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.