In Once Upon A Time, how is the phrase "wise old witch" used to describe the government?
It should be apparent that although the term "wise old witch" is a reference to the husband's mother, she is a symbol of the previous apartheid regime in South Africa. The government of the time acted only in the interests of privileged whites, who are represented by the rest of the family in the story. Her action in paying for the extra bricks to have the wall extended is symbolic of the measures taken by the government to provide extra security to the privileged. Money was spent to ensure the safety of all those whom the government felt needed protection against the oppressed, who were mostly living in abject poverty and horrendous social conditions.
The mother, just like the government at the time, displays a misplaced awareness of the dangers. Both wished to protect an elitist group instead of reaching out to the persecuted and downtrodden. This could have been done by giving them the same status and privileges which had become the right of only a few. Protectionism and the maintenance of the safety and security of the privileged were their greatest concerns. Ironically, being disdainful and dismissive of the rights of those who sought equality is what led to the turbulence that the "wise old witch" and the government sought to avoid.
Furthermore, the fact that the grandmother also bought her grandson a Space Man outfit and a book of fairy tales is representative of how irrational and unreasonable the former government's ideas were. The regime's utopian ideology had become a dystopian nightmare for most of the country's inhabitants, but the administration was content to believe that its unrealistic fairy tale would permanently remain the status quo.
It is quite ironic that the grandmother's actions are what inadvertently led to the eventual tragedy. Similarly, the actions and attitude of the apartheid regime are what caused the adversity suffered by so many of the country's inhabitants and fomented turmoil. The "witch" was not so "wise" after all.
In Once Upon A Time by Nadine Gordimer, the narrator tells a "bedtime" story about a family which becomes obsessed with its safety and goes to extreme ends to protect itself from an unknown force which it is led to believe consists of undesirable people, "loafers, tsotsis" (hooligans) and even the unemployed. There is little understanding between cultures and "people of another color" are viewed with suspicion unless they are the "reliable housemaids and gardeners."
In the bedtime story, the "husband's mother" is referred to as the "wise old witch." As the family settles into domestic bliss, she warns her son not to use casual labor "off the street." The practice of using casuals to do odd jobs was previously quite routine in South Africa until people started worrying that laborers could be potential murderers or thieves as they had no references or employment history. The "wise old witch" also encourages the family to raise the walls to keep out intruders and even gives her son money for Christmas so he can buy the bricks to build the wall higher.
In other words, it is the husband's mother who feeds the family's obsession with safety and who makes it consider outside forces as the danger and never something from within. Such was the problem with the Apartheid government of South Africa during this era (prior to democracy). To deflect blame from itself and to prevent all South Africans from banding together to fight crime, the government propaganda was designed to create hysteria and irrational hatred based solely on race and irrespective of the shared desire for justice and equality. This mistrust led to many tragic and unnecessary struggles. Hence, the husband's mother is definitely aptly described as the "wise old witch," and is representative of the government thinking she knows better and that she can mislead the public in order to protect her revered status.
In "Once Upon A Time," it is not the government that is described as a "wise old witch," but the husband's mother. In fact, Gordimer refers to the mother twice using this phrase.
This phrase is important for a couple of reasons. Firstly, because of its negative connotations, it characterizes the mother as a force for evil. Notice how she plants the seed of anxiety when she tells her son and his wife not to take in anybody from the street. Instead of living "happily ever after," they are now suspicious of outsiders and become obsessed with personal safety.
As such, the mother, or "wise old witch," is symbolic of society's ignorance. Instead of promoting social cohesion and unity in the country, she represents social ignorance and bigotry. She is the silent majority, those who encourage people to be suspicious of others and to focus only on self-preservation.
More importantly, she symbolizes a government who validates this attitude. Instead of fighting for social unity, the government allows this bigotry and ignorance to become the status quo, making them the real villains of the story.