The Characters

(Critical Guide to British Fiction)

Timi Tabane, Mphahlele’s fictional alter ego, is a shy, gentle, and scholarly man, who chooses to leave South Africa because he has no realistic hope that the government will alter its repressive, racist policies. In exile, he becomes one of the homeless wanderers of the book’s title. His exile is an unending search for a free place, a physical and mental location in which he can practice his humanistic beliefs. Although he enjoys material benefits and less restrictive political environments during his residences in Iboyoru and Lao-Kiku, his exile frustrates him, for he discovers that the genuine literary and social freedom for which he yearns is no more available to him outside South Africa than it was within. Moreover, his exile forces him to wait passively for his life to be completed by events beyond his control. This maddening sense of powerless passivity is central to the book’s portrait of exile. Thus, for Tabane, Felang’s death becomes a hopeful sign that the younger generation’s determination to act will enable it to escape the desolate alienation of exile.

Steven Cartwright is Tabane’s white counterpart. Like Tabane, he is acutely aware of his color and the racist repression of South African culture. Yet while Tabane can resort only to escape and exile, Cartwright must actively disengage himself from his own racist heritage. His love for the black woman Naledi is a conscious effort to confront the system; he openly admits that his...

(The entire section is 600 words.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Timi Tabane

Timi Tabane (TEE-mee tah-BAH-nay), a black South African journalist who becomes an exile. Tabane, sensitive and idealistic, lives in the slums of Tirong, a black township in South Africa, and writes for the magazine Bongo. In Tirong, he meets Naledi Kubu, a young woman who is convinced that her husband has been murdered at a slave farm labor camp. Risking arrest, Tabane travels with her to investigate the case. After publishing his exposé, Tabane, discouraged by the mild public response and disheartened by the prospects of progress in South Africa, leaves the country illegally. He accepts teaching positions in Iboyoru (Nigeria) and Lao-Kiku (Kenya), but he is deeply dissatisfied with the rootlessness of his existence and concerned by the rebelliousness of his eldest son, Felang. Ironically, Felang’s death gives Tabane hope for the future, indicating to him that the younger generation may find a more assertive and effective path than he has.


Felang (FAY-lahng), Tabane’s eldest son, who is killed with other African nationalist guerrillas by white farmers. Felang refuses to follow his parents’ advice and runs away from home to join a rebel group that is fighting the South African government. He is murdered by white South African farmers along the border, and his body is thrown to the crocodiles. Felang shares his...

(The entire section is 607 words.)