Legal Separation of the Races
When Nadime Gordimer published “The Train from Rhodesia” in 1952, South African society was legally divided along racial lines by apartheid. The all-white National Party won control of the government in 1948 and dominated South African politics for much of the next two decades. Black Africans and other non-whites, including those of mixed race heritage, were denied the most basic human rights and forced to live apart from whites in substandard living conditions. They were allowed only disproportionately small representation in government, and by 1960 they were denied all representation. This political exclusion insured a monumental divide in the respective standards of living between whites and non-whites. While whites enjoyed excellent hygiene, health care, food, education and transportation, non-whites, like the old man and the stationmaster’s family in the story, suffered from malnutrition, disease, and severe poverty. In accordance with the Population Registration Act of 1950, all South Africans were divided by their race and treated accordingly. Members of each of the four established ethnic groups (Asian, African White and Coloured, or mixed-race) were strictly segregated in all aspects of their lives. Interracial sex and marriage were prohibited and the Group Areas Act of 1950 divided all cities and towns into segregated districts of both residential and business property.
In order to effect this total division, thousands of Coloureds and Indians were forced out of white areas by the government so that each district would be racially homogenous. Strict laws prohibited nonwhites from sharing the same trains, buses, taxis, or even hearses as whites. For these reasons, none of the black Africans boarded the train to Rhodesia in the story. While the white population prospered in wealthy urban areas like Rhodesia, the non-white population suffered economic and political exploitation in the rest of the country, such as the rural area Gordimer describes. Non-whites were only allowed in the all-white districts to work and were required to return directly to their districts afterwards. While white children learned to read at very early ages, most black South Africans remained illiterate. In 1953, the white South African government even outlawed missionary schools so that it could control native Africans’ educations.
However, by 1950, resistance to apartheid was growing. At this time, the African National Congress gained members under the leadership of President Albert Lutuli and his companions, Oliver Tambo, and Nelson Mandela. While the whitecontrolled government sought to crush such resistance movements through violence, surveillance, and sometimes assassination, the African National Congress continued to exist even after it was outlawed and its leaders, including Mandela, were imprisoned. The Suppression of Communism Act of 1950 allowed the police to arrest anyone without the right to a lawyer, a trial, or an appeal. These laws were used to punish demonstrators in 1952, when they protested laws that even the South African Supreme Court had declared racist. Leaders of the resistance vowed that the illegal political protests would continue until all of the country’s jails were overcrowded. In response to this, the South African Parliament extended dictatorial powers to Prime Minister Daniel F. Malan in 1953. The resulting police state took the lives of many bright young political leaders and caused guerrilla warfare that characterized South African politics until the early 1990s, when apartheid was dismantled.
Short Stories for Students, Volume 2, Nadime Gordimer, Edited by Kathleen Wilson, Published by Gale Research, New York, 1997.