Alan Paton’s short story “Ha’penny” sums up, in many ways, the author’s life experiences during some of the worst phases of the apartheid system in South Africa. Paton was a white man who opposed the bigotry and the cruel segregationist policies against black Africans. When he was not writing, Paton worked at a boys’ reformatory, trying to find ways to improve the lives of incarcerated South African youths.
Paton is best remembered for his novel Cry, the Beloved Country (1948), which is credited with having spread around the world the story of the suffering that black Africans were enduring in South Africa under apartheid. Like the author’s famous novel, the short story “Ha’penny” also deals with some of the consequences of apartheid. Set in the 1960s, the story provides readers with an intimate look at the challenges of one man attempting to change the lives of those who find themselves at the bottom of the heap in a country that holds little regard for them.
The main character, Ha’penny, is a troubled twelve-year-old orphan who has spent much of his youth living on the streets. The story opens after Ha’penny has been caught stealing and is imprisoned. The narrator, an official at the reformatory, befriends the young boy, attracted to him because of the colorful stories the boy relates. Intrigued by a few contradictory elements in the boy’s stories, the narrator researches Ha’penny’s background and discovers that the boy has fabricated some of the more important details. When the narrator confronts the boy, everything about their relationship unravels, as does the boy’s mental and physical health. In the process, the narrator must confront his actions as well as his faulty philosophy of how to teach youths.
Some of the themes of this story include the consequences of strict segregation based on the color of one’s skin, the need for familial love, and loneliness. First published in 1961 in the collection Tales From a Troubled Land, “Ha’penny” remains a popular short story in English literature classes.