When Head published ‘‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses’’ in 1973, South Africa was about halfway through the era of apartheid, which lasted from 1948 to 1994. Although Head herself was living in Botswana when she wrote this story, many of her friends and acquaintances were, like the men of Span One, in prison as a result of their political activities in opposition to apartheid, the state-sponsored series of segregation laws that kept the white minority of the country in power. Activists were imprisoned for various actions against apartheid: for refusing to carry their pass books, the government identity cards that indicated the bearer’s race; for joining the African National Congress (ANC), the Pan Africanist Congress, or other anti-apartheid groups; for participating in peaceful demonstrations and boycotts; or for committing violent acts, including sabotage of government facilities. Head herself spent a short time in jail in 1960, part of a large group of resisters who refused to carry their passes. The poet Dennis Brutus, an activist friend of Head’s, had served eighteen months in the dreaded Robben Island prison beginning in 1963, and Nelson Mandela, leader of the armed wing of the ANC, was in 1973 only nine years into what would be twenty-seven years as a political prisoner.
The era of apartheid began officially in 1948, when the conservative Afrikaner National Party won power in a national election. Afrikaners were people like Jacobus Stephanus Hannetjie, white South Africans whose ancestors arrived from Germany and the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. Although whites in South Africa made up only about 10 percent of the population by the twentieth century, they controlled most of the wealth, owned most of the factories and large businesses, and controlled the military. Still, they feared that they would gradually lose their control, so the government began creating laws to protect their power. Residents of South Africa were now assigned to one of four racial groups—white, black, Asian or Indian, and coloured—and were required to carry pass books that identified their assigned racial group. Mixed-race people like Head were given the label ‘‘coloured.’’ Although the races in South Africa tended to live separately already, interracial marriage was officially outlawed in1949, and libraries and universities were closed to blacks a decade later. Blacks and ‘‘coloureds’’ were not allowed to vote, and they were restricted to living, shopping, and even swimming in areas set aside for them. In 1970, blacks were officially declared to no longer be South African citizens.
Resistance to apartheid was steady, and sometimes violent. As early as 1912, the ANC was formed to counter oppression of blacks. In 1949, the group, led by Mandela, organized strikes, boycotts, and other acts of civil disobedience. It was after sixty-nine people were shot by police during a protest in the town of Sharpeville in March 1960 that Head briefly joined active political resistance.
But she had little faith in political solutions, and even less faith that a male-centered movement would produce benefits for women. Joyce Johnson, author of Bessie Head: The Road of Peace of , believes that Head’s lack of faith in political activism, and her desire to create literature with a viewpoint in opposition to the movement’s, led her to leave South Africa for a place where she would feel freer to write what she wished. When Head finally decided to leave South Africa in 1964, she was denied a passport because of her past involvement with the resistance. Instead, she was given only an exit permit, which allowed her to leave, but made it impossible for her to ever return. Head, who died in 1986, did not live to see the end of apartheid, which came in 1994. She did not live to see Mandela released from prison in 1990 or elected president in 1994.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Bessie Head, Published by Gale Group, 2010