At the beginning of the film “A Dry White Season,” school teacher Ben du Toit, who is white, is approached by his gardener who is asking for his help. The gardener’s son has been beaten by police, and the gardener asks Ben to help him. Ben declines, believing that the son must have done something to deserve his punishment. It is clear that Ben does not see the Apartheid system the same way that the gardener does, and seems content to believe that the system is a good one. After the gardener’s son later dies in police custody, Ben’s feelings about the system begin to change, and he takes up a legal battle on behalf of the gardener’s family. The film serves as a coming-of-age story for Ben, as his growing awareness of the brutality and unfairness of the Apartheid system drives him deeper into his legal fight while also driving a wedge between Ben and his family.
As Ben enlists the help of an attorney in his battle, the distance between himself and his family grows wider. It is clear that his wife and daughter do not share his changing views, although his son does support his cause. Ben becomes more and more disillusioned as his career and his family life are torn apart by his involvement in the legal battle. In the end Ben pays the ultimate price for having fought against the system, as he has lost his job, alienated himself from his friends and lost most of his family. This is a difficult thing to watch, and is hardly a happy ending. The film shows that standing up for what is right can be dangerous and will not always turn out for the best.
The first line of the novel “Mother to Mother” says simply: “my son killed your daughter.” It is written from the point of view of a mother whose son commits a terrible crime, and the opening introduction to the novel reads as if it is a letter written from the mother of the killer to the mother of the girl he killed. After the brief introduction, the story’s perspective shifts backwards in time, before the young girl was killed, but maintains the point of view of the mother of Mxolisi, the boy who kills the young girl. The story picks up two days before the events that end in the girl’s death, and describes both some specific details about the way Mxolisi and others in the book spend those days as well as offering insight into the mother’s life as she grew up under the system of Apartheid.
The structure of the story allows the naarator to reveal her feelings about the murder, about her son, and about his victim, slowly and deliberately. While she has already acknowledged to the mother of the young girl who she is, and has also acknowledged her son’s guilt, she does not offer significant details about the murder itself until near the end of the book. This is done for two reasons: the first is that it fits within the narrative of telling the events of the story as they unfolded from the narrator’s perspective; second, it allows the drama and the tension to build up over the course of the book. Both mothers in “Mother to Mother” are well aware that the murder has taken place. By waiting to recount the events of the murder until the end of the story, the Mxolisi’s mother has a chance to offer some insight into what her life and her son’s life have been like under Apartheid. This may not garner any sympathy for her or her son, but it does at least give her the chance to explain some of the factors on their lives that led Mxolisi to become the young man he became, and to do what he did.
In “Mother to Mother,” one of the central themes of the book is the effect that the system of Apartheid had on those who suffered under it. At the beginning of the story, after Mandisa has addressed the mother of the young girl directly, she describes what it is like to start the day in her home while also imagining what the girl’s day was like. At Mandisa’ s home, she struggles to get the children fed and ready for the day, knowing that she will soon have to leave for work. She also knows that she will be home long after they have finished school, and she warns them that they better be inside when she gets home. As she is preparing for her day, she describes the young girl waking up in her home, and taking a leisurely shower and eating breakfast before returning to bed where she settles in to do some reading and studying.
It is immediately clear, even before Mandisa offers any details about the events of the coming days, and her discovery that her son has killed someone, that white people and black people in South Africa lead very different lives. The girl has a life of relative privilege (even though she has dedicated herself to causes she feels are important) while Mandisa has a difficult time feeding and caring for her family, and must take a job working long hours for a white family to make ends meet.
Throughout the story, Mandisa offers examples of the suffering she and the people of Guguletu endure at the hands of the police and the government. Mandisa had dreams of getting an education, but these dreams were interrupted by her pregnancy, and she soon found herself trapped in the same cycle of poverty that trapped everyone she knew. She also realized that her children were just as caught up in this trap as she was, and that there was nothing she could do about it. Mandisa recognizes that what her son did may almost have been inevitable; when she claims that the “resentment of three hundred years plugged his ears,” she was describing to the readers –and to the other mother- how her son was just one small figure swept up by the centuries of oppression her people had suffered.