Bessie Head

Bessie Head was born in Pietermaritzburg in 1937, the daughter of a white woman and a black man. To avoid the scandal of a mixed-race relationship in a racist community, her mother was sent to a mental asylum when it was discovered she was pregnant. Head was born there, raised by foster parents and in an orphanage. She was excluded from the privilege of her mother’s world. She trained as a teacher but in the late 1950s started to work as a journalist, writing for Drum and the Golden City Post. When the government cracked down on resistance, Head fled South Africa for Botswana in 1964 (the same year as Nat Nakasa, and also on a one-way exit permit). She struggled with poverty, alcoholism and depression while continuing to write until her death in 1986. Head is an important writer who emerged just before the Black Consciousness era. In this story she takes the theme of Apartheid repression and turns it on its head, by focusing on the intelligence and solidarity of some political prisoners who manage to outwit their prison warder.

The Prisoner Who Wore Glasses

Author: Bessie Head

Scarcely a breath of wind disturbed the stillness of the day and the long rows of cabbages were bright green in the sunlight. Large white clouds drifted slowly across the deep blue sky. Now and then they obscured obscured Blocked out, hid. the sun and caused a chill on the backs of the prisoners who had to work all day long in the cabbage field. This trick the clouds were playing with the sun eventually caused one of the prisoners who wore glasses to stop work, straighten up and peer peer Look, gaze. short-sightedly at them. He was a thin little fellow with a hollowed-out chest and comic knobbly knees. He also had a lot of fanciful ideas because he smiled at the clouds.

‘Perhaps they want me to send a message to the children,’ he thought tenderly, noting that the clouds were drifting in the direction of his home some hundred miles away. But before he could frame the message, the warder in charge of his work span shouted:

‘Hey, what you tink you’re doing, Brille?’

rapidly Quickly. primitive Very basic, uncomplicated, backward.

The prisoner swung round, blinking rapidly, yet at the same time sizing up the enemy. He was a new warder, named Jacobus Stephanus Hannetjie. His eyes were the colour of the sky but they were frightening. A simple, primitive, brutal soul gazed out of them. The prisoner bent down quickly and a message was quietly passed down the line: ‘We’re in for trouble this time, comrades.’

‘Why?’ rippled back up the line.

‘Because he’s not human,’ the reply rippled down and yet only the crunching of the spades as they turned over the earth disturbed the stillness.

This particular work span was known as Span One. It was composed of ten men and they were all political prisoners. They were grouped together for convenience as it was one of the prison regulations that no black warder should be in charge of a political prisoner lest lest In case. this prisoner convert him to their views. It never seemed to occur to the authorities that this very reasoning was the strength of Span One and a clue to the strange terror they aroused aroused Caused; to provoke a feeling or awaken someone. in the warders. As political prisoners they were unlike the other prisoners in the sense that they felt no guilt nor were they outcasts of society. All guilty men instinctively cower, cower Crouch down in fear. which was why it was the kind of prison where men got knocked out cold with a blow at the back of the head from an iron bar. Up until the arrival of Warder Hannetjie, no warder had dared beat any member of Span One and no warder had lasted more than a week with them. The battle was entirely psychological. Span One was assertive and it was beyond the scope of white warders to handle assertive black men. Thus, Span One had got out of control. They were the best thieves and liars in the camp. They lived all day on raw cabbages. They chatted and smoked tobacco. And since they moved, thought, and acted as one, they had perfected every technique of group concealment. concealment The act of hiding something.

Trouble began that very day between Span One and Warder Hannetjie. It was because of the shortsightedness of Brille. That was the nickname he was given in prison and is the Afrikaans word for someone who wears glasses. Brille could never judge the approach of the prison gates and on several previous occasions he had munched on cabbages and dropped them almost at the feet of the warder and all previous warders had overlooked this. Not so Warder Hannetjie.

‘Who dropped that cabbage?’ he thundered.

Brille stepped out of line.

‘I did,’ he said meekly. meekly Gently, tamely.

‘All right,’ said Hannetjie. ‘The whole Span goes three meals off.’

‘But I told you I did it,’ Brille protested.

The blood rushed to Warder Hannetjie’s face.

‘Look ‘ere,’ he said. ‘I don’t take orders from a kaffir. I don’t know what kind of kaffir you tink you are. Why don’t you say Baas. Baas The Afrikaans word for boss. I’m your Baas. Why don’t you say Baas, hey?’

Brille blinked his eyes rapidly but by contrast his voice was strangely calm.

‘I’m twenty years older than you,’ he said. It was the first thing that came to mind but the comrades seemed to think it a huge joke. A titter swept up the line. The next thing Warder Hannetjie whipped out a knobkerrie and gave Brille several blows about the head. What surprised his comrades was the speed with which Brille had removed his glasses or else they would have been smashed to pieces on the ground.

That evening in the cell Brille was very apologetic.

‘I’m sorry, comrades,’ he said: ‘I’ve put you into a hell of a mess.’

‘Never mind, brother,’ they said. ‘What happens to one of us happens to all.’

‘I’ll try to make up for it, comrades,’ he said. I’ll steal something so that you don’t go hungry.’

Privately, Brille was very philosophical about his head wounds. It was the first time an act of violence had been perpetrated perpetrated Committed, done. against him but he had long been a witness of extreme, almost unbelievable human brutality. He had twelve children and his mind travelled back that evening through the sixteen years of bedlam bedlam Chaos. in which he had lived. It had all happened in a small drab drab Plain, uninteresting. little three-bedroomed house in a small drab little street in the Eastern Cape and the children kept coming year after year because neither he nor Martha ever managed the contraceptives the right way and a teacher’s salary never allowed moving to a bigger house and he was always taking exams to improve his salary only to have it all eaten up by hungry mouths. Everything was pretty horrible, especially the way the children fought. They’d get hold of each other’s heads and give them a good bashing against the wall. Martha gave up something along the line so they worked out a thing between them. The bashings, biting and blood were to operate in full swing until he came home. He was to be the bogey-man bogey-man In stories, the bogey-man is an imaginary monster who comes for naughty children. and when it worked he never failed to have a sense of godhead godhead Divine presence or nature. at the way in which his presence could change savages into fairly reasonable human beings.

Yet somehow it was this chaos and mismanagement at the centre of his life that drove him into politics. It was really an ordered beautiful world with just a few basic slogans to learn along with the rights of mankind. At one stage, before things became very bad, there were conferences to attend, all very far away from home.

‘Let’s face it,’ he thought ruefully. ‘I’m only learning right now what it means to be a politician. All this while I’ve been running away from Martha and the kids.’

And the pain in his head brought a hard lump to his throat. That was what the children did to each other daily and Martha wasn’t managing and if Warder Hannetjie had not interrupted him that morning he would have sent the following message: ‘Be good comrades, my children. Co-operate, then life will run smoothly.’

The next day Warder Hannetjie caught this old man of twelve children stealing grapes from the farm shed. They were an enormous quantity of grapes in a ten gallon tin and for this misdeed the old man spent a week in the isolation cell. In fact, Span One as a whole was in constant trouble. Warder Hannetjie seemed to have eyes at the back of his head. He uncovered the trick about the cabbages, how they were split in two with the spade and immediately covered with earth and then unearthed again and eaten with split-second timing. He found out how tobacco smoke was beaten into the ground and he found out how conversations were whispered down the wind.

For about two weeks Span One lived in acute acute Extreme, intense. misery. The cabbages, tobacco and conversations had been the pivot of jail life to them. Then one evening they noticed that their good, old comrade who wore the glasses was looking rather pleased with himself. He pulled out a four ounce packet of tobacco by way of explanation and the comrades fell upon it with great greed. Brille merely smiled. After all, he was the father of many children. But when the last shred had disappeared, it occurred to the comrades that they ought to be puzzled. Someone said: ‘I say, brother. We’re watched like hawks these days. Where did you get the tobacco?’

‘Hannetjie gave it to me,’ said Brille.

There was a long silence. Into it dropped a quiet bombshell.

‘I saw Hannetjie in the shed today,’ and the failing eyesight blinked rapidly. ‘I caught him in the act of stealing five bags of fertilizer and he bribed me to keep my mouth shut.’

There was another long silence.

‘Prison is an evil life,’ Brille continued, apparently discussing some irrelevant matter.

‘It makes a man contemplate contemplate Think about, consider. all kinds of evil deeds.’

He held out his hand and closed it.

‘You know, comrades,’ he said. ‘I’ve got Hannetjie. I’ll betray him tomorrow.’

Everyone began talking at once.

‘Forget it, brother. You’ll get shot.’

Brille laughed.

‘I won’t,’ he said. ‘That is what I mean about evil. I am a father of children and I saw today that Hannetjie is just a child and stupidly truthful. I’m going to punish him severely because we need a good warder.’

The following day, with Brille as witness, Hannetjie confessed to the theft of the fertilizer and was fined a large sum of money. From then on Span One did very much as they pleased while Warden Hannetjie stood by and said nothing. But it was Brille who carried this to extremes. One day, at the close of work Warden Hannetjie said: ‘Brille, pick up my jacket and carry it back to the camp.’

‘But nothing in the regulations says I’m your servant, Hannetjie,’ Brille replied coolly.

‘I’ve told you not to call me Hannetjie. You must say Baas,’ but Warder Hannetjie’s voice lacked conviction. conviction Belief. In turn, Brille squinted up at him.

‘I’ll tell you something about this Baas business, Hannetjie,’ he said. ‘One of these days we are going to run the country. You are going to clean my car. Now, I have a fifteen year old son and I’d die of shame if you had to tell him that I ever called you Baas.’

Warder Hannetjie went red in the face and picked up his coat.

On another occasion Brille was seen to be walking about the prison yard, openly smoking tobacco. On being taken before the prison commander he claimed to have received the tobacco from Warder Hannetjie. All throughout the tirade tirade A long, angry speech. from his chief, Warder Hannetjie failed to defend himself but his nerve broke completely. He called Brille to one side.

‘Brille,’ he said. ‘This thing between you and me must end. You may not know it but I have a wife and children and you’re driving me to suicide.’

‘Why don’t you like your own medicine, Hannetjie?’ Brille asked quietly.

‘I can give you anything you want,’ Warder Hannetjie said in desperation.

‘It’s not only me but the whole of Span One,’ said Brille cunningly. cunningly Doing something in a sly or crafty way. ‘The whole of Span One wants something from you.’

Warder Hannetjie brightened with relief.

‘I think I can manage if it’s tobacco you want,’ he said.

Brille looked at him, for the first time struck with pity, and guilt. He wondered if he had carried the whole business too far. The man was really a child.

‘It’s not tobacco we want, but you,’ he said. ‘We want you on our side. We want a good warder because without a good warder we won’t be able to manage the long stretch ahead.’

Warder Hannetjie interpreted this request in his own fashion and his interpretation of what was good and human often left the prisoners of Span One speechless with surprise. He had a way of slipping off his revolver and picking up a spade and digging alongside Span One. He had a way of producing unheard of luxuries like boiled eggs from his farm nearby and things like cigarettes, and Span One responded nobly and got the reputation of being the best work span in the camp. And it wasn’t only take from their side. commodities Valuable things which can be bought and sold. They were awfully good at stealing certain commodities like fertilizer which were needed on the farm of Warder Hannetjie.


  1. The story doesn’t mention Apartheid, the NP, ANC or any other specific details. What effect does this have? Why do you think the writer would have left these details out?
  2. Why are the men of Span One in prison? How does this give them power?
  3. The writer mentions that all through his life, Brille had witnessed “almost unbelievable human brutality.” Do you think she is just referring to his children? What other parts of his life might have been brutal?
  4. What is ironic about Brille wanting to tell his children to co-operate (presumably with the government)?
  5. Compare Brille to Warder Hannetjie. How are they different – in their beliefs, personalities and intelligence? What is the importance of this?
  6. How does the story challenge Apartheid and what Apartheid said was true?