No Change Without Connection: Analyzing My Children! My Africa!

In the play My Children! My Africa! by Athol Fugard, the characters’ desires may be similar, but their many limitations due to social and political differences all contribute to conflicted viewpoints. Thami, Mr. M, and Isabel have difficulty connecting with each other for a multitude of reasons. When passion for change conflicts with and overshadows other characters’ opinions, problems arise. Thami and Mr. M struggle to share a perspective about freedom because Thami prioritizes liberation by violence over education; however, Isabel’s different cultural upbringing inflicts a barrier on her ability to empathize with Thami’s need for change.

The characters Thami and Mr. M both want similar things, and emphasize a need for change, although Thami sees the solution as liberation through the use of violence, and Mr. M expresses that he values the power of education much more. Their significant desire to want change may overlap, yet agreement between the two is limited when it comes to how change shall be attained. Mr. M demonstrates the difference between violence and language when he states, “…If you put these two on a scale I think you would find that they weighed just about the same. But in this hand I am holding the whole English language. This… (The stone.) … is just one word in that language” (69). His explanation of the two objects supports the idea that language and education are worth more than violence. By describing that he is able to hold an entire language in one hand in awe, he is encouraging that education and language are to be valued much more than throwing stones; for him, education is more powerful. Earlier, he explains how a revolution and protest can take form in educating people about an issue. “Where were you when I stood there and said I regarded it as my duty, my deepest obligation to you young men and women to sabotage it, and that my conscience would not let me rest until I had succeeded. And I have! Yes, I have succeeded! I have got irrefutable proof of my success. You!” (63). Mr. M conveys that his success is bound up with Thami’s awareness and anger towards the insufficient Bantu education.

Thami’s inability to recognize what Mr. M considers the sabotage of his mission his obligation demonstrates Thami’s limitations; he does not fully understand the effect that words and education can have. The social division between his generation and Mr. M’s generation also contributes to their conflict of viewpoints. For her part, Isabel is unable to empathize with Thami’s actions and decisions because of a different cultural upbringing. Being raised in a white community affects Isabel’s opinions and outlooks, which make her unable to understand Thami’s, which she disagrees with. He says “My world is also changing, Isabelle. I’m breaking the boycott by being here. The Comrades don’t want any mixing with the whites” (62). When Thami refers to his community as “my world,” he is creating on a stronger emphasis on the social divide between him and Isabel. It is demonstrated that, racially, Isabel’s mere interaction with Thami is already a conflict in itself.

Unfortunately, because of Isabel’s race and upbringing, Isabel cannot truly share’s Thami’s need for change. She doesn’t understand it either, because of the different social reality she is accustomed to. Her pampered life, and favoritism for being white from the political system, is the main cause for this inability to even understand Thami’s desperation. Without Isabel’s empathy, she and Thami cannot share a common viewpoint. Isabel’s upbringing ingrained a deep rooted gratitude for being white, and pity to those who are black, but nothing more than that. Never empathy or an effort to understand the drastic differences in their lives: “I ended up being damn glad I was born with white skin. But don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not saying I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about it seriously or anything like that” (21). Since Isabel hadn’t thought about the significant differences in the social and political realities that a black person struggles with in life, she fails to understand and share common ideas and needs. She may get along with Thami as a friend, but since the black world is so foreign to her, she cannot understand or perceive how deeply rooted Thami’s urgency for change is.

For Isabel, the major conflict is just a matter of struggling to understand why change is needed, but for Thami and Mr. M, the conflict is much different. They cannot rationalize each other’s beliefs on how to reach that much-needed development on account of different priorities regarding fundamental values. Mr. M’s passion for education conflicts with Thami’s encouragement for violence, and Isabel can’t even understand why the change is necessary.

Education vs Violence in the Fight for Freedom

In apartheid South Africa, competing attitudes in the black community regarding how to defeat the oppressive system made accomplishing that change difficult to achieve. In Athol Fugard’s My Children! My Africa! , Mr. M’s goal of ending apartheid through passive resistance in the form of education, contrasting with Thami Mbikwana’s belief in immediate action through violence, prevent them from seeing eye to eye. This inability to share a common perspective is rooted in Thami’s hopelessness because of his ancestry and background, and Mr. M’s hopefulness due to the success he has with his students.

Mr. M is a peaceful and patient teacher who dedicates his life to teaching because it gives him hope for the future and allows him to believe that words alone can change Africa, despite the violent approaches taken by most in his town. He is empowered to use passive resistance and education to combat apartheid by his students. He describes this in the quote, “I feed young people to my hope. Every young body behind a school desk keeps it alive” (Athol Fugard, 34). First of all, the connotations of reliance and necessity in order to survive associated with the word “feed” show that without these children, Mr. M’s fight would be nothing. In addition, the feelings of energy and vitality evoked by the word “alive” shows the power that the children bring to Mr. M and his fight. Lastly, the phrase “behind a school desk” is key to understanding that it is students who give him hope; those who acknowledge the power of words and want to learn about how to use them. However, while his students give him hope, they also open his eyes to the realities of his world. Many of his students have fallen into the cycle of poverty and hopelessness that he has seen so often. He explains this in the quote, “Wasted people! Wasted chances! It’s become a phobia with me now. It’s not easy, you know, to be a teacher, to put your heart and soul into educating an eager young mind which you know will never get a chance to develop further and realize its full potential” (26). The extremity of the word “phobia” shows just how meaningful being a teacher is to Mr. M, but also how painful it is for him when his students do not use his lessons to break out of the cycle and improve their lives. The phrase “heart and soul” and the serious but reflective tone of this quote show just how much Mr. M cares about his job and about educating the children – the future of Africa – even if they do not always use it to the best of their advantage. While the children bring both immense hope but also a taste of reality to Mr. M, his students, and more specifically Thami, are the real reason why Mr. M continues to fight for the power of education in resistance to apartheid. He explains to Thami, “Where were you when I stood there and said I regarded it as my duty, my deepest obligation to you young men and women to sabotage it [Bantu Education], and that my conscience would not let me rest until I had succeeded. And I have!… You can stand here and accuse me, unjustly, because I have also had a struggle and I have won mine. I liberated your mind in spite of what the Bantu education was trying to do to it” (63). The power and potence associated with the words “duty” and “obligation” show Mr. M’s enduring desire to educate children and save them from the oppressive Bantu education system. It shows the reason behind why he is a teacher. In addition, the phrase “I have won mine” shows that though Mr. M has not succeeded in giving all black children the power of words, he has succeeded in Thami’s case, and that is enough for him to believe in the power of what he is doing. This quote shows why Mr. M believes in his method of passive resistance and education to combat apartheid. Thami gives Mr. M a reason to believe in his methods and empowers him to continue fighting by using education as a means of resistance.

Unlike Mr. M who has had success in his endeavors, which gives him confidence in his method of resistance, Thami Mbikwana has never experienced that, which makes it hard for him to believe in gradual resistance methods, like those of Mr. M. Because he has grown up in a world where his parents, grandparents, great grandparents, and ancestors have accepted a life of inferiority despite working hard and being good people, hopelessness and defeat is all he knows. He has had no role model or icon of success to inspire him or give him hope for the future. He says about his ancestry, “I look around me in the location at the men and women who went out into that “wonderful future” before me. What do I see? I see a generation of tired, defeated men and women… Those men and women are our fathers and mothers…. We have woken up at last. We have found another school… The streets, the little rooms, the funeral parlors of the location… Anywhere the people meet and whisper names we have been told to forget, the dates of event they try to tell us never happened, and the speeches they try to say were never made” (56). The phrase “wonderful future” associated with the “generation of tired, defeated men and women” shows Thami’s loss of hope for the future, because all he knows the future to be is something that brings weariness and collapse to him and his people. In addition, the phrase “we have found another school” not only shows Thami’s rejection of education as a means of resistance, but the “streets” as his new school show that he has chosen violence as his only method of resistance. Because hopelessness is all Thami knows, he can only see the value in active resistance, like that of the Comrades, because it will make prompt progress and make him feel instant satisfaction that he is fighting for and achieving things on behalf of many generations of defeated blacks.

Because of their different histories and roots, Thami and Mr. M have polar opposite ideas about resistance. Mr. M believes solely in the power of words, which is explained in the quote, “If the struggle needs weapons give it words, Thami. Stones and petrol bombs can’t get inside those armored cars. Words can. They can do something even more devastating than that… they can get inside the heads of those inside the armored cars. I speak to you like this because if I have faith in anything, it is the faith in the power of the word” (64). First of all, the word “can’t” in regard to the weapons shows that Mr. M believes that weapons are not capable of making the kind of change Africa needs. In addition, the words “devastating” and “power” show Mr. M’s firm belief that words are the most destructive and influential weapon in the struggle. His tone in the first sentence and the last when he says “I speak to you like this” shows how much he wants Thami to understand what he is saying and find value where he does. Lastly, he goes on to explain how words can change the thoughts of the white people in Africa, which is why his faith lies completely in the “power of the word.” This quote shows why Mr. M believes so strongly in words over violence, and it is because words have the power to change lives rather than just destroying them, and are capable of making long­term change. In addition, he believes that the only way to maintain one’s humanity in the struggle for freedom is by using words. He remarks to Thami, “Do you know without words a man can’t think? Yes, it’s true. Take that thought back with you as a present from the despised Mr. M and share it with the Comrades. Tell them the difference between a man and an animal is that man thinks, and he thinks with words” (64). His sarcastic tone in the phrase “a present from the despised Mr. M and share it with the Comrades” shows that he does not agree with their methods of resistance and denounces their ways. In addition, the comparison between a “man and animal” implicitly suggests that he believes educated leaders are men, while violent mobs are animals. In order to make long­term change, people need to maintain their humanity, which is why Mr. M is trying to show Thami the downsides of using violence. All of these quotes show how much Mr. M values education in order to create leaders capable of making long­term change in Africa, and how words are the only humane and effective solution.

Contrastingly, Thami is more radical and action­-based, believing only in the power of active resistance. While he used to love school and valued the education he was receiving, as he matured and became aware of his history, he turned to violence in order to feel like he was making actual change. He comments about his changing relationship with his school, “That little room of wonderful promises, where I used to feel so safe, has become a place I don’t trust anymore. Now I sit at my desk like an animal that has smelt danger, heard something moving in the bushes and knows it must be very, very careful” (54). The phrase “wonderful promises” shows that Thami used to have faith in the power of education and once believed that being educated would allow him to do whatever he wanted to in life. However, the phrase “a place I don’t trust anymore” shows that he has lost his belief in the power and strength of education. Lastly, the way he compares himself to an animal, wary but ready to pounce, shows how in the struggle, Thami has lost some of his humanity. He is no longer an innocent student, but an aggressive and angry “animal,” if you will, ready to fight. Later in the story, Thami goes from not trusting education to outright denouncing its value and usefulness. He rudely says to Mr. M, “Those little tricks and jokes of yours in the classroom liberated nothing. The struggle doesn’t need the big English words you taught me how to spell” (64). The mocking tone of the phrase “little tricks and jokes” reflect how Thami has completely lost respect for the education provided to him by Mr. M. In addition, the belief that education has “liberated nothing,” shows that he believes Mr. M’s approach to resistance is completely useless. This quote really shows why Thami can never come to terms with Mr. M’s approach to liberation, and why they have such conflicting ideas. All of these quotes show how once Thami joins the violent branch of the resistance movement, he not only loses respect for education and the power of words, but also loses some of his sanity and humanity. In addition, because he only focuses on the short­term effects of his actions, it results in him never being able to fulfill his goal of gaining freedom for his people.

In the end, Mr. M’s undying hope and commitment to his beliefs allow him to confront his oppressors and remain strong in the face of danger. Although he dies, he dies with his ideas intact; the white police were never able to get inside his mind. He never got to carry out his dream, but the effectiveness of his teaching allows those like Isabel, to want to carry out his legacy. On the other hand, Thami realizes that all his approach does is put his life in danger, and rather than confronting the issue like Mr. M did, he runs away from his town to avoid having to face it. The resolution of the play suggests that in the end, perhaps the real thing stopping the two characters from understanding each other was Mr. M’s ability to confront his fears with words, while Thami could only hide from his fears behind the power of weapons.

Teacher and Student: The First and the Final Confrontations Between Thami and Mr M

The true tragedy of apartheid lies not on the surface, but in the revealing of unspoken desires underneath the surface. Starkly contrasting with the play-long idealistic image of the “all-knowing Mr M and his brilliant protege Thami”, Thami and Mr M’s ideas about change in the apartheid system clash in this extract. By characterising this much needed moment of honesty as an anagnorisis, Fugard emphasises Thami and Mr M’s role reversal as they flesh out the truth from each other and thus go their separate ways, representing the black-on-black reality of apartheid.

Ripping off their fake ‘public’ masks, Thami and Mr M finally challenge each other to speak the truth in this extract. Starting off the extract with an accusatory tone, Thami sets the atmosphere as one of confrontation and invites the recurring silences that follow. Instead of calling Mr M by his respected title, Thami instead uses indirect, ‘avoidant’ personal pronouns like “you”, “somebody” and “everybody”. Adding to the resulting tone of betrayal, Mr M’s continual asking of questions, contrasting with Thami’s short, assertive responses throughout the extract conveys his confusion and dismay that their pedagogical relationship faces the threat of ending. For example, Mr M deliberately forces Thami to denounce the cold, hard truth when he orders: “Go on. [violently] If they find me here what?” As Thami’s actor chokes out the blatant truth – “They will kill you” – Fugard seems to seal the moment of transition from the fake, wishful ‘happy teacher and student’ relationship to the ugly, unresolved conflict underneath. While initially the rift may have stemmed from disagreeing methods of obtaining freedom – Thami with action, Mr M with language – here, Fugard utilises the tense moments of silence to suggest that there is more to that.

Throughout the play, the relationship between Thami and Mr M was between that of a student and his teacher. However, Fugard reverses their roles in this keystone peripeteia and thereby hints at the passing down of the dream of attaining freedom from the older to younger generation. As leader of the mob, Thami’s role forces him to eliminate all obstacles in the way, including Mr M. Thus, he speaks the truth in confronting Mr M: “I’m not doing it for you. I’m doing it for the struggle.” However, as Thami’s actor “[avoid[s] Mr M’s eyes]”, Fugard shows us the most significant conflict that apartheid raises – “black-on-black conflict” (Brian Crow, 1992). Considering this, the colour of one’s skin would not separate people, as demonstrated by the harmonious friendship between Thami and Isabel. Instead, Fugard argues that mutual understanding would separate the “innocent” from the “guilty”. Thus, when Mr M admits his betrayal of Thami – “That’s right, Thami. I am guilty. I did go to the police.” – a sympathetic audience’s mourning of the ensuing ‘breakup’ stems not only because of the teacher and student’s previously familial bond, but also because of the looming scent of death that follows. From a bright, optimistic front cover, Mr M’s seems to have given up by the end of the extract – not because he realises the fault of his peaceful method, but because he sees that he has “really lost [Thami]”. Thami and Mr M’s character arcs finally cross as the student becomes both the hero for the mob and the villain that saw his teacher to his death. With the theatrical use of a red coloured backdrop and lights at the end of this extract, an audience would understand that the end of the extract represents the death of Mr M’s peaceful protest. As Eric Sterling, 2016, notes: “The idea of patience as a virtue is a cliche to members of an oppressed younger generation who have become frustrated and desperate.”

Arguably Fugard’s key concern, “the reality of black-on-black conflict” (Brian Crow, 1992) is the legacy of the apartheid system. Contrary to the peaceful debate that opened the play, the resonating sound of violence in the background punctures the notion of words as the sword of truth in apartheid. With the rise of unexplained ideas of “the boycott”, “mob” and “revolution”, Fugard creates a sense of looming uncertainty for Thami’s future. Even though Mr M and Thami tried to convince each other to abandon his own cause one last time in this extract, the tragic nature of the play’s plot denounces the ineffectiveness of such cries. Interestingly, however, the play appears not to end, as Thami and Isabel – members of the younger generation – continue to live and lead their own causes. Perhaps then, Mr M’s death may be considered to be the breaking of the chains tying down Thami and Isabel to old, traditional ideas. Fugard demonstrates Thami’s young blood when he asserts: “I’ll make [the mob] believe me.” ‘The end of the play marks the beginning of the fight for freedom’, argues Fugard.

Aside from economic reasons, perhaps Fugard employed minimalist theatre in this three-hander to emphasise the birth of future young leaders. Because while Thami might have continued to hold sentiment with Mr M, Fugard argues that he stood up to Mr M in understanding that he could “do whatever it is [he] wants to” and advocate for whatever ideas he believes in. Reflecting the master-to-student legacy, Mr M’s separation from Thami represents only the start of ‘the hero’s journey’. The journey towards change truly only begins at the end of the play, and only future audiences will know the outcome of apartheid.