Six Feet of the Country is a short story collection by seasoned South African writer, Nadine Gordimer. Published by Penguin in 1982, it comprises her seven ‘best’ stories from previously published collections. Although her country’s racial segregation policy—which strongly underpins the collection—has since been abandoned, these stories are likely to serve as an epitaph of apartheid for many years to come. Told through a range of voices, they still have the power to shock and disturb.
The drama of the first story, ‘Six Feet of the Country’, from which the collection derives its title, unfolds on a white-owned farm bought to rejuvenate a failing marriage. However, the couple remain at odds and the husband immerses himself in his flourishing city job while the wife focuses on the farm and its workers. He has little interest in the farm until an illegal immigrant dies in the workers’ quarters and more controversy follows. His wife’s constant prodding, the impotence of the farm workers and his supposed clout as a white male, force him to intercede with the bureaucratic apartheid system. But there are limits to even what he can do.
The next story, ‘Good Climate, Friendly Inhabitants’, centres on the entrenched perceptions of a 49-year old white woman who works in a garage office. She doesn’t much care for the white mechanics there but acknowledges their dominance. And although she likes that the black petrol attendants are respectful and call her ‘missus’, she doesn’t regard them highly. But they sometimes surprise her by “behaving just like whites”. Then she involves herself romantically with a dubious type who comes to fill up at the station. She feels hopelessly trapped until help comes from a surprising source. But this is not enough to shake her overall perceptions.
The third story, ‘A Chip of Glass Ruby’, is told from the point of view of an Indian man married to an anti-Apartheid activist. He resents her work on behalf of “a crowd of natives who will smash our shops and kill us in our houses when their time comes.” But she continues with her activism unperturbed, while fussing over her husband and her nine children—five of them from a previous marriage—even when she’s carted off to prison. She even remembers his birthday. The children prove more adaptable and it’s left to the oldest to try to explain why his wife acts as she does: “It’s because she doesn’t want anybody to be left out. It’s because she always remembers, remembers everything—people without somewhere to live, hungry kids, boys who can’t get educated – remembers all the time. That’s how Ma is.”
The next two stories, ‘City Lovers’, ‘Country Lovers’, have a similar theme. The non-white girls in both pay the price of indulging in love affairs forbidden by the apartheid system. The city girl is arrested, subjected to a humiliating medical examination and dragged to court for supposedly contravening the Immorality Act. The country girl falls pregnant and is also forced before the courts when a murder results. The men in each case are hardly touched by the drama.
In ‘Not for Publication’, a well-intentioned white woman from a protectorate neighbouring South Africa, regularly journeys to the latter to follow up members of the tribe who have crossed the border and “lost themselves” in the city. On one such trip, she encounters and takes under her wing, an apparent descendant of the tribe—a bright 11year-old who has been leading his uncle about the street. She hopes his academic prowess will one day help free his country from colonial rule. But he is not as receptive of his new situation as was assumed.
The seventh story, ‘Oral History’, centres on a chiefdom during the era of anti-apartheid activity. To protect himself from threatened penalties for supposedly harbouring some activists, and on the basis of extremely vague evidence, the chief becomes an informant. He pays a heavy price.