Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 495
Robert Greenman Ceretti has come to South Africa to learn “the truth” about the country. He wants to see more than the officially organized tour for visitors allows. In particular, he wants to talk directly with black Africans about how they experience apartheid. To arrange such a meeting, he telephones Frances Taver, one of the few “right white people” able to do so.
Frances has had a long history of friendship with black Africans. In the 1940’s, she worked with them in the labor unions. When such unions were outlawed in the 1950’s, she managed a black-and-white theater group. Not too many years before Robert’s arrival, she frequently entertained racially mixed groups at her house, parties at which a foreign visitor might, paradoxically, enjoy more open contact with nonwhite people than at home.
South Africa has changed. New laws have made apartheid more repressive and have sent the more politically active black Africans to jail or to life underground. One such friend, a member of the recently outlawed African National Congress (ANC) and therefore fearing arrest, still visits Frances occasionally when she is alone.
Frances first resists Robert’s request: “The ones you ought to see,” she informs him, “are shut away.” However, because she likes Robert and is flattered by his attention, she arranges a luncheon for him to meet three black Africans. The ones she invites are neither close friends nor men she most respects: Madela, a successful promoter of hair straightener and blood purifier, is too “curiously reassuring to white people.” Xixo, a cautiously ambitious lawyer, differs markedly from his politically active predecessor who has been arrested. Butelezi is a mediocre reporter and self-promoting playwright of the black African experience.
Despite Frances’s reservations, the luncheon is a great success. The Africans describe their conflicts with apartheid. Their complaints, while legitimate, are chiefly personal, and Robert is too delighted by his contact with the three to be critical of them. He believes that Frances has provided him with a privileged insight into South African life and is thrilled that Madela offers to give him a lift back into town.
Frances has been caught up in the role of hostess. Her mood quickly changes after her guests leave. She discovers in her kitchen a note from her ANC friend. While she was entertaining Robert, he had come by to see her but chose not to stay. He writes that he hopes her party went well, and she wonders what he would have made of her open house had he been present.
Frances does not see Robert again, but when she calls him to say goodbye, she worries that she has misled him about the real South African experience. She warns him not to be “taken in” by the blacks he has met at her house. They have been corrupted by their need to survive. Robert only comprehends that “something complicated was wrong” and that he will never discover what that “something” is.
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