In the late 1980s, as Gordimer was writing and publishing ‘‘Once Upon a Time,’’ forty years of official racial segregation in South Africa were coming to an end. For many decades, the black population, which made up about 80 percent of the population, had been oppressed by a white minority, who made up about 10 percent. Under internal and international pressure, the government-instituted system of racial segregation known as apartheid was proving itself to be unsustainable. No one knew what would happen if black South Africans were made full citizens, but many whites feared that they would be overrun and punished if they gave up their control.
Although people of different racial and ethnic groups had generally lived separate lives in South Africa since white British colonialists began settling there in the nineteenth century, the policy known as apartheid became law after the national elections of 1948, when the conservative Afrikaner National Party took power. The Party, fearing that the white minority would lose control of the country, made new laws to protect their power. Every resident or visitor to South Africa was assigned to one of four racial groups—white, black, Asian or Indian, and colored or mixed-race—and required to carry an identification card that listed the assigned racial group. Gradually, federal law dictated where members of the different groups were permitted to live, to work, to go to school, even to swim on the beach. In 1949, the Mixed Marriages Act made it illegal for members of different groups to marry; in 1959, libraries were closed to blacks, and universities were required to obtain special permission before admitting black students. Blacks and colored citizens were not allowed to vote. In 1970, blacks were officially declared to be no longer citizens of South Africa, but citizens of ten black ‘‘homelands.’’
Apartheid was opposed by many people inside and outside South Africa. Protests within the country were sometimes peaceful, sometimes violent, and violent police response was common. The African National Congress (ANC), formed in 1912 to counter oppression of blacks in South Africa, called for strikes, boycotts, and other acts of civil disobedience beginning in 1949, led by Nelson Mandela and others. In 1960, after a protest in the town of Sharpeville led to sixty-nine people being killed by police, the movement became increasingly violent. Several opposition leaders, including Mandela, were imprisoned, and some, like the activist Steve Biko, were killed in police custody. About one-fifth of the whites in South Africa opposed apartheid; Gordimer became the most famous of the white artists who spoke out against it. Some of her novels were considered too critical of the government and were banned, meaning people in South Africa could not read or quote them, but she was widely read outside South Africa.
Outside South Africa, other nations tried to pressure South Africa into abandoning apartheid. The United Nations officially condemned apartheid beginning in 1962, and later made it illegal for any country to sell weapons to South Africa. Athletes from South Africa were prohibited from participating in international competitions, including the Olympics. In the United States and throughout Europe, the stories of Nelson Mandela and Steve Biko were well known, and universities and other organizations were pressured by students and stockholders to sell off their investments in South African companies. By the late 1980s, the United States and twenty-four other countries had laws restricting trade with South Africa. Within the country, political violence increased, and in 1985, the government declared a state of emergency, further restricting the movement of anti-apartheid activists and subjecting them to imprisonment without trial. The economy suffered dramatically, increasing the internal pressure for change. In 1989, the year ‘‘Once Upon a Time’’ was published, South Africa elected a new president, F. W. de Klerk, who began the process of ending apartheid.
Sara Constantakis, Thomas E. Barden – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 28 (2010) – Nadine Gordimer – Published by Gale Cengage Learning.