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Nadine Gordimer is well-known in South Africa for her political activism. Her novels and short stories often reveal different facets of the apartheid regime of which she was a part and which she bitterly opposed. Once Upon A Time was published in 1989, shortly before Nelson Mandela was released from prison and at a time when South Africa was on the brink of transforming itself.
The story hints at Gordimer's own political persuasion and her belief in the freedom of expression. She will not be dictated to by "someone" who thinks that she "ought" to write a children's story, and although she is subtle, she wants the reader to understand that. In South Africa, this would be significant as censorship was something she had personally experienced, having novels banned in South Africa as being unsuitable. It also exposes the ironies attached to the life of the average person in Johannesburg and its surrounds at the time she wrote the story and the steps he or she would have gone to in order to feel safe. She admits that she has "no burglar bars, no gun under the pillow..." and is pragmatic in her understanding of the situation in her neighborhood, having "the same fears as people who do take these precautions." The difference is that she is able to rationalize her situation rather than making the assumption that there is an intruder. She is however, unnerved by her experience which prompts her to tell the family's tragic story and the perils of making assumptions about "people of another color."
Gordimer does not want her story to be seen as judgmental and is quick to point out that the "property owner" she describes in her "bedtime story" is "no racist." Her story also hints at the reasons why so many people lived with this untenable situation for so long, sometimes ignoring the signs because the problems lay "out of sight and hearing of the suburb." Homeowners in the 1980s therefore saw the people causing the "riots" as troublemakers and criminals rather than ordinary people trying to get their voices heard. Gordimer is one of those people who was trying to change that perception and help expose the injustice.
Gordimer's description of the cat as it "effortlessly" scaled the high wall reminds readers that there are "innocent" people who are swept up in the violence and are either assumed to be "unemployed loiterers that had no innocent destination" or families like this one who begin to think the worst of anyone they do not know or people who are not like them.
In the story, Gordimer's political view becomes apparent as she delivers a warning that those who ignore the real problems and try to protect themselves from the perceived threat without exploring the reasons for the problems, is likely to cause themselves more harm than any external menace ever could. She is sharing her message and wants people to stand up to the real injustice (threat) that apartheid represents.
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