A principal theme in this story is one of displaced aggression and of the victimization of innocent people.
The situation in apartheid (the term is not actually used in the story) South Africa is one of reflexive distrust and hatred between the different races. Michael Adonis has just been fired from his job, and then, walking down the street and minding his own business, he's stopped and shaken down by cops who suspect he's carrying dagga (marijuana). He understandably seethes with resentment against the boer policemen and their treatment of him. Shortly after this, in his tenement building Michael visits the flat of an elderly white man, a has-been actor named Doughty. The man offers Michael wine, but when he asks for the bottle back Michael strikes out at him with the bottle and accidentally kills him.
When the killing is being investigated a police constable named Raalt angrily thinks about his grievances towards his wife. The officer driving Raalt in the police van senses trouble will occur, as Raalt demeaningly questions the residents of Michael's building. Raalt hates black people and is itching to strike out against someone. A man named Willieboy has happened upon Doughty's body and been seen fleeing from the building. When information is given to Raalt about this, the police think they have their suspect. Raalt and his partner later spot Willieboy, who runs from them, and Raalt pursues him and shoots him. Willieboy dies in the police van after Raalt refuses his partner's recommendation to call an ambulance and delays getting Willieboy to the station in the police van by making a needless stop on the way to buy cigarettes.
It's easy to see that the dynamic among these characters is one of suspicion and hostility, leading to accidental and intentional violence and killing. Michael is somewhat like Bigger Thomas in Native Son. Though both men kill unintentionally, they realize that in some sense the deaths are not totally accidental but are partly the result of reflexive resentment over the unfairness and oppression the whites have directed against them. The policeman Raalt takes out his own inner anger on people who cannot defend themselves, the non-white urban population. Throughout his novella, Alex La Guma depicts the atmosphere of a poor district in Cape Town as one of decay and hopelessness. People strike out against each other due to the displaced anger they feel, rooted in various modes of despair and frustration in which they are trapped. It is a bleak picture on the whole.