The Train from Rhodesia

by Nadine Gordimer

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What is the historical context for "The Train from Rhodesia?"

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"The Train from Rhodesia" takes place shortly after apartheid, or "separateness," became the law of the land in South Africa. This story, published in 1952, reflects the system of racial segregation instituted by the National Party in 1948. This system, which lasted until 1994, was in part an expression of Afrikaner nationalism. Under this system, residential areas were racially segregated, as were public services, and blacks were relegated to inferior lands and given inferior services.

In the story, the people on the train coming from Rhodesia, which was at that time comparatively wealthier, are all white. "Piccanins," which is a South African slang word for Black children, come down to the tracks with chickens and dogs. Black vendors sell their wares to people on the train, and black children beg for pennies. White newlyweds barter with a black vendor for a wooden lion sculpture, and when the husband manages to buy it at the last minute, the wife casts it aside because she is ashamed at the way her husband got the sculpture for so little money. The train is a metaphor for the separateness of apartheid, as the whites inside the protected train are "caged faced, boxed in, cut off after the contact of the outside," while the blacks outside try to get the whites to buy what they have and attempt to eke out a living in the poor, dusty land.

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"The Train From Rhodesia" was published in 1952. This was the period when apartheid, or legal racial segregation, was being solidified by the white South African government. Racial legislation established four distinct groups (White, black, mixed-race, and Asian) and began to deny people of African ancestry representation in government. By 1960, they had no representation in government at all. The political discrimination was reflected socially as well, as marriages between the defined racial groups were outlawed. This also contributed to an enormous gap in living condition between whites and blacks. Whites had access to the best jobs, and lived in the best neighboorhoods. This is reflected in the village that the train passes through early in the story. Cities were officially segregated, as were public accomodations, which is reflected in the racial division between the train and the black Africans that surround it. 

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