Fools and Other Stories
is a short story collection published in 1983 by the South African author Njabulo Ndebele. Comprising five short stories, the book details the struggles of black South Africans during Apartheid, a period of state-sanctioned segregation and discrimination that lasted from 1948 until the 1990s. For Fools and Other Stories
, Ndebele received the Noma Award, which is given annually to the best work published by an African writer.
The first story, "The Test," concerns an endurance competition between young boys held in a small black township. The purpose of the test is to determine which boy can withstand a long run through the freezing cold rain. The narrative focuses on Thoba, whose socio-economic status is slightly higher than that of most of the other boys in the township. He feels immensely isolated from the other boys whose parents let them play soccer all day long. Thoba must follow the extremely strict rules of his parents. For Thoba, the test is a chance not only to assert his toughness amongst the other boys who don't respect him, but also to assert his independence from his parents, who would rather coddle him than see him subject himself to the physical pain of the test.
When Thoba sees Vusi, a more popular but less privileged boy, challenge himself in the cold weather by taking off his shirt, Thoba eagerly follows his lead. Meanwhile, Mpiyakhe chooses to leave his shirt on, which makes Thoba feel superior to him. However, after running for a while, Thoba grows exhausted and begins to walk. He has a change of heart when, passing by a bus full of women, he feels embarrassed to be seen in the streets without a shirt or shoes like someone below his economic status in life. This causes him to run once more, illustrating the tension between Thoba's two competing motivations: the urge to be seen as possessing a higher status than the average person in the township, and the need to belong with the other boys.
When Thoba returns home after the test, he refuses to light the fire even though his parents specifically asked him to do so. This would appear to suggest that, in the wake of the test, Thoba has achieved newfound confidence, both with his family members and his peers, albeit one that manifests itself in a way that is still somewhat immature. This signifies that Thoba has a long way to go before he will truly be a man.
In "The Prophetess," is suggested that the unnamed protagonist is Thoba. Thoba's sick mother sends him to a prophetess who supposedly possesses mythical concoctions. He is to procure some holy water from her, which his mother hopes will cure her sickness. Thoba successfully retrieves the water, but on the way home, a man on a bike collides with him. In the collision, Thoba drops the bottle, breaking it and spilling out the liquid. Rather than return to the prophetess or go home empty-handed, Thoba finds another bottle and fills it with regular water. When his mother drinks it, she immediately feels better, suggesting a powerful placebo effect associated with the "holy water," which is biochemically no different than regular water.
Thoba's father has died, and his mother's brother has come to visit the family in the third story, "Uncle." Thoba's uncle is far worldlier than the people in the township, including Thoba and his mother. He plays the trumpet and talks easily and impressively of philosophy and politics. However, Thoba's obsession with his uncle fades when, one day at church, a village boy pokes at a beehive, causing the bees to disrupt the service. In retribution, the deacon viciously kicks the boy repeatedly. Thoba's mother pleads with her brother to "do something," but he refuses, replying, "There are too many problems in the world...one has to choose which ones it would be useful to be involved in." This moral lapse teaches Thoba a harsh lesson about hero worship and the world at large.
In the fourth story, "The Music of the Violin," the narrative shifts to a young boy named Vukani. Eager to achieve middle-class status, the boy's parents force their son to master the violin. Hoping to impress two higher-class members of the community, the parents invite the illustrious Dr. Zwane and his wife, Beatrice, to hear Vukani play the violin. In an act of impetuous rebellion, Vukani refuses, embarrassing his parents but empowering himself.
The final story, "Fools," is the most explicitly political. It concerns a lecherous schoolteacher who rapes one of his female students, then befriends the student's older brother. The older brother is an activist who wishes to challenge the oppressive, white supremacist regime. However, the schoolteacher resists the brother's politicking because, despite belonging to the class of the oppressed, the schoolteacher benefits from the small amount of power and authority he possesses within the current status quo.
Although Fools and Other Stories
often deals with Apartheid only implicitly, the book deftly illustrates the ways in which otherwise inconsequential acts of youthful rebellion can have devastating results in an oppressive state.