here I’m actually working on him day and night. It’s not a passive relationship, I’m actively involved with him every moment of my life. (III 5, p.220)
Ben Du Toit, a white Johannesburg school-teacher, is a typical suburban family man with a wife and three children. Although disinterested in politics, he lives in a placid withdrawal but not without conviction. Shortly after the Soweto riots, Ben is inevitably involved with politics, as Gordon Ngubene, a black janitor at Ben’s school, asks him to help locate his son Jonathan, who has disappeared. The teenager was last seen among the protestors at Soweto. From the outset, authorities stall and give them conflicting reports, being evasive about the cause of Jonathan’s death. Obsessed with his son’s mysterious death, Gordon continues investigation on his own. He, too, is arrested, and the affidavits he has collected to prove that his son had been detained in jail, not shot in the riot as police had stated, are confiscated. Later Gordon “confesses” to being a terrorist and officials say, commits suicide.
Or is this yet another symptom of my madness? That I am no longer able to think anything but the worst of my adversaries? That in a monstrous way I’m simplifying the whole complicated situation by turning all those from the ‘other side’ into criminals of whom I can believe only evil? (III 11, p.267)
From here the novel reads like a Kafkaesque nightmare, with an ominous sense of foreboding, as Ben irretrievably plunges into the labyrinth of bureaucratic duplicity and official deceit, manipulation and violence. To thwart him from further investigating Gordon and Jonathan’s death, the Special Branch wages a campaign of intimidation on him. The most arresting of the book is Ben’s descent from respected family man/teacher to isolated pariah. The fall of a moral man best serves to expose the corrupted system’s inflexibility and fear of people it sets out to persecute. The book not only evokes racial injustice, but also raises a larger issue: do we capitulate and become silent accomplices in the face of injustice?
316 pp. Harper Perennial. Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]