Without exception, Alex La Guma’s characters in A Walk in the Night are human beings reduced by apartheid South Africa to mere vestiges of human dignity. Raalt’s anger at his own entrapped situation parallels that of Michael, who is a disfigured Adonis. While the police are differentiated from the nonwhite victims of apartheid, their coarse power does not alleviate their own dehumanization. Raalt wants to murder his wife just as Michael murders Doughty, but Raalt’s hatred is premeditated and Michael’s is impulsive, responding perhaps to the premonition of Doughty’s quotation from Hamlet. Each victim suffers separately and distinctly, yet each one is but a ghost of humanity. The victims are the scapegoats of apartheid; they tend to extremes of bravado and terror in their mentality. The only images of power and decent living are those found in the illusions of the cinema. In reality, the victims are caught in a double bind: In order to establish a sense of self-worth, they must betray one another or themselves. Abrahams, in an ironic betrayal alluding to the Old Testament patriarch, gains a sense of superiority over his neighbors by collaborating with the police, but he does so at the cost of his community’s respect. If Franky succeeds in getting Abrahams to keep quiet, he will be arrested himself for intimidating a witness; ironically, neither Abrahams nor Franky has much power in solving the crime or in protecting the criminal: The actual murderer goes free, because the real crime is apartheid itself.
Despite the brutal details of immense suffering, La Guma provides just enough tenderness to suggest that the human spirit has not been entirely crushed. Even as Michael slides toward murder and a criminal life, he recognizes Joe’s helplessness and responds with compassion and food. He understands that Joe did not run away to the country, because there is no place to which one can run from apartheid, just as Michael himself cannot run from Doughty’s murder. Franky’s frustration at his inability to provide for his family, despite steady employment, turns to tenderness toward Grace and his children. The novel ends with Grace, a name that is clearly symbolic, feeling the “knot of life” within her. While La Guma’s portraits are brutal, they are not cynical. Given the opportunity for dignity and democracy, the characters are capable of being compassionate people.