Master Harold... and the Boys | Study Guide

Athol Fugard

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Master Harold... and the Boys | Context


"Master Harold" ... and the Boys

Audiences of "Master Harold" ... and the Boys may not realize the play is autobiographical. In fact Fugard has said about most of his plays, "I'm always in disguise in one form or the another in my plays." "Master Harold" ... and the Boys is no exception. The plot focuses on the relationship between Hally, a white teenaged South African boy, and Sam, a black middle-aged South African man who works in the tearoom Hally's mother owns. Over many years the two have formed a friendship despite the racial inequalities South African society has set out as the social norm. But the friendship is complicated: Sam has poised himself as a father figure to Hally, who lives with the shame of a crippled and drunk father. For his part, Hally is a 17-year-old white aspiring writer with liberal pretensions to educate Sam. But when Hally confides to Sam that his real father is a drunk, disabled loser, Hally is so full of self-loathing at what he has admitted that he turns on Sam and spits in his face.

Fugard's father was also a drunk on crutches, and his mother, the primary breadwinner, owned a boarding house and then later a tearoom. And like Hally, as a youth, Fugard formed a special bond with two black men who were his mother's employees. Fugard has said of them, "Those two men became surrogate fathers to me." In an interview Fugard reveals, "I was that little boy who abused [the two black men] at a moment of terrible confusion and pain in my life. The shame of that moment ... I will take with me to my grave."

After apartheid was dismantled in South Africa in 1990–91, Fugard was worried his plays would become redundant. He fully supported a united South Africa but wondered what direction his future stories would now take. Fugard has set himself up with the challenge of writing new dramas addressing the complexities of the new South Africa. As for his past works, plays like "Master Harold" ... and the Boys are important reminders of South Africa's apartheid past. Unfortunately, racism is still a problem in many areas of the world today—even South Africa still suffers from racist attitudes. Sam's vision of a future where all races will someday dwell in harmony is relevant to audiences to this day.

European Settlement of South Africa

In 1620 the British founded what was to be a short-lived settlement in South Africa. Thirty-two years later, the Dutch arrived. In the 18th century many Dutch settlers called Boers—Dutch for farmers—were farming or keeping livestock in inland South Africa, aided by slave labor. With the spread of Dutch settlement, there were increasing conflicts with the local population. By the end of the 18th century, Dutch settlers largely controlled the western region of South Africa, including the Cape of Good Hope, which is an area at the southern tip. Indigenous farmers controlled regions in the east of the country.

After several skirmishes and shifts in power, Britain wrested control of the Cape of Good Hope from the Dutch in 1806. The Cape became an important trading partner with England, and English became the language of government administration in South Africa, replacing Dutch. A large number of English settlers arrived in South Africa in 1820. As English settlers moved in, they forced indigenous South Africans off the land, pushing them into other parts of Africa. The English land grab was also accomplished by violence against indigenous South Africans.

The Great Trek occurred from 1835 to the early 1840s, when many Boer settlers moved northward in South Africa. These Dutch settlers formed independent republics, called the Boer republics of the Transvaal and the Orange Free State. In the late 19th century, competition between English and Dutch settlers erupted in the South African War (1899–1902), also called the Boer War. The English won, partly by corralling Dutch civilians into concentration camps, where many of them starved. There were also many indigenous South African fatalities since both the English and the Dutch forces used African labor. In the peace treaty in 1902 the English side conceded that the question of black voting rights in South Africa would not be decided until the Boer republics regained power. Therefore, it was up to a small, white minority to determine the fate of the black majority in South Africa. This situation was an important precursor to apartheid, the system of racial hierarchy in South Africa.


South Africa in the latter half of the 20th century made laws separating its white minority and nonwhite majority. This policy was called apartheid, an Afrikaans word meaning "apartness." Apartheid classified every South African on the basis of race, categorizing them as white, Colored (mixed race), or Bantu (black Africans). Later, Asian was added as a fourth category for South Africans from India and Pakistan, who entered the country during colonial times as indentured laborers for the coal mines and railways. Laws were passed determining where each race could live and work, who they could marry, and whether they could vote. The policy of apartheid did not only separate people by race but also discriminated based on race. South Africa's white minority granted itself a place at the very top of the hierarchy of racial domination—they received the most land, the best educations, the most lucrative government contracts, and other advantages.

Although racial segregation existed in South Africa throughout its colonial history, segregation was formalized as apartheid beginning in 1948, when the National Party was voted into office. The year 1950 saw passage of the Group Areas Act, which defined separate residential and business sections by race. Subsequent laws strengthened and elaborated this system. All black Africans (Bantus) were considered citizens of one of several black homelands defined by apartheid. This separate legal and citizenship status for black people further entrenched domination by the white minority. The existing "pass laws" were strengthened under apartheid. Nonwhites had to carry identification at all times. A person's pass determined where they could live, take public transportation, work, shop, and so on. Infractions of the pass laws landed black people in prison, a situation Fugard dramatized in his play Sizwe Banzi Is Dead (1972).

Apartheid ended gradually in the early 1990s, although the way was prepared by bitter and often violent struggles. President F.W. de Klerk (born 1936; president 1989–94) repealed apartheid laws in the early 1990s. A new constitution giving voting rights to black Africans and other racial groups was written in 1993. A year later, a black majority government was elected.

"Master Harold"... and the Boys dramatizes the effects of apartheid, even though its characters seldom comment directly on the system. The hardworking middle-aged men in the play, Sam and Willie, are treated as the inferiors of a white schoolboy and a white drunkard. The dance contest Willie looks forward to, and Sam depicts as an image of harmony, is most likely a segregated event. When younger Hally casually takes a seat in a public park, he does not even notice it is a "whites-only" bench where his black friend Sam cannot join him. At the conclusion of the play, Sam tells Hally he can choose to stay on the bench, content with the system of racial domination, or "you can leave it any time you choose."

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