When Beverly Naidoo published No Turning Back: A Novel of South Africa in 1995, South Africa was in the midst of a hopeful transition. After years of racial oppression under a system called apartheid, the country was shifting to equality and democracy.
In No Turning Back, Naidoo explores the experiences of some of South Africa’s most vulnerable people, poor black street children, during this transition period. Naidoo’s protagonist, Sipho, runs away from home and faces many confusing dangers. He struggles with cold, hunger, and violence, and he has to learn whom to trust as South Africa’s old racial barriers crumble.
As she researched her novel, Naidoo interviewed workers and children at Street-Wise Johannesburg, a shelter for street children in one of South Africa’s most troubled cities. In the book, she describes a shelter much like Street-Wise, which offers street children housing, education, and opportunities to reconnect with their families.
At the beginning of No Turning Back, Sipho steals money from his mother and sneaks out of his house. He makes his way through the grim slum where he lives to a taxi stand, where he waits in line to join a group of people riding to the center of Johannesburg.
As he waits, Sipho thinks about his stepfather, a bad-tempered alcoholic. Sipho loves his mother, but he feels she has betrayed him because she does not protect him from her husband’s beatings. Recently Sipho’s mother got pregnant and lost her job, which adds to the stress on the family.
Sipho boards a taxi to Johannesburg. During the ride, he hears the adults talking about violence. They say people are killing each other, brother against brother. Some hope that the upcoming elections will stop the chaos. After listening for a while, Sipho tunes out the conversation so he can watch where he is going.
When Sipho arrives in the city, he simply wanders. He nearly trips over a white man who is sleeping on the street, and this confuses him. Do not all white people live in nice houses? Later, another white man speaks to Sipho, warning him not to spend all his money on games at a video arcade. The man does not sound cruel, but Sipho worries that talking to him could bring trouble, so he moves on.
Soon Sipho notices some boys his age. They are directing cars into parking spaces in exchange for tips from the drivers. Sipho speaks to the boys, Jabu and Joseph, who are not surprised when they learn that Sipho has run away from home. They explain that a good way to earn money is to help customers with their carts by Checkers, the local grocery store.
Sipho accompanies Jabu and Joseph to the store, and he is soon accepted into a gang of street kids. He gets money by carrying shopping bags, helping drivers park cars, and begging on the street. On his first morning, a rough older boy steals nearly all the money Sipho earns, but Jabu shares with Sipho at lunch, and Sipho earns enough to buy himself dinner.
At night, the boys take Sipho to the railway yard where they sleep. They explain that they move often because police and angry shopkeepers drive them out. They worry that their current place may not be safe for long because drunks sometimes come there to fight.
At the sleeping place, Joseph offers Sipho some glue to sniff. Sipho says no at first, but he is very cold, and Joseph says the glue will warm him up. Sipho tries huffing, and he does feel a little warmer, warm enough to sleep.
Sipho’s days follow a similar pattern. Sipho begs or earns a little money and spends it on food, games, and candy. He does odd jobs for Mr. Danny Lewis, the white shopkeeper by the video arcade who spoke to him on his first day in town. Sipho does not trust white people, so he finds Mr. Lewis’s kindness confusing.
For a while, Sipho sniffs glue at night to stay warm, but eventually Jabu convinces him to stop. Jabu takes Sipho to Rosebank, a rich part of town where street kids can earn a great deal of money for odd jobs, and Sipho earns enough to buy a heavy jacket.
That night, the street kids are attacked by a group of men who beat the boys and throw them in the back of a police van. The boys are terrified, unsure whether they are being taken to jail. Lucas, the gang’s leader, does not think so. He thinks one or two of their attackers might be actual policemen but the others are probably just angry racists. The men spray the boys with some kind of smelly liquid, then drag them out of the police van and throw them into a polluted lake.
Wet, filthy, and injured, the boys make their way back into the city. A night watchman allows the boys to warm themselves by his fire. When he complains that the police are cruel to black children, Lucas says some police are okay and help the street kids even when white kids torment them.
The boys make their way to Hillbrow, the neighborhood...
(The entire section is 2027 words.)