The Moment Before the Gun Went Off

by Nadine Gordimer

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“The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” Summary

The Moment Before the Gun Went Off” is a short story set on a farm in apartheid-era South Africa.

  • Marais Van der Vyver, a white Afrikaner farmer and regional Party official, accidentally shoots and kills Lucas, a young Black farmhand, while the two are hunting a kudu buck together.
  • Van der Vyver reports the incident to the police himself and provides money for Lucas’s funeral. He believes that, in the wake of the shooting, he will be looked upon as a representative of a corrupt regime.
  • The author reveals Van der Vyver’s secret: Lucas was in fact his son.

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Last Updated September 6, 2023.

Marais Van der Vyver, a white Afrikaner farmer in apartheid-era South Africa, shoots and kills one of his farm laborers. The shooting is accidental: because guns are regularly found in the country, there are many accidental shootings, often by children playing with their father's weapons, or by hunters. However, Van der Vyver knows that his shooting will be reported all around the world for political reasons—because he is a regional Party leader and the Commandant of a local security group, and because he is white and the farm laborer was Black. He is sure that this incident will be used by anti-apartheid campaigners and quoted at the United Nations as evidence that the "ruling Party" must be brought down.

Van der Vyver believes the local farming community will understand how he really feels: he actually is shocked and upset to have killed the farm laborer and intends to look after the man’s wife and children. He describes the laborer as his friend, the Black friend he took out on hunting expeditions. Farm people will understand this, he feels, but city-dwellers and people abroad who read the reports will not believe it. They believe all Black people are "big-mouth agitators" and will believe Van der Vyver is an exemplar of a corrupt regime, not a shy local man.

There will, of course, be an inquiry into the accident, even though it was a straightforward case and Van der Vyver drove the body to the police station himself to report the facts to Captain Beetge. Van der Vyver was shaking; when he explained the incident to Beetge, he wept, which Beetge will tell nobody for fear of shaming Van der Vyver.

Van der Vyver had left his home in the afternoon intending to cull a kudu buck. On the way, he stopped to pick up the twenty-year-old Lucas, whom Van der Vyver had taught to help him with his farm machinery and tractors. Lucas liked to ride on the back of the truck so he could see the game before Van der Vyver did. Van der Vyver, driving, had with him a rifle and ammunition—his father's rifle. His own was at the gunsmith's.

This meant that the rifle he had with him was one which had not been used for some time; he had believed it was not loaded, because Van der Vyver's father had not believed in having loaded weapons in the house and had taught his son never to drive with loaded weapons in his vehicle. Unfortunately, however, this gun was loaded. When Lucas banged on the roof of the cab with his fist, signaling to the driver to look left at the kudu buck running through the bush, Van der Vyver turned and drove too quickly over a pothole. The resulting disturbance caused the rifle to go off, and it shot straight through the cab roof and into Lucas's head.

This was the statement Van der Vyver gave to the police, and he swore it was true. The narrator explains that the statement will remain on record in the police station unless, of course, it is burned down by agitators as many police stations in the cities have been. Now, in the cities, the narrator adds, Black people are allowed to drink in white hotels and sleep with white people. Things are changing.

Around Van der Vyver's farmhouse is a security fence which his wife, Alida, believes is ugly and spoils the effect of her landscaping. In the backyard, there is an aerial; all Van der Vyver's trucks also have aerials which swing around whenever a driver hits a...

(This entire section contains 1040 words.)

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bump in the road. This is part of the local system of security which keeps all the farms in contact with one another by radio. Mines have been placed by agitators on remote farm roads, killing farmers and their families driving out for picnics. Neighbors call Van der Vyver to express condolences, but unsaid is the suggestion that things might have been worse and that Van der Vyver might have been killed, too.

Van der Vyver provides money for Lucas's funeral, so it is elaborate. The narrator notes that the Black community prizes elaborate funerals, with many paying into burial societies to ensure they will not be buried in unmarked graves. Lucas's wife is pregnant and has brought their young child with her. Unlike white people, the narrator says, Black people do not protect their children from such things.

Lucas's wife is crying "like a child." Everyone at the funeral is someone who works for Van der Vyver and his family, including the women and children who work in the fields in harvest season. The narrator comments that Black people bear children early; Lucas's mother is only in her late thirties and is supported by her own parents, who have worked for the farm since Van der Vyver was a child. She stares at the grave and does not look at Van der Vyver. Meanwhile, Alida is wearing her church hat, being supportive. She thinks her husband has not noticed the support: he is relatively cold and reserved, and she believes this is why he has never been nominated as the Party's district parliamentary candidate. Meanwhile, Van der Vyver and Lucas's mother are staring silently at the grave. 

In the moment before the gun was shot, Lucas and Van der Vyver were sharing a moment of "high excitement" of a sort which often passed between them, even though sometimes Van der Vyver would ignore greetings from Lucas when he was moving around the farm. When the gun was fired, the farmer saw the kudu stumble and run away, and then heard and saw Lucas falling out of the vehicle. Believing he had fallen off in fright, Van der Vyver opened the door in readiness to laugh and tease Lucas.

However, Lucas was dead. Van der Vyver carried him to the truck and was quickly soaked in his blood.

Van der Vyver thinks that those who declare him guilty will be right, but they will not know the truth of the matter. They will not know that the young Black man killed by the white man's negligence was not simply Van der Vyver's farmhand, but his son.