A Dry White Season

by André Brink

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Throughout the dark era of racial segregation and apartheid, André Brink felt that his responsibility as a writer was to report on and scrutinize the harshest aspects of South African society. This urge generated A Dry White Season (1979), the publication of which made Brink the first Afrikaner writer to be banned by the government. The novel espouses the cause of overt political commitment against the apartheid regime. It is firmly based within the South African political context of its day and clearly conceives itself as a tool for social change and consciousness raising. A Dry White Season challenges not only the political orthodoxy of apartheid but also the formal architecture, conventions, and themes that characterized literary works by Afrikaans authors. The book subverts the literary and cultural roots associated with the Afrikaans tradition by adopting modernist and postmodernist technical experimentation and by broadening the scope of acceptable subject matter, particularly in regard to politics and sexuality.

The novel is introduced by an anonymous narrator. He reconstructs the life of the novel’s leading character, his friend Ben Du Toit, a white, middle-class teacher, from the papers, notes, and legal documents that Ben had sent him before being killed. Going through Ben’s papers, the narrator and, by extension, the reader are implicated in the teacher’s quest for truth and in his trajectory from ignorance to political awareness. The title, A Dry White Season, refers exactly to a state of apathy in the narrator’s life which Ben’s story dispels. Significantly, the narrator goes from feeling burdened with “the litter of another man’s life” to making “efforts to do justice to him." The narrator is representative of the nation’s apathy as a whole.

Ben is happily married with children and leads a comfortable suburban life that prevents him from questioning the core values of South African society. Ben’s apolitical existence starts to change when a cleaner at his school, Gordon Ngubene, asks for help in investigating the death of his son, Jonathan. It is not long before Gordon himself is killed and Ben is thrown into an investigation which will progressively alienate him from his social milieu and even from his own family. Helped by Stanley (a black taxi driver and militant) and Melanie (a journalist working for a British newspaper), Ben unveils the brutality and crimes of the Secret Police. Through his expeditions into the black township of Soweto, he also comes into contact with social realities that are far removed from his own privileged condition, which he had always refused to acknowledge. As he delves deeper into murders committed by the Secret Police, Ben becomes an outlaw and a target, a fatal condition in a totalitarian state like apartheid South Africa.

Rumours of Rain (1978), Brink’s previous novel, and A Dry White Season are often read as companion pieces. In them, the author presents complementary Afrikaan character types such as Martin Mynhard, the negative apartheid apologist, and Ben Du Toit, the positive dissident Afrikaner who, in spite of the colour of his skin, challenges his colonial and totalitarian heritage. In addition, the black township of Soweto prominently features in both books as the place that forces the narrators to face unpleasant realities from which their white middle-class backgrounds had always sheltered them.

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