Reading Guide for "The Moment before the Gun Went Off"

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Reading Guide for “The Moment before the Gun Went Off”(p. 333-339)

Name_______________________________________________ Period_______

Apartheid (meaning separateness in Afrikaans cognate to English apart and -hood) was a system of legal racial segregation enforced by the National Party government of South Africa between 1948 and 1990. Apartheid had its roots in the history of colonisation and settlement of southern Africa, with the development of practices and policies of separation along racial lines and domination by European settlers and their descendents. The Apartheid system was formalized in 1948 into a system of institutionalised racism and white domination. Apartheid was dismantled in a series of negotiations from 1990 to 1993, culminating in elections in 1994, the first in South Africa with universal suffrage. The vestiges of apartheid still shape South African politics and society.

Apartheid legislation classified inhabitants and visitors into racial groups (black, white, coloured, and Indian or Asian). South African blacks were stripped of their citizenship, legally becoming citizens of one of ten tribally based and nominally self-governing bantustans (tribal homelands), four of which became nominally independent states. The homelands occupied relatively small and economically unproductive areas of the country. Many black South Africans, however, never resided in their identified "homelands". The homeland system disenfranchised black people residing in "white South Africa" by restricting their voting rights to their own identified black homeland. The government segregated education, medical care, and other public services; black people ended up with services greatly inferior to those of whites, and, to a lesser extent, to those of Indians and coloureds. The black education system was designed to prepare blacks for lives as a labouring class. There was a deliberate policy in "white South Africa" of making services for black people inferior to those of whites, to try to "encourage" black people to move into the black homelands.

The system of apartheid sparked significant internal resistance. The government responded to a series of popular uprisings and protests with police brutality, which in turn increased local support for the armed resistance struggle. In response to popular and political resistance, the apartheid government resorted to detentions without trial, torture, censorship, and the banning of political opposition. Despite suffering extreme repression and exile, these organisations maintained popular support for the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and forged connections with the international anti-apartheid movement during this period.

White South Africa became increasingly militarised, embarking on the so-called border war with the covert support of the USA, fighting Cuban and MPLA forces based in Angola, and later sending the South African Defence Force into townships. The anti-apartheid organisations had strong links with other liberation struggles in Africa, and often saw their armed resistance to apartheid as part of the socialist struggle against capitalism.


The Immorality Act (1950-1985) was one of the first Apartheid laws in South Africa. It attempted to forbid all sexual relations between whites and non-whites. In 1949, interracial marriages had been banned by the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act.

On the grounds of the Immorality Act, the police tracked down racially mixed couples suspected of being in relationships. Homes were invaded, and mixed couples caught in bed were arrested. Most couples found guilty were sent to jail. Blacks were often given harsher sentences than whites.

In 1985, the Immorality Act and Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act were both repealed under Pieter Botha.


  1. What do we know about Van der Vyver and Lucas? Discuss family, politics, property, community and his place in it, and his personality.

Van der Vyver


2. Analyze this quote from the narrator. How does this quote reflect the relationships between blacks and whites during apartheid? Does the narrator really believe Lucas and Van der Vyver were friends? Or is he trying to convince himself or the outside world of this?

“Those city and overseas people don’t know it’s true: farmers usually have one particular black boy they like to take along with them in the lands; you could call it a kind of friend, yes, friends are not only your own white people, like yourself, you take into your house, pray with in church and work with on the Party committee” (334).

3. The narrator refers to several groups in this story. How does the narrator describe each group and their response or interpretation to the killing?

A. The outside world and press

B. White people in the farming community

C. Black farm workers

D. Black mobs in the towns

4. Match each quote to the correct group listed above.

Then decide if the narrator’s attitude towards “them” is positive or negative.


“they” refers to:

positive / negative ?

  1. “…shooting a black man who worked for him will fit exactly their version of South Africa, it’s made for them” (333).

  1. “They’ll be able to use it in their boycott and divestment campaigns, it’ll be another piece of evidence in their truth about the country” (333-334).

  1. “Bad enough to have killed a man, without helping the Party’s, the government’s, the country’s enemies, as well. They see the truth of that” (334).

  1. “But how can those others know that? They don’t want to know it. They think all blacks are like the big-mouth agitators in town” (334).

  1. “Because nothing the government can do will appease the agitators and the whites who encourage them. Nothing satisfies them, in the cities:…” (336).

  1. “…look how they will deprive themselves of the little they have, in their lifetime, keeping up payments to a burial society so they won’t go in boxwood to an unmarked grave” (336-337).

  1. “…they don’t protect them from the sight of fear and pain the way whites do theirs” (337).

  1. “…they start bearing children at puberty…” (337).

  1. “How will they ever know, when they file newspaper clippings, evidence, proof, when they look at the photographs and see his face—guilty! guilty! they are right!—how will they know, when the police stations burn with all the evidence of what has happened now, and what the law made a crime in the past” (339).

5. Focus on the narrator.

  1. Based on your observations above, describe the narrator.

  2. Which group does the narrator identify with?

  3. Is the narrator sympathetic to Van der Vyver? How do you know?

  4. Make a judgment about this narrator. (Remember when we talked about fact, inference, and judgment?) Step outside the text and make a judgment about the narrator from the perspective of a person living in the United States in the 21st century.

6. Are the narrator’s views the same as the author’s? How do you know?

7. Analyze the following quotation. What does it show about Van der Vyver? What does it show about the captain? What does it show about how whites expect other whites to respond to the death of a black farm worker during apartheid?

“Beetge will not tell anyone that after the brandy Van der Vyver wept. He sobbed, snot running down onto his hands, like a dirty kid. The Captain was ashamed for him, and walked out to give him a chance to recover himself” (335).

8. Analyze the following quotations about Lucas’s mother:

“She does not look up; she does not look at Van der Vyver, whose gun went off in the truck, she stares at the grave. Nothing will make her look up; there need be no fear that she will look up; at him. His wife, Alida, is beside him” (338).

“The dead man’s mother and he stare at the grave in communication like that between the black man outside and the white man inside the cab the moment before the gun went off” (338).

9. Find a quotation that makes you think Van der Vyver cared about Lucas.

10. Find a quotation that makes you think Van der Vyver did not care about Lucas.

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