Nadine Gordimer, an acclaimed South African writer, wrote Once Upon A Time during a very turbulent and dramatically changing climate in South Africa. The short story was published in 1989, the same year that the State President under the Apartheid system of government met with Nelson Mandela for the first time. Shortly thereafter, the country appointed a new president who, although still representative of a minority, white government and still under Apartheid, had a far more open and fair perspective, recognizing the need for reform, equality and democracy.
Gordimer's "bedtime story" therefore reflects the fear that many people had at the time because they had been indoctrinated with an unsubstantiated but inbred mistrust of "people of another color" and believed that this milestone year signaled the potential for outright civil war. The presence of heavily-armed police and army personnel on the streets intensified the perception that the only solution was a violent one. Thus, many people, like the family in the story took extraordinary measures to protect themselves from a force that they neither recognized nor understood. Hence, the tragedy of this story when the real threat to this family is its own paranoia and misunderstanding of what signified a threat to their well-being.