A Walk in the Night

by Alex La Guma

Start Free Trial

How does the author of A Walk in the Night illustrate the reality of apartheid to create a consciousness towards the need for a more brotherly/sisterly society?

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

We can point out incidents within the story that illustrate the dysfunctional apartheid system, but in the most general way, the atmosphere of A Walk in the Night is one of oppression and alienation. Michael Adonis is filled with understandable anger and resentment. He's been fired from his job for no valid reason except for "talking back" to the white foreman. His suspicion of the elderly Doughty, the white man whose flat Michael visits, is not based on anything Doughty personally has done; it is simply because he's white, a member of the oppressor group. Striking out against Doughty is a mostly unconscious act of displaced anger on Michael's part. He did not mean to do it, but at the same time, it was, in some sense, not accidental.

The setting in Capetown is one of severe poverty. Even the incidental descriptions of people show this. A man named Joe whom Michael encounters is a "wreck of a youth," wearing rags for clothes. The marks of decay and deterioration are everywhere.

The individual events that illustrate apartheid are too numerous to mention in full. Michael is walking down the street, and for no special reason, two cops stop him and ask him if he's carrying dagga (marijuana). They assume he has stolen the money he has. Later, when Willieboy is wrongly arrested as a suspect in Doughty's death, the police constable, Raalt, after shooting him, refuses to call an ambulance and then deliberately delays getting to the station, though Willieboy has life-threatening injuries. When Raalt had spoken to people outside Doughty's building, he made his contempt for them obvious, talking down to them and acting as if all of them were riffraff. Though Raalt is part of the dominant group, not only white but a Boer, he seethes with anger himself, wishing that something would happen so he could "lay his hands on one of those bushmen bastards and wring his bloody neck."

In all, a feeling of hopelessness pervades the story, even in those scenes where we are not shown the explicit prejudice that characterizes the South Africa of that time. Adonis and the others speculate at one point on how much of the dysfunction is tied to the capitalist system. They wonder, as well, if things are better in America. These thoughts are all expressions of the need for some kind of replacement of the existing conduct of people not just in South Africa, but everywhere.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

By showing the dehumanizing effects of apartheid on the characters in A Walk in the Night, La Guma is able to create a consciousness toward the need for a more just society.

None of the characters in A Walk in the Night are overtly political. They are not activists against apartheid. However, the lives they lead are some of the best examples of why apartheid needed to be changed. Their narratives detail the need to create a more compassionate and just society.

In different ways, apartheid has dehumanized the characters in A Walk in the Night. Apartheid has made characters like Michael bitter over the daily examples of injustice. At the start of the narrative, Michael is “a good boy.” He is the type of person that South Africa needs to cultivate. He believes in work, as he is upset that he was fired, and in his actions towards Joe, he believes in charity towards others. However, his brooding anger in how apartheid treats him causes his humanity to erode. It makes sense that before he kills Doughty, he is called a "ghost," because apartheid has made him an almost invisible part of his world. The ethical bankruptcy of apartheid encourages him to rationalize killing Doughty and boast about his participation in the criminal life of the gang. Apartheid's withering effect on Michael demonstrates the need for change. It has changed what was once human into a gutted shell.

The same reality of apartheid is illustrated through other characters in A Walk in the Night. Constable Raalt is dehumanized. He is capable of seeing only racist destruction displayed towards people of color in his job while imagining homicidal tendencies towards his wife. His dehumanization is on brutal display in Willieboy's death. While Willieboy is bleeding on the floor of a police van, Raalt is engaged in banal conversation. The system that encourages such behavior also plays a significant role in Willieboy's death. The insight that Willieboy gains at the end of his life is that apartheid is not going to allow a person like him a chance at living a life without suffering. From a social frame of reference, apartheid destroys community. A justified skepticism towards institutional structures encourages silence and withdrawal, and eviscerates social cohesion. La Guma shows that apartheid does not breed hope. Rather, it dehumanizes everyone it touches.

At the end of the novel, there is no justice. The legal system provides no structure to the people in District 6. The child that grows inside of Grace Lorenzo is entering a world where much of people's humanity is destroyed. Simply put, La Guma depicts apartheid as no way for anyone to live. Nothing good comes from this.

La Guma's illustration compels us to find an alternative to apartheid. This alternative must validate voice and create a realm that fosters greater attention to brotherhood and sisterhood. Nadine Gordimer described La Guma's work as a reality that “presents men and women who don’t talk about apartheid; they bear its weals, so that its flesh-and-blood meaning becomes a shocking, sensuous impact.” The illustration of this impact in A Walk in the Night calls out for transforming what is into what can be.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team