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Alex La Guma

A short story “Coffee for the Road” written by Alex La Guma is interesting because it has an
important theme running through it. It is a story about a mother and two children who are travelling
through South Africa during the apartheid era. The children are desperate for some coffee. The
mother stops at a café in a small town and takes a flask to be filled with coffee. However, black
people were not allowed into the café; they were meant to get served outside through a hole in the
café wall. The café owner shouts at the mother for coming into the café. In rage, the mother throws
the flask at the woman. Later, she is arrested by police who had set up a roadblock to find her. The
story ends with the mother facing an uncertain fate in the hands of the police. The main theme
running through the story is apartheid: the story shows an example of this racist system where
people were treated unfairly just for being a different race.

An early incident in the story introduced the theme of racism in the apartheid era: this is when the
mother drives past towns where “the hotels were for whites only” and “only whites lived in these
towns and everybody else lived in tumbledown mud houses in the locations beyond”. These
descriptions make the apartheid system in South Africa clear: it shows how the people were
segregated. Another early incident is where it says “a band of naked, dusty brown children broke
form the cover of a sheep-pen”: this shows that the black people are poor in South Africa

My early impressions of the main character, the mother, were that this was a woman that would be
easily be made angry and would fight with anyone if she didn’t get what she wanted – this
impression came from the way her children were increasingly annoying her by repeatedly asking
her to stop for coffee. The story describes her as “a tightly wound spring” and it mentions that she
“snapped” when her kids were asking for meatballs. Another symbolic feature in the story that
makes the theme clear is the sign that says “WHITES ONLY” on the café: this sends out a clear
message that the story is all about the racism that was a part of the apartheid regime.

The landscape of South Africa makes the theme of the story very clear. As the family drive through
the almost deserted areas, on route to Cape Town they saw black people living in really bad housing
conditions. This highlights the unfairness of the apartheid regime: it shows the contrast of the
country where the majority of the white people live in exclusive residential areas of cities or in the
best farmland areas, whereas the black people have to live in deserted barren areas in the country or
in shanty townships.

The turning point in the short story really emphasises the theme of racism in the country. This
occurs when the mother stops for coffee at a whites-only café; if you were black, you had to stand
outside to be served. It highlights how black people were made to feel inferior. The mother refused
to obey these rules and went inside anyway. She got screamed at by the café owner, “Collies,
Kaffirs and Hottentots outside!” The mother snapped because she was sick of being treated horribly
just for having a different skin colour. She threw the flask at the server and cried with disgust,
“Bloody white trash!” and departed the café. This is an example of how the apartheid regime really
affected black people and is a clear message about what the story is about.

The ending of the story helps make the theme clear: the mother was arrested for breaching the peace
and assault, when all she had wanted was her flask to be filled with coffee. She had been so
annoyed by the unfairness of the system of segregation and being made to feel inferior to white
people that she had lost her tempter and would now pay a terrible price. It is unlikely that the
mother will be treated leniently. This shows the theme of racism under the apartheid system: black
people were treated badly, and not given justice if they didn’t obey the rules.
I found this short story to be very satisfying to read because it made me aware of the unfairness of
life under apartheid in South Africa. Thankfully, this racist system has been dispatched to the
dustbin of history, largely through the sacrifices and efforts of South African hero Nelson Mandela
who, as I write this, has died and is being mourned by all races in his country and around the world.
The story’s treatment of this theme gave me food for thought: I hadn’t realised before the extent of
racism under apartheid and the contrasts between rich and poor. I recommend it to people wanting
to get some insight into what life used to be like in South Africa.

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