The Lemon Orchard – Alex La Guma

Author Background

Alex La Guma was born in South Africa to a Jimmy La Guma who was very active in anti-apartheid politics. Even when he was a very young man, Alex La Guma took part in strikes organized to protest against working conditions of the blacks in factories. For his effort, he was banned from all political activity and writing, and kept under house arrest. He could not receive visitors or communicate with his friends and co-workers. Later, he and his wife were kept under solitary confinement in prison. On their release, they were returned to house arrest. Under a negotiated deal, he and his family were given permanent exit visas and sent to London on permanent exile. After spending many years in London, he and family moved to Cuba as the permanent representative of the African national Congress. Most of La Guma’s works were written and published in London and Cuba as he was not permitted to write either fiction or journalistic writing while in South Africa.

Relevance of the Title

The setting of the story is a lemon orchard. The fragrance from the lemon flowers perfumes the air as the interrogation party move across it. For the arrested man, there is tension in the air; doubtless he knew how there interrogations ended. Very often the oppressed men were killed and their bodies dumped somewhere.

Main Themes

Alienation of the Colored Person

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Society in South Africa was divided along race lines. Every facility in the country was segregated with the best reserved for the use of the whites. The colored people had to make do with inferior services and amenities. They lived in special ghettos separated from their own people. Free movement of people between ghettos was not permitted.

Denial of Freedom and Rights

The colored man, referred to derogatively as ‘hotnot’ is taken away for questioning. Accused people did not have to be produced before a magistrate. Summary executions were the order of the day. Probably that is what happened to the colored man here also. Colored people had no rights that were protected by rule of law. Most charges were trumped up ones.

Apartheid

Apartheid was a comprehensive system of segregation that divided the people of South Africa on a basis of a single feature – the color of their skin. The colored people were the native people of the land. By cunningly fragmenting the ghettos where the colored people could live, the whites prevented them from getting together. They also forbade people of different races from marrying. Inside the ghettos conditions were inhuman. There was not enough space and amenities were primitive. These conditions gave rise to violence.

Characters

None of the characters have a distinct identity as they have no names. There are five characters in the story. The colored man has been taken from his home at dead of night for questioning. His crime is that he has abused a white minister. While walking through the lemon orchard the four white men taunt and abuse the colored man. He is an educated school teacher; in the eyes of his tormentors, that too is a crime. The leader of the party carries a gun. They are not the police or the army but just armed hooligans who take law into their own hands. Rule of law is not heard of in places like South Africa of the 60s.

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Summary

It is late night. A party of five men walks along a lemon orchard. It is a quiet night with the air perfumed by the fragrance of the lemon flowers. As they walk along, it becomes that the colored man to whom they refer derogatively is their prisoner. There are taunts and physical abuse. It is said that the man has abused a white Minister which under Apartheid is construed a crime. The prisoner is an educated school teacher. The four men refer to his earlier “crimes”. It is not difficult to imagine that the mock questioning will end in a death. The educated school teacher is a prey in the hands of the white predators. His body will turn up as another of those unidentified dead bodies that dot South Africa.

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