Ben DuToit is a white teacher in South Africa, whose peaceful existence is shaken by the arrest of his black friend, Gordon. When Gordon dies in prison, Ben challenges the police report ruling his death a suicide. He begins his own investigation, and as he gathers facts a picture of lies and corruption emerges. Even when the court upholds the police ruling, Ben is undaunted. His family can’t understand his passion for justice. Here’s Ben discussing the inquest with his wife, Susan:
“They killed Gordon,” he said. “First they killed Jonathan, then him. How can they get away with it?”
“If they’d been guilty the court would have said so. I was just as shocked as you were when we heard about Gordon’s death, Ben. But it’s no use dwelling on it.” She pressed his hand more urgently. “It’s all over and done with now. You’re home again. Now you can settle down like before.” (p. 137)
But Ben can’t settle down, and his search for truth has far-reaching consequences. He is shunned by his family, friends, and colleagues. The experience causes him to question long-held beliefs about race, dating back to his time growing up in the South African veld:
The boys who tended sheep with me, and stole apricots with me, and scared the people at the huts with pumpkin ghosts, and who were punished with me, and yet were different. We lived in a house, they in mud huts with rocks on the roof. They took over our discarded clothes. They had to knock on the kitchen door. They laid our table, brought up our children, emptied our chamber pots, called us Baas and Miesies. … It was a good and comfortable division; it was right that people shouldn’t mix, that everyone should be allotted his own portion of land where he could act and live among his own. If it hadn’t been ordained explicitly in the Scriptures, then certainly it was implied by the variegated creation of an omniscient Father, and it didn’t behove us to intefere with his handiwork or try and improve on His ways by bringing forth impossible hybrids. That was the way it had always been. (p. 162)
André Brink has written a powerful portrayal of an ordinary man, caught up in a situation beyond his control, but intensely motivated by his beliefs. But Ben is only human, and unable to turn the tide of apartheid on his own. In working for justice Ben is transformed, but pays a huge price.