Note: The terms black and white were part of the way racial categories were referred to in South Africa under apartheid. Other terms, like nonwhite and non-European, were also used to mark racial segregation. In the following essay, the term black is intended to denote a historical racial category, although in contemporary usage and in the context of liberation discourse, the term has come to have a broader meaning, referring to political identity and alliances rather than merely a racial category.
ADry White Season —with its commitment to exposing racial inequality and the inherent tension between the construct of the law and the principle of true justice—is as relevant at our current global political moment as it was on its release in 1989. A legislative system is ostensibly a sociopolitical structure that exists to ensure the just governance of society, one in which all are treated equally and without prejudice before the law (hence the pervasive image of the blindfolded Lady Justice). But as is evident from the history of race, the ideals of justice can be readily corrupted by those who are in power and control the law. This is the central theme of both the film and the book on which it is based.
The story is set in South Africa in 1976, a watershed year for protests against the apartheid regime. It was during this time that children attending black schools challenged the South African state’s requirement that they be instructed in the Afrikaans language, along with the quality of the education (termed “Bantu education”) that they were receiving. The groundbreaking events of that year began with student protests at Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto, a segregated “township” of Johannesburg, the impact of which quickly rippled through the entire country, ultimately having significant repercussions for the apartheid state’s ability to justify and maintain the racist laws that divided South African society. After this point, apartheid became an internationally visible human-rights issue, and the subject of economic sanctions, cultural boycotts, and political lobbying throughout the turbulent eighties.
André Brink’s novel A Dry White Season—which was published in South Africa in 1979 and swiftly (though temporarily) banned by the government—confirmed Brink’s precarious position: one of the most revered Afrikaans authors of his time, he was also regularly described as a traitor on account of his writing’s condemnation of the apartheid state, exposure of the oppression of the black majority, and indictment of white apathy. In cowriting and directing the film adaptation of Brink’s book, the Martinican Euzhan Palcy was highly attuned to the political urgency represented by the story’s context and content. Before beginning production, she traveled to Soweto in the guise of a musician, in order to research the events of 1976 in secret. She then assembled an international cast and shot the film on location in Zimbabwe and at England’s Pinewood Studios, enabling her to illuminate the plight of black people under apartheid at a time when producing such a frank depiction would not have been possible in South Africa itself.
Structured as a Bildung narrative, the story centers on Ben Du Toit (Donald Sutherland), a history teacher leading the idyllic life of the middle-class white minority during apartheid, cocooned from the oppression of the black majority. He is drawn into the life of his black gardener, Gordon Ngubene (Winston Ntshona), when Gordon’s son, Jonathan (Bekhithemba Mpofu), is beaten by the police after being arrested in one of the township raids that were routine in South Africa at the time. At first, Ben is convinced that the young boy must have done something to provoke this treatment. His refrain “There is nothing to be done” is set up here to be sharply contradicted during the course of the narrative—he will soon be forced to reexamine this sentiment. The sequence of events following Jonathan’s lashing—his subsequent arrest during the student uprising, Gordon’s search for his son, the boy’s murder, then Gordon’s arrest, torture, and murder—exposes an increasingly shocked Ben to the ways in which the laws of apartheid justified the brutal treatment of black South Africans who challenged the injustices and human-rights violations of the state.
The film sets Ben against the stereotype of the white racist, the better to draw on his humanism and develop his political and moral awakening, revealing the way segregation allowed for a comfortable ignorance among many white South Africans. His character stands in sharp contrast to that of his wife, Susan (Janet Suzman), who refuses to confront the brutal status quo, or to acknowledge her own complicity with it. Her religious community would have reinforced her position; the Dutch Reformed Church, the largest Afrikaner denomination, infantilized black people and accepted and helped facilitate the government’s policy of separate development, which aimed to enact racial separation along political, social, and economic lines, giving rise to the Group Areas Act of 1950 (assigning racial groups to different residential and business sections in urban areas) and the establishment of Bantu homelands to contain and separate the various black ethnic groups.
“A Dry White Season’s portrayal of its protagonist and his growing realization of the extent of his own ignorance is an unusually nuanced exploration of the way in which institutionalized racism functions.”
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