Analysis

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 719

Waiting for the Rain dramatizes the disturbing events of South Africa in crisis. Gordon does not show all white people as evil and all black people as good. For example, in the townships, the “tsotsis” are young, lawless black men who rob and kill indiscriminately. Likewise, Frikkie’s uncle, although narrow-minded,...

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Waiting for the Rain dramatizes the disturbing events of South Africa in crisis. Gordon does not show all white people as evil and all black people as good. For example, in the townships, the “tsotsis” are young, lawless black men who rob and kill indiscriminately. Likewise, Frikkie’s uncle, although narrow-minded, is considered a kind boss. Although he may threaten his workers with the sjambok (a metal-tipped whip), he has never used it. The British family for whom Tengo’s aunt works discusses openly the unfair treatment of black people and sends the sons overseas to avoid serving in the army, whose main mission is to keep black people “in their place.” The white minister who helps Tengo study is also sympathetically portrayed.

Yet, it is with the two believable boys, childhood chums who grow and change, that Gordon is at her best. The youngsters race, swim, and play ball together. In one scene in the barn, they furtively drink fresh warm milk from the same cup, laughing at the white mustaches on their faces. Frikkie only superficially notices the differences in their relations; like his uncle, he wants no changes, a situation that the reader finds untenable.

Dialogue sets the tone of inequity. Frikkie is called “Little Master” (Kleinbaas) by the black farm workers, whom he addresses by first name only. Tengo’s grandmother is “Lettie” to him. Oom Koos is “Old Master” (Oubaas). Yet, the oubaas refers to his adult male workers as “boys.” A derogatory term that he uses for the black children is “piccanin.” “Kaffir” is another insulting term for black people. When Tengo informs the oubaas that he wants to study in the city, he is called “cheeky” by Tant Sannie. Language thus emphasizes inequality.

Frikkie, a mediocre pupil, accepts without question the biased historical account of the “Great Trek” of his ancestors when the Boers left hated British rule at the Cape of Good Hope to set up their homeland on the veld. In reality, supremacy over the black people came about when their lands were bartered away for a few beads or cooking pots. The guns of the Boers were powerful persuaders. Frikkie believes that the advantages he has in a secure future on the farm are his birthright.

For black children, there is no such security. With no schools on the farms, Tengo studies in a township and gains an understanding that Frikkie never will have: “None of the Afrikaaners wanted to think about the unfairness, the hardness, the bitterness, the hopelessness of life for the blacks.” In the township schools, black people pay for their tuition and books, while education is free for white children. Black people live in crowded slums where garbage accumulates in huge dumps, where the smell of burning tires is constant, and where threats from the tsotsis are a real danger. Bad air, poor food, and disease are daily facts of life.

Tengo has only a few short years to concentrate on his school work. Then, by government decree, Afrikaans is designated as the only language to be used in black schools. The children themselves organize peaceful boycotts carrying signs declaring that they will return to school when they are assured that they will study in English, not in hated Afrikaans. Here, Gordon relies strictly on historical fact in her fair, balanced account.

The army is called to break up the boycotts, but confrontations only increase the violence. Many children are killed, wounded, tortured, or jailed, as their sticks and stones are no match for the rifles, bombs, and tanks of the soldiers. This world has turned ugly and brutal. Yet, the children will not give up, and adults, desperately afraid at first, begin to join them in their crusade against all that apartheid represents.

Crucial to Gordon’s story is her phrase “waiting for the rain,” a reality that becomes a symbol. A drought of several years threatens the farmers. In their churches every Sunday, they pray for rain.

In addition, in the cities of South Africa, for black people, along with many white people who have joined the movement to end apartheid, “waiting for the rain” is the symbol of what must come, a storm that will bring freedom from oppression. Gordon ends her powerful novel with all her characters “waiting for the rain.”

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