The waste land in South African writer Alan Paton's short story "The Waste Land" symbolizes a barbaric and degenerating society in general, and this specific town of the story in particular. What's important is that the author shows the savagery of society through the actions of a group of young men who pursue the main character.
In a well-ordered, decent, and law-abiding society, young men (and women) are the future and strength of a nation. However, in “The Waste Land”, the young men symbolize a decaying society of selfishness and greed. Violence is in their hearts and minds and ultimately in their actions. This is common of the young men in the milieu of this story, as shown in this line from the opening paragraph of the story:
That was the thing feared by all, to be waited for by young men.
Furthermore, the man in the story doesn’t see the town as a refuge or a place of peaceful existence. He sees the bus pulling away from him as a refuge from the wild town. The bus is something in transit, to be taken as a means of getting away from the dangers of the town. The man likens the bus to an “island of safety” and the setting he is in as “a sea of perils." It is apparent that he is experiencing great fear in a town that has abandoned honorable principles.
The biblical admonition that “…the love of money is a root of all kinds of evil” (1 Timothy 6:10) is evident in this short story. The young men are after the man’s money. They are striving by all means to find the man, and kill him if need be, to realize their goal of robbing him of whatever wages he has on him. There is no discussion of who will be left behind of his loved ones once they kill him. These young men don’t care. In fact, to show the rot of this society, it is revealed that one of the young men attackers is this man’s own son.
The setting of the story is an area of iron, wire, and old car bodies in a heap in a nondescript lot across the road from a convent. The man hopes to get away from his attackers in that waste land. He believes that he can escape his pursuers in this scrap heap lot. It is worth noting that the man doesn’t find his refuge or place of safety in the convent – the religious location where he now stands. This could be taken as symbolizing that he is not finding rest in the traditional religion of his day. He seeks to move away from this and risks venturing into the waste land.
Therefore, the waste land of the short story is the actual terrible condition of the town and the state of mind of those young men (and others) who have abandoned their moral compass. The man ponders that “mercy” is an unknown word in these parts. This can be extrapolated to society in general, as we see today vicious and horrifying acts of violence where mercy is not shown.