The Effects of Racism in South Africa in “Fiela’s Child”
Though eventually peaking during Apartheid, the concept of racial prejudice was long deep rooted in nineteenth century South African society. Due to this, it was only natural for these issues to be reflected in Fiela’s Child, especially evident in the fates of the main characters. Ranging from the census’ desperation to separate Benjamin and the Komotie’s, Fiela’s mistreatment by the magistrate, and the Van Rooyen’s view on Benjamin’s upbringing, racist attitudes upheld in South Africa such as segregation and anti-blackness had a big impact on the fate of the protagonists, particularly resulting in the separation of Fiela and Benjamin until his adulthood.
To begin with, the elements of racial segregation in South Africa led to the conflict that influenced the entire story, Benjamin’s forced removal from the Komotie’s home and his forced induction into the Van Rooyen’s home. Although Fiela had taken in Benjamin at a young age and was responsible for him ever since, the census still believed that because she was black and he was white, Fiela’s actions were unjustified, as evident when they stated, “That did not give you the right to keep the child. It’s a white child!” (Matthee 22). Instead of thanking her for taking care of him, they blamed her instead, acting as if she committed a crime because of the internally racist values they held. Back then, though it wasn’t put into law, in South Africa there were elements of racial segregation evident that enforced a separation between the races, discouraging interaction. Because of this, the idea of Benjamin, a white child, intermixing with a black family was heavily looked down upon, which was why the census was so desperate to remove Benjamin from that environment, thus marking the beginning of Benjamin and Fiela’s separation.
Furthermore, in Fiela’s pursuit to retrieve Benjamin from the Van Rooyens, the magistrate completely dismissed everything she was saying, eliminating any prospects of the two reuniting due to his anti-black views. Although there’s a chance the magistrate’s coldness can be attributed to sheerly his character, it’s heavily implied that the reason he treated Fiela so harshly was because he looked down on her because of her race, as shown when he stated “I don’t think you realize where you are. Or that I can have you arrested immediately” (Matthee 169). While perhaps that may not seem like something unusual to say had she been prying, upon this exclamation Fiela had only introduced herself, nothing more. The magistrate had stated this immediately after she opened her mouth, showing that his statement was not made as a response to the things she had been saying, but rather upon his initial view of Fiela’s skin color, and the fact that a black woman was intruding on “white territory”. His prejudice was to the extent that he threatened to arrest her on sight, and later on in the chapter he again threatens to take action against her if she causes trouble. Had Fiela been white, maybe then he would have listened, but as she wasn’t, his lack of desire to listen to anything she says, developed on a basis of internalized racism, prevented Fiela from fighting for Benjamin, separating the two even further.
Lastly, the Van Rooyen’s racist belief that “acting black” was a bad thing pushed the family to separate Benjamin from the culture he was raised in, eventually leading him to stop fighting as urgently for his return to Fiela. Throughout the novel, by inducting him into their white household, Elias, Barta, and the brothers believed that they could make him white again, as evident when Kristoffel stated “…you’re not really white again. Don’t make us sorry that you did not die when you got lost that time.” As twisted and cruel it may seem, the Van Rooyen’s resentment towards black people was so extreme that Kristoffel believed Benjamin’s black culture was worthy of his death.
Along with this event, throughout the novel, the family has repeatedly tried to force whiteness into Benjamin again, as highlighted in the moments where they tried to change the way he speaks. As a result of their continuous efforts to separate Benjamin and his culture, developed due to their racist beliefs against black people, in addition to their clear stance against Benjamin’s return to the Komoties, over time Benjamin eventually lost hope of his return, knowing the Komoties wouldn’t allow him to no matter what. This was made evident when Benjamin refused Nina’s offer to show him the way to Long Kloof, showing that although he still wanted to, his dreams of returning to Fiela was hopeless.
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