Set in a prison in South Africa during the time of apartheid, ‘‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses’’ presents many of the elements one might expect from a ‘‘typical’’ political story about oppression, or about prison. The prisoners are black, occupying the lowest rung on the racial and racist ladder established by the state-sponsored system of segregation and oppression. Hannetjie, their warder or prison guard, is a casually racist white man, an Afrikaner who addresses the black men with the racist term ‘‘kaffir’’ and demands that they call him ‘‘Baas.’’ The prisoners, ‘‘assertive black men,’’ are intelligent, patient, and unified; Brille, the protagonist, is even well-educated enough to have been a teacher. The warder, on the other hand, is said to have a ‘‘simple, primitive, brutal soul.’’ The prisoners in Span One are all political prisoners, charged not with ordinary crimes but with actions against apartheid and the government that supports it.And near the end of the story, in a fit of anger, Brille tells Hannetjie, ‘‘One of these days we are going to run the country. You are going to clean my car.’’
It might be tempting to read this as a story about apartheid and the struggle to overthrow it. One can read the story as a small example of the battles waged across South Africa between 1948 and 1994, and Brille’s psychological victory over Hannetjie and his warning that ‘‘one of these days we are going to run the country’’ as a beacon of hope, a promise of what the future holds. Certainly Head, the mixed-race or ‘‘coloured’’ author, who herself left South Africa to find more personal and artistic freedom, had all of this in mind as she created the story. Head biographer Gillian Stead Eilersen reports in Bessie Head: Thunder Behind Her Ears (1995) that Head got the idea for the story from a man she met in Francistown, one of the large cities in Botswana. Eilersen writes, ‘‘He had been a political prisoner in South Africa and he told the story of how he had humanised a brute of a white warder.’’ The author ‘‘embroidered it slightly, adding ‘certain tendernesses.’’’ Head lived under apartheid until she was twenty-seven; she knew activists and political prisoners, including her friend the poet Dennis Brutus, who was arrested as a political prisoner in 1963 and was still in the notorious Robben Island prison when Head left South Africa; and Eilersen reports that when the founder of the Pan Africanist Congress, newspaper editor Robert Sobukwe, was arrested and brought to trial in 1960, Head was there. Reading the story as a microcosm of apartheid, then, is certainly reasonable.
But Head takes steps to ensure that although apartheid is the setting of her story, it is not the focus. A peculiar thing happens midway through the story, after Hannetjie has become the first warder to strike a prisoner in Span One. Brille thinks about his head injuries and reflects that ‘‘it was the first time an act of violence had been perpetrated against him but he had long been a witness of extreme, almost unbelievable human brutality.’’ Given the setting, given the author, given the time, the reader expects this line to be followed with a scene of racial violence, perhaps police brutality in breaking up a demonstration. But after leading her readers to this point, Head goes off in an unexpected direction: she shifts the focus away from politics entirely, to Brille’s memories of his home and family, which he thinks of as ‘‘sixteen years of bedlam.’’
The details in the long paragraph that follows are small and domestic, and none of them have anything to do with race or apartheid. Before being arrested, Brille was a schoolteacher who constantly struggled to feed his family on a teacher’s pay. He lived in ‘‘a small drab little three bedroomed house in a small drab little street in the Eastern Cape’’ with his wife Martha and their twelve children. Brille and his wife had access to contraceptives, but never could use them successfully. The twelve children, home all day with an overwhelmed mother, became more and more unruly until it was not uncommon for them to ‘‘get hold of each other’s heads and give them a good bashing against the wall.’’ Martha gave up trying to discipline them, resorting instead to that familiar line spoken by 1950s situation-comedy mothers, ‘‘Wait ’til your father gets home.’’ Brille, like overworked weary breadwinners everywhere, found after a time that he could not face the chaos at the end of a long day at work, and he looked for more and more reasons to stay away from home.
It would have been easy for Head to make Brille’s memory less universal, to add details that would point to apartheid as the reason for his small salary, for the location of his home, for the violent attitudes absorbed by his children. And these details could easily have been used to explain Brille’s turning to politics—a hard-working husband and father risking imprisonment to ensure that his children would live in a country free of oppression. But Head makes it clear that these are not the reasons for Brille’s activism. He got involved in politics because it gives him a respectable reason to be away from his chaotic family. ‘‘At one stage,’’ he remembers, ‘‘before things became very bad, there were conferences to attend, all very far away from home.’’ He is not passionate about the cause or the theories behind it. Instead, he remembers that the anti-apartheid movement presented ‘‘an ordered beautiful world with just a few basic slogans to learn along with the rights of mankind.’’
The dismissive way in which the narrator simplifies the call for the end of racial oppression as ‘‘just a few basic slogans’’ is breathtaking. According to some critics, this dismissiveness reflects Head’s own attitude toward politics through most of her life. South African essayist Lewis Nkosi, who, like Head, left South Africa in the 1960s, famously wrote in 1981, ‘‘Bessie Head is not a political novelist in any sense we can recognise; indeed, there is ample evidence that she is generally hostile to politics.’’ For nearly thirty years, critics have argued with Nkosi about this remark, trying to pin down the extent and the nature of Head’s political passions. Whatever their conclusions about her work overall, it is clear that the author of ‘‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses,’’ by showing Brille’s turn to politics in such an unflattering light, shifts the reader’s gaze from the underlying social and political reason Brille’s imprisonment to the simple fact of it. Brille is not a heroic figure like Nelson Mandela, true believer and leader of a great cause, and he is not a murderer or robber like the prisoners in other sections of the prison. He is simply a small old man in prison, for a reason that scarcely matters.
At the end of his reverie, Brille realizes, ‘‘I’m only learning right now what it means to be a politician. All this while I’ve been running away from Martha and the kids.’’ But what has he learned? What does it mean to be a politician? The line occurs nearly exactly at the center of the story, and it seems fraught with significance, but what really changes after Brille thinks it? In fact, not much changes on the surface. Brille and his comrades had been thieves and liars before, and they continue to be. They have won an ‘‘entirely psychological’’ battle with every warder in the past, and Brille defeats Hannetjie in the same kind of contest. Perhaps what Brille has learned about politics is this: It needs to be undertaken seriously, not simply as a way to get out of the house, and one’s focus needs to be on results, not on slogans. And there might be danger. Apparently, the prisoners of Span One have won every psychological battle with the previous warders: ‘‘Up until the arrival of Warder Hannetjie, no warder had dared beat any member of Span One and no warder had lasted more than a week with them.’’ Hannetjie begins the shift that is at the heart of the story by overturning the first half of that description—he beats Brille with a knobkerrie, or club, leading Brille to examine his past. But it is Brille, understanding now ‘‘what it means to be a politician,’’ who changes the nature of the battle with Hannetjie. Rather than simply trying to win, to defeat and humiliate him, to send him away, Brille realizes that the best result he can obtain is to break Hannetjie only enough to win his cooperation.
While she is de-emphasizing apartheid as the focus of the conflict, Head finds small ways to underline the ways in which Brille and Hannetjie are alike. Both are observant and intelligent; Brille and his comrades are excellent at sneaking and stealing, but Hannetjie is the first warder they have had who uncovers their tricks. The narrator mentions Brille’s glasses repeatedly—they are his most important physical characteristic—but when Hannetjie is introduced the only physical description is of his eyes, which ‘‘were the colour of the sky.’’ To explain why Hannetjie is so good at uncovering their deceptions, the narrator uses the familiar metaphor that he had ‘‘eyes at the back of his head.’’ And after Brille has been referred to several times as the ‘‘father of many children,’’ Hannetjie, nearly at the breaking point, begs him, ‘‘This thing between you and me must end. You may not know it but I have a wife and children.’’
In the 1979 essay ‘‘Social and Political Pressures that Shape Literature in Southern Africa,’’ Head commented on racialism in South Africa: Of course, when she wrote that, she was thinking primarily about racial oppression in South Africa, of white people like Hannetjie imprisoning and brutalizing black men like Brille. But she was also concerned with the nature of evil and the nature of oppression, and in ‘‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses,’’ Brille takes on in some ways the role of oppressor. And he responds exactly as Head predicted he might. As soon as Hannetjie mentions his wife and children and tries to bribe Brille with tobacco, Brille is ‘‘struck with pity, and guilt. He wondered if he had carried the whole business too far.’’
In the end, the prisoners and the warders reach an agreement that benefits everyone. The prisoners will have more luxuries and more help with their work, Hannetjie will have stolen goods for his farm, and everyone will be ‘‘able to manage the long stretch ahead.’’ Head does not ignore apartheid in ‘‘The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses,’’ but by refusing to make Brille an anti-apartheid hero and by emphasizing the commonalities between Brille and Hannetjie, she seems to be saying that political solutions cannot address underlying evil. Brille learns ‘‘what it means to be a politician’’ and he achieves a compromise with Hannetjie. But apartheid is not ended, racism still thrives, Martha is still stuck at home with twelve children and no breadwinner, and Brille is still in prison.
Cynthia A. Bily, Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 30, Bessie Head, Published by Gale Group, 2010