André Brink

A Dry White Season

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A Dry White Season Summary

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A Dry White Season (1979) a novel by South African novelist André Brink, is told from the point of view of an unnamed narrator who serves as a character foil to the book’s protagonist, anti-Apartheid activist Ben du Toit. Ben ultimately dies after being subjected to torture during a police interrogation. The novel rebukes the Apartheid regime that impeded the progress of racial justice in South Africa for decades. For its fiercely anti-government sentiments, the novel was banned in South Africa for years. It has been adapted into several films and live performances.

The novel begins as the narrator gives some background to the figure Ben du Toit. He claims that he has assembled much of the knowledge of du Toit’s life from various legal documents, notes, and papers that Ben left behind after his death. As the book progresses, the narrator learns more about Ben and realizes that his path to activism began in a state of political apathy and disillusionment with corruption in the South African government. In recovering as objectively as possible the story of Ben’s life, the narrator hopes to do him some justice.

Several years before his death, Ben lived a rather idyllic life in South Africa. His white privilege makes it easy to ignore many of the problems in South African society, which are usually tied to the disenfranchisement of black people. Though Ben knows little about South African history or the inner workings of its government, he gains exposure to these subjects when a janitor at his school, Gordon Ngubene, asks him to help him trace the cause of death of his son, Jonathan. Shortly after the request, Gordon is mysteriously killed. Deciding to help Gordon even in death, Ben becomes actively involved in the investigation, knowing that his family will ostracize him for doing so. He befriends a black taxi driver and radical activist, Stanley, as well as a British journalist on a remote assignment, Melanie.

Ben travels to the black settlement of Soweto and begins to understand the extent of the damage and excessive control for which the Secret Police are responsible. As he comes into contact with many black individuals, his eyes begin to open and he gets better at checking his privilege. Ben’s investigation progresses well in Soweto, and he obtains a few possible leads that suggest the Secret Police has been committing strings of murders. The Secret Police begin to worry about the investigation, naming Ben an outlaw. In a fascist, Apartheid South African state, this label is virtually a death sentence. He is arrested and whipped around the time of the infamous Soweto Revolt. When he seeks the help of attorneys, mysteriously, none are willing to work with him. The few pieces of information he obtains about Jonathan’s death are contradictory: some imply foul play, while some stress that he died of natural causes.

Gordon lucks out when one of Jonathan’s former ex-prisoners signs an affidavit explaining the terrible conditions they were subjected to in prison. These included being forced to live naked, enduring frequent beatings. Gordon convinces a nurse to corroborate the prisoner’s claims; just as this victory seems too good to be true, he is whisked off by the Secret Police, and the affidavits go missing. As Ben’s obsession with the case grows, it negatively affects his relationship with his wife, Susan. When she can no longer bear the constant investigative work and the cops following her around, she ends the marriage. Ben persists, finding that Jonathan was killed as a direct result of his activism. The revelation inspires Ben to become an activist to call out the injustices of South Africa. Ironically, Ben meets the same fate as Jonathan, demonstrating the inescapability of the oppressive regime. A Dry White Season is an excoriating attack on South Africa’s corrupt and unjust political processes and its routine violations of human rights norms in the mid- to late 1900s.