Mark Mathabane did not write Kaffir Boy with a young audience in mind. As he explains in his preface, he found after he had been in the United States for some time, and as the political situation in South Africa came to the attention of more Americans, that he was asked more and more frequently what it had been like to grow up as a black South African under apartheid. Because few South African black people could become educated enough to write professionally in English, and because the apartheid government would not permit the publication of criticism of itself from within, the voices and stories of black South Africans went unheard. By re-creating his experiences, Mathabane hoped to educate adults in the United States about his native country and inspire them to work for change. Young people are naturally drawn to stories of other young people, however, especially those with emotions and goals similar to their own but in wildly different situations. The story of a young man who pulls himself up through determination and hard work, whose education enables him to find a better life, is an important one for young people.
An important theme in Kaffir Boy is Mathabane’s refusal to reject all white people. Because he is willing from an early age to give individuals a chance to prove themselves—even though so many disappoint him—he is able to find friendship and support beyond his own community. In the dedication to Kaffir Boy, he mentions the white South Africans who helped him and Stan Smith and...
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The book to which Kaffir Boy is most frequently compared is Claude Brown’s Manchild in the Promised Land (1965), a chilling story of Brown’s own youth in Harlem. The two books share a grim tone overlaid with faint hope, strong language, and horrible but clearly authentic details of poverty existing side by side with plenty. For both young men, it is finally a college education that makes escape to a better world possible. The fascinating irony lies in examining the changes brought about in the United States and South Africa since the appearance of these books.
Mark Mathabane was surprised to learn, after settling in the United States, that black and white people did not mingle freely even in a free country and that his acceptance of white people was still controversial. His sequel to Kaffir Boy, entitled Kaffir Boy in America: An Encounter with Apartheid (1989), explores these issues further, as does a book that he cowrote with wife Gail, who is white: Love in Black and White: The Triumph of Love over Prejudice and Taboo (1992).