Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 7, 2018

A Dry White Season (1979), by André Brink

If South Africa had an equivalent to Israel’s Righteous Among Nations – gentiles who risked their lives to save Jews from the Nazis – White South African André Brink (1935-2015) would be honoured for his courage in challenging apartheid through his books.  When we think of repression and surveillance, we tend to think of East Germany and the old Soviet States, but Brink’s brave novel A Dry White Season (1979) reminds us that it’s not so very long ago that South Africa had a brutally efficient system of repression too.  In retrospect, readers know that the novel reveals a true picture of the SA security service, but for readers in the era before political reform, the disclaimer on the verso page spelled it out:

Nothing in this novel has been invented, and the climate, history and circumstances from which it arises are those of South Africa today.  But separate events and people have been recast in the context of a novel, in which they exist as fiction only.  It is not the surface reality which is important but the patterns and relationships underneath the surface. Therefore all resemblance between the characters and incidents in this book and people and situations outside is strictly coincidental.

A Dry White Season was, of course, banned in South Africa, but it had already been published in Great Britain, and underground editions circulated in the same way that Soviet samizdat did.  And before long the book was made into a film starring Donald Sutherland, Marlon Brando and Zakes Mokae…

The story begins with the sudden death of an ordinary, good-natured, harmless, unremarkable man.  Ben Du Toit has been knocked down and killed by a hit-and-run driver, and the unnamed narrator would have thought no more of it than a shrug or a shake of the head except that Ben had left some papers with him for safe-keeping.  The writer had dismissed this as a stunt by an old acquaintance who fancied himself as a character in one of the writer’s books, and he begins this tale by sorting out the papers with a view to disposing of them as worthless. But before long he realises that Du Toit was not being melodramatic, and he writes Ben’s story with a sense of growing horror.

A respected schoolteacher with a wife and three children, Ben is indifferent to the effects of the apartheid system until the school cleaner Gordon Ngubene comes to him for help: his son Jonathan (whose education Ben had kindly sponsored) has gone missing after getting caught up in a demonstration.  At first Ben thinks there is nothing wrong and that the teenager has just gone into hiding. But when it begins to look as if Jonathan is in the hands of police who are denying his existence, Ben engages a lawyer on Gordon’s behalf.  Within twenty-four hours, Jonathan is dead.  Of natural causes, or so they say..

And so begins a tale of intimidation and violence that ensnares a widening circle of people.  As the opportunistic lawyer Dan Levinson’s enquiries unearth a witness to this or that, the potential witness is detained, disappears, dies, flees over the border or is otherwise silenced.  Ben himself is subjected to intimidation that includes searches of his house, bricks through the window, blackmail, a letter bomb, and an attack on his car while he is driving it.  At the personal level he has to confront the reactions of the Whites in his life: his uncomprehending and increasingly alienated wife; his daughters – one overtly hostile and the other urging religious acceptance; and his disapproving colleagues including the principal more concerned about the adverse publicity for the school.  He is exhorted to do his patriotic duty and stop supporting Communist agitators.  His friends drift away until his sole source of fragile support is his teenage son Johan; an enigmatic black activist called Stanley Makhaya; and Melanie Bruwer, an idealistic female journalist (and, IMO, an unnecessary love interest).  And because this story is framed by the writer’s introduction, the reader knows what Ben’s fate will be.  (Brink, writing in 1979, was yet to see how brazen the security forces could be, with the parcel-bomb murder in 1982 of the activist Ruth First.)

A Dry White Season is not a perfect novel but it seethes with a passion for justice.

Emily stared past him, into the semi-darkness where her children were sleeping.  ‘Father, you always told me to trust in the Lord.  You said he could still perform miracles. Tonight he sent my Baas in here, a white man.  Don’t you think that is a miracle?’ (p.174) [Emily is Gordon’s widow after he too dies of ‘natural causes’.  Baas means ‘boss’ i.e. Ben.]

Today I realise that this is the worst of all: that I can no longer single out my enemy and give him a name.  I can’t challenge him to a duel.  What is set up against me is not a man, not even a group of people, but a thing, a something, a vague amorphous something, an invisible ubiquitous power that inspects my mail and taps my telephone and indoctrinates my colleagues and incites the pupils against me and cuts up the tyres of my car and paints signs on my door and fires shots into my home and sends me bombs in the mail, a power that follows me wherever I go, day and night, day and night, frustrating me, intimidating me, playing with me according to rules devised and whimsically changed by itself.

So there is nothing I can really do, no effective countermove to execute, since I do not even know where my dark, invisible enemy is lurking or from where he will pounce next time. (p.237)

There are two kinds of madness one should guard against, Ben.  One is the belief that we can do everything.  The other is the belief that we can do nothing. (p.304)


In January as one of many members of International PEN I wrote to the Iranian authorities ‘respectfully’ requesting the release from imprisonment a poet called Mohammad Bamm.  It took about half an hour of my time, and it cost $9.00 (i.e. the price of two coffees) to post the letter to three separate authorities responsible for his imprisonment.  This week I was delighted to learn that Bamm has been released on bail but there are still charges outstanding.  Since these charges all relate to his right to freedom of expression under UN conventions to which Iran is a signatory, I wrote to the Iranian authorities again.  Because in my own small way, I know the power of the pen.  This is an (unedited) excerpt from an email I received:

I want to inform you that the poet thinks he was released due to our action. For your information, below you read what I received from our source:

Mohammad has just answered your questions. He was released on bail on March 19th.

For the first 28 days, he was in solitary confinement in Ahvaz Prison and then, he was moved to public section of the prison. But he wasn’t allowed to have any visitor during the whole period of his imprisonment. As others who have been arrested during recent months, Mohammad has been accused to cause harm to public order and security, participating in the leadership of the illegal demonstrations and to provoke people to take part in them, and to insult the Supreme Leader of the Islamic Republic. Before annoncing the news of his disapperance by PEN and other human rights organizations, he had been beaten very badly everyday even during meeting with the inquisitor, but he claims that after the annoncement, the interrogators’ behaviors with him changed and it made him surprised because he was being held in solitary confinement and they kept him unaware of any news. After release,  he found that it was PEN and other human rights organizations whose announcements and campaigns had caused that improvement in the interrogators’ behaviours with him. Actually, I am very happy to hear from him that these actions are so effective.

He asked me to pass his warmest regards to you and your colleagues in PEN and said that he would like to appreciate your time and efforts.

I’d feel a warm glow, only I know just how many more there are, needing our attention…

Author: André Brink
Title: A Dry White Season
Publisher: Flamingo (Fontana Paperbacks, Collins), 1984, first published in Great Britain in 1979
ISBN: 9780006540144
Source: OpShop find, 50c

Available from Fishpond: A Dry White Season




  1. Your efforts for PEN are admirable!


    • It’s great when we get word that they have the desired effect, but I am only one of thousands of PEN members around the world, and could achieve nothing without their efforts too:)


  2. Having visited South Africa last year, I’ve been reading so much fiction from SA authors but I haven’t come across this one until now. On the list!


    • Oh, yes, Brink is a must-read. I’ve read about four of his I think, all pre-blog so there are no reviews here, but I have more on the TBR and expect to admire them all.
      Which other authors do you recommend?


  3. With a Qld cop now our federal minister for all things to do with ‘security’ – and proposing special treatment for white South African ‘refugees’ – I was told yesterday that the blackshirts who arrested a non-white refugee family in Biloela transported the parents separately from the very young children, and that the family has been held for the last week or so in Melbourne in a room without windows or access to the outside. We’re on our way.


    • Well, this is what is so disquieting. We know about things like this and yet there is not an uproar about it.


  4. Some days it seems as if we’re marching to more of the same destructive paths of our history and the inhumanity that brings is soul destroying in moments but to do nothing is not a choice. Even when the response to attempts at conversation of these disgusting policies is less than warm it’s still important that we speak. You are a such a good example of one who does.


    • Sometimes I feel an overwhelming sense of despair and want to give up, and making my letter-writing public here is a sort of insurance – it makes me feel I’d be too ashamed to stop now that I’ve told everyone about it.


  5. […] to a recent post by Lisa Hill, I discovered South African writer André Brink (I am slightly embarrassed that I haven’t read […]


  6. […] A Dry White Season, by André Brink #BookReview South Africa […]


  7. […] A Dry White Season, by Andre Brink […]


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