By its setting and its point of view, “Mrs. Plum” gives readers a realistic glimpse of life in a particular place and time—South Africa in the 1960’s. Greenside, Johannesburg, is a wealthy suburb of a major city. By law, the only people who live there are white families, in large, walled-off homes, and their black servants, who live in small spartan quarters in the back. Like Karabo and her friend Chimane, many of these servants come from small villages. They send part of their wages back to support their families and are granted one brief vacation a year to visit. “Mrs. Plum” presents, through Karabo’s eyes, vivid descriptions of the parts of Greenside accessible to the servants, the bus ride between city and village, and the segregated shops and schools in those sections of Johannesburg catering to blacks. Because of social and political impediments, there is little fiction depicting black South Africa under apartheid from a black writer’s point of view. This scarcity lends “Mrs. Plum” a significance beyond its inherent qualities as a work of fiction.
Also striking in “Mrs. Plum” is the point of view. The story is told in the first person by Karabo, a humble servant girl from the village of Phokeng. Karabo’s sentence structures and vocabulary represent the language of a particular class of people who are not often depicted in literature—and it should be noted that when Karabo speaks English to her employer she is using her second or third language. Everything in the story is filtered through Karabo’s eyes. Her growing awareness of the system of apartheid becomes the reader’s growing awareness. Things that seem strange to Karabo—including Mrs. Plum’s choices of food and her attempts to be friendly with her servants—appear strange to the reader. Presenting small details of life under apartheid in the authentic voice of one of its victims is one of Mphahlele’s most important accomplishments in “Mrs. Plum.”