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Depiction of South Africa During Apartheid in Master Harold and The Boys by Athol Fugard

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At first glance, one would not understand the depth and significance of Athol Fugard’s work. One of his works is Master Harold and the Boys which is an especially significant playwright because it was written by a white South African during the apartheid era in 1950. All of Fugard’s work was very fascinating for this reason due to, who he was, the time his work was made and the struggles to go on during the apartheid era. His playwright brought awareness to many problems that were neglected by society during apartheid. Fugard was not only extremely interesting but intellectual and it shows through his work, Master Harold and The Boys. Not only is this playwright interesting due to the topics of race, education during apartheid, friendship, life struggles and more, but the striking use of the word “Master” in the title. The reader or viewer can find themselves understanding how the theme leads into the title once the play is finished. There is more beyond Athol Fugard’s work the deeper one looks into it.

The groundbreaking writer Athol Fugard was born June 11, 1932. He is currently eighty-sixed years old and watching how his work still influences viewers and readers presently. Fugard made his views translucent threw his work and showed that he was very wise beyond his years when he wrote Master Harold and The Boys. Fugard stated that he confronted his demons through his work. It was said that “out of the painful and desperate realities of his homeland, he has forged such powerful dramas”. Fugard had always had struggles with alcohol while he worked. He said himself that he believed he needed alcohol in order to be inspired and to delve deep into his work. Fugard lived all the struggles of alcohol withdrawal and thought he would never be able to write again. After he did so he yet gained another life lesson and continued writing. He described himself as somebody without “a lot of self-control or willpower, but I haven’t had a drink since”. Athol Fugard is a writer unlike others, and his outstanding originality shows through his playwrights.

Apartheid was a policy that divided relations between South African white minority and the nonwhite majority. It granted racial segregation, political and economic discrimination against nonwhites. This was made possible through the Population Registration Act of 1950. This act classified all South Africans as either Bantu, colored or white. Separate was not equal and Athol Fugard showed that in Master Harold and The Boys. Charles Isherwood from the New York Times described Athol Fugard’s work as a “powerful indictment of the apartheid system and the terrible human cost of the racism it codified and legalized.” His work genuinely touched many people personally for decades. Fugard’s work has also been described as “living through a full range of psychological and emotional events. We experience an event without actually having to live through it”. This is due to Fugard being so wise since he had lived through these events in different ways to personally deliver the full effect of the themes he exhibits in his work.

The playwright of Master Harold and The Boys by Athol Fugard was and still is very legendary in South Africa and all over the world. The play is set in the St. George Tea Room in Port Elizabeth, South Africa. Sam and Willie, two middle-aged black servants that work for Master Hally. Hally is the young teenage son of the Tea Room’s proprietors. It soon becomes apparent that his father an alcoholic and disabled. Hally’s father was not in control of him due to his struggles. Therefore to Hally, his dad was a burden. The news about his father makes Hally weary, prickly, and apathetic about his schoolwork. Hally has a strange friendship with Sam and Willie. Sam, in particular, was a bit closer to Hally then Willie. Over the timeline of the play, the onlooker, or the reader begins to think maybe Sam and Hally’s friendship will overcome the struggle of apartheid. Later, the viewer is displeased to find that apartheid ruined what could have been a step past apartheid. “Master Harold” was a character that gave truth to apartheid. He was a seventeen-year-old white boy living in South Africa during apartheid. He is the son of the proprietors of St. George’s Park Tea Room which gives him access to the greatest privileges not only due to race but money. Master Hally is intelligent due to his education but quite ignorant. Hally is always looking for a competition to show his superiority over his “servants” Sam and Willie. He struggles with the shame of his father’s alcoholism, racism, and physical disability, and finds his mother’s weakness to be aggravating. He had found comfort with Sam and Willie but the racism of the apartheid-era influences a barrier between them by the end of the play. Threw Hally Fugard shows the horrible side of apartheid and how people of color were treated not only unfairly but in an animalistic manner. Fugard bringing this type of attention to a character such as Hally demonstrated the raw truth about apartheid.

The title of Master Harold and the Boys factors into the theme of apartheid for many reasons. Although it is not immediately clear to the reader exactly what the story will be about it is interesting since during the most of the story you hear Sam calling Master Harold, Hally in a very comfortable manner. Then as time goes on their relationship gets more and more complex leading to Sam feeling that threw this friendship the barrier of apartheid had been overstepped and he must return to who he “really” was. Fugard could have easily made the title Hally and the Boys but no he was making a point that “Master” Harold and the boys were completely separate due to apartheid and even friendship cannot overcome the ignorance that can come with privilege. Athol Fugard left his mark with Master Harold and The Boys. He brought relevance to topics that were ignored for far too long and leaves readers and viewers in awe.

Fugard made sure to put symbolism all throughout his playwright Master Harold and The Boys. The first example of symbolism is at the beginning of the playwright. Sam and Willie’s love of ballroom dancing means much more than it is simply shown as. It is a type of escape for the men, something that they enjoy and that takes their minds off of their work. Becoming proficient and talented at ballroom dancing is a goal to which they can work in their situation. For Sam and Willie ballroom dancing symbolizes freedom and escape from their lifestyle. For Hally, however, it symbolizes something else entirely. When Hally comes home and speaks to his parents on the phone, his mood turns sour and angry. He takes his anger out on Sam and Willie by belittling the thing they care most about at the moment, ballroom dancing. At first, he calls it “simple” and “mentally retarded,” and then sees it as a symbol of “primitive black society”. For example, there is an article called “Spitting on Apartheid by Jon Michaud from The New Yorker. It is a bit ironic that Michaud titled his article using the word “spitting” due to the defeating scene from Master Harold And The Boys where Hally spits on Sam to show disrespect to him and his race and Fugard spit on apartheid with his revolutionary playwright. The symbolism in Master Harold and the Boys relates to all the topics Fugard covers in very low-profile ways. Another example is the kite that Sam fashions for Hally are a symbol of a person rising up and to rise above. The kite’s potential to rise up and above is like an individual’s potential to transcend both ‘their’ limitations and the broader, more standardized limitations put on them by the society and culture during the apartheid era. When viewing the playwright the reader finds that Sam first presents Hally with the kite. Hally is ashamed at the idea of flying a kite with a black man, but, when the kite begins to fly, his embarrassment fades away and is replaced by complete joy. Hally is brought back to a childlike mind for a just a second, and the kite represents this. Another symbol Fugard used was Hally’s schoolbooks. They symbolize Western knowledge and the apartheid separation. They contain the information the South African government believes is necessary for creating informed citizens. When Sam struggles to decipher Hally’s math textbook, it shows that he did not receive the same education as Hally when he was in his youth. It is made clear that Black South Africans are not included in the government’s plans for informed citizens during this time. Symbolism opened up a powerful form of communication throughout Master Harold and The Boys. It is crystalline that Athol Fugard’s playwright Master Harold and The Boys was exceedingly significant especially for the time in which it was created. It is interesting to know that Athol Fugard was inspired by many of the events and struggles he lived throughout his life. The symbolism Fugard used was also effective in the playwright Master Harold and The Boys and many onlookers and readers could agree. The story of Master Harold will live on for many more decades and still emotionally hold the hearts of many.

Works Cited

  1. Fugard, Athol. ‘Master Harold’ – and the Boys. Media Production Services Unit, Manitoba Education, 2012.
  2. Editors, “Apartheid.”, A&E Television Networks, 7 Oct. 2010,
  3. Isherwood, Charles. “Review: ‘‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys,’ a Searing Indictment of Racism.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 8 Nov. 2016,
  4. Fugard, Athol. “Once upon a Life: Athol Fugard.” Guardian News and Media, 30 Oct. 2010,
  5. Hilferty, Susan. “Realizing Fugard.” Twentieth Century Literature, Hofstra University, 22 Dec. 1993,
  6. Isherwood, Charles. “Review: ‘‘Master Harold’ … and the Boys,’ a Searing Indictment of Racism.” The New York Times, 8 Nov. 2016,
  7. Michaud, Jon, “Athol Fugard: Spitting at Apartheid.” The New Yorker, 19 June 2017, Athol
  8. Richards, David. “ATHOL FUGARD, SEIZING THE LIGHT.” The Washington Post, 30 July 1989,
  9. Pressley, Nelson. “Athol Fugard’s Apartheid Chronicle ‘Master Harold’ Still Glows.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 18 Apr. 2018,

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Depiction Of South Africa During Apartheid In Master Harold And The Boys By Athol Fugard. (2021, May 14). GradesFixer. Retrieved May 21, 2022, from
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