Fiela’s Child examines the meaning of justice by presenting a situation where the supposedly just official legal system delivers an unjust result. At the center of the novel is a magistrate’s decision to take the white foundling Benjamin away from his adopted “Coloured” (multiracial) mother, Fiela, “returning” him to the white van Rooyens to replace their lost son Lukas. While the magistrate and his colleagues use bureaucratic language to justify their decision and technically follow the law, they ultimately hold a trial that is anything but just. As Fiela herself angrily says at one point, the magistrate is no just judge like King Solomon: rather than having both mothers present at the trial to determine Benjamin’s parentage (as King Solomon famously did), the magistrate specifically invites only Barta van Rooyen, deliberately excluding Fiela from the proceedings. Furthermore, one of the census-takers biases the process further by giving Barta a hint to ensure that she identifies Benjamin as her son “Lukas” out of a lineup of similar-looking children, thereby guaranteeing that Benjamin will end up with the white van Rooyens. The justice system thus guarantees that Fiela has the odds stacked against her from the very start.
The whole trial about Benjamin’s parentage illustrates how in 19th-century South Africa, the legal system could become a way to justify injustice, specifically racism against Black and Coloured South Africans. As the novel shows, this system was effective in hiding some of the horrors of that racism. Petrus, for example, is a white man who considers himself sympathetic to his Coloured neighbors, even providing money for the marriage of Selling and Fiela. But when Petrus tries to return Benjamin to Fiela, he ultimately believes the magistrate’s explanation that Benjamin is Lukas, trusting his country’s legal institutions and unable to see the racial biases at play. Even Fiela herself grudgingly accepts Benjamin’s loss, partly because she reluctantly accepts the magistrate’s authority, partly because she fears punishment if she presses the issue too far. Fiela’s Child argues convincingly that legality and morality are two different things, demonstrating how an unjust and racist society can use its legal institutions to promote injustice rather than justice and to perpetuate systemic inequality.
Justice Quotes in Fiela’s Child
The day the child disappeared the fog came up early and by midday it seemed as if the Forest was covered in a thick white cloud.
‘Listen here, woman, you know as well as I do that there’s something very strange going on here. This can’t be your child but you gave out that he was yours. Where did you get the child from?’
‘He’s my hand-child.’
‘Is this a church?’ he asked the tall one.
‘No. It’s a courtroom. Sit there on the bench and sit still.’
‘Will I still know him?’
‘I’m going to Knysna,’ she announced.
‘He’s the forest woman’s child.’
‘The child is back with his rightful parents,’ he said and it seemed as if his jaw had grown stiff. ‘What he had on the day he got lost can make no difference. You can put anything on him now and swear by it in the hope that I will believe you.’
In fact Petrus did not come riding up the Kloof until late on Thursday. Alone. A sugar-cake was waiting on the kitchen table.
She had to give up Benjamin to the forest people, Dawid to the grave. There was little difference in the bitterness within her. The question she put to God was the same: Why, God, why?
The one wearing the blue shirt.