The Coffee-Cart Girl by Ezekiel Mphahlele
In The Coffee-Cart Girl by Ezekiel Mphahlele we have the theme of conflict, jealousy, equality, pity, struggle, kindness, acceptance, independence and strength. Narrated in the third person by an unnamed narrator the reader realises after reading the story that Mphahlele may be exploring the theme of conflict. Not only is there conflict between the workers and the police outside the steel factory but China too brings trouble into Pinkie’s life when he attacks her with a knife. The reader aware that the attack is triggered by China’s jealousy of Pinkie’s relationship with Naidoo. What is interesting about China’s attack on Pinkie is the fact that China believes that he loves Pinkie yet he goes about expressing his love in a very peculiar manner. The attack on Pinkie also serves to highlight how possessive China is of Pinkie. This may be important as Mphahlele may be suggesting that some men consider it their right to possess a woman. Which seems to be the case when it comes to China. Not only is China possessive but he is also dangerous. Mphahlele possibly using the purchase of the knife on the chain as foreshadowing. Something that becomes clearer to the reader when China attacks Pinkie.
Mphahlele also appears to be exploring the rights that black people had in South Africa during the apartheid era. Pinkie is told that she is no longer allowed to operate her coffee cart based solely on the colour of her skin. If anything it may be a case that Mphahlele is placing a spot light on the inequalities that existed at the time between black and white people in South Africa. Similarly the strikers at the factory are part of an illegal strike. Illegal being based solely again on the colour of their skin. At the time it was illegal for black people to go on strike. It is also noticeable that Pinkie pities China. She is aware that he is out of work and struggling. It is for this reason that Pinkie offers China coffee and food for free. This too may be important as it highlights how good-natured Pinkie is. She doesn’t want to see anyone suffer and if she can help a person like China. She will. If anything Pinkie has the ability to show compassion for another human being. What is also interesting about the story is the fact that Pinkie is the only female character mentioned. It may be a case that Mphahlele is suggesting that women, particularly black women in South Africa, did not have a voice at the time the story was written. They were in a minority. Though black people of both sexes were discriminated against. Mphahlele may be highlighting the fact that black women were not only discriminated based on their skin colour but also based upon their sex.
China in particular expects Pinkie to be weak and afraid when he attacks her with the knife. However Pinkie doesn’t appear to be afraid or at least she doesn’t show it. This may be significant as Mphahlele could be highlighting the resilience and strength of black women at times of crisis. It is also interesting that Pinkie accepts the predicament she finds herself in when China attacks her. This too may be important as it again highlights Pinkie’s strength of character. The fact that Pinkie is in the middle of the conflict that is occurring outside the factory also highlights an inner strength within Pinkie. At no stage of the story does Pinkie show any fear be it outside the factory when the police are there or when China attacks her. It is also possible that Mphahlele is suggesting that Pinkie is independent of other people. Something that is symbolically noticeable by the fact that Pinkie is self-employed. She is not reliant on others.
The end of the story is also interesting as the reader gets a deeper insight into how China feels about Pinkie. As readers we suspect that he is obsessed with Pinkie though there is also a sense that he is desperate. Something that becomes clearer to the reader by the fact that China waits for Pinkie’s return. China is able to justify his actions in his mind and believes that should he explain himself to Pinkie. She too will understand him. This is highly improbable considering the course of action that China has taken against Pinkie (attacking her). The harsh reality for China is that he has to live with his actions and the possibility of redemption is exceptionally low. Even if China does see Pinkie in town it is most likely that Pinkie will not listen to anything that China will say to her. She has learnt a lesson that she will probably never forget. China may have the appearance of a gentleman but the reality is very much different. Through jealousy China attempted to ensure that no man could have Pinkie if he couldn’t have her. If anything Mphahlele could also be suggesting that some men’s desire is to possess a woman rather than treat them as an equal.