The story is told by an omniscient narrator in the third person. Although the narrator occasionally looks inside the mind of another character, the story is told chiefly from the point of view of the female protagonist, Joyce McCoy.
Joyce McCoy, a pretty and somewhat shallow young white woman of twenty-two, returns to South Africa from England, where she has lived for five years. As the story begins, Joyce, accompanied by her brother-in-law Malcolm Barker, is attending a party in Johannesburg. Because members of all races are present, this social affair is most unusual for South Africa. There, Joyce dances with a black man, Eddie Ntwala; this is the first time in her life that she has ever done such a thing.
A fateful step is taken by Joyce at the very beginning of the story, when she catches sight of Jessica Malherbe. Jessica is a white antiapartheid activist who has rebelled against her traditional Afrikaner family background by both her political choices and by her choice of an Indian, Rajati, for a husband. As the party finally draws to a close, Joyce, on the spur of the moment, asks for permission to take part in an act of civil disobedience planned by Jessica: a protest march, by a group composed of members of all of South Africa’s races, into the segregated African section of the town; such a march is illegal under the South African apartheid system.
Joyce’s initial request, made at the party, gets no reply; she gains Jessica’s reluctant permission to join the march only after visiting her on separate occasions in the days following the party. When Joyce does go to Jessica’s apartment on the day of the protest, to gather with the other marchers, she feels a strong sense of panic, which she overcomes with difficulty; only after having overcome this panicky sensation is she able to get into the car with the other demonstrators. Once the demonstrators have marched into the African section, Joyce is, like all the other demonstrators, placed under arrest for having violated the rules of apartheid.