Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa

by Mark Mathabane

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What is the author's purpose in writing Kaffir Boy?

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Mathabane makes his primary purpose pertinently obvious in the preface to his book. He states:

I have sought to paint a portrait of my childhood and youth in Alexandra, a black ghetto of Johannesburg, where I was born and lived for eighteen years, with the hope that the rest of the world will finally understand why apartheid cannot be reformed: it has to be abolished.

In this, one can readily ascertain that Mathabane's book is a form of protest against a heinous, disparaging and depraved system of government founded on policies of extreme racial prejudice and discrimination against those who were not classified white. The book also highlights the oppression, abuse and exploitation of people so defined. Mathabane's book aimed, at the time, to inform and educate the world so that it could be mobilized against such a racist, inhumane system and seek its dissolution.

The novel was first published in 1986, a period in which the atrocities committed by the white apartheid regime had reached a climax. The country was on the verge of total rebellion by those who bore the brunt of subjugation. The oppressed in the country were essentially waging a war against white tyranny and many died on the streets of South Africa in their attempts to proclaim their disgust and resist further subjugation. Many protesters were persecuted, tortured, or simply disappeared.

Mathabane also exposes a few other purposes in the preface. He states that:

I learned the important lesson that South Africa's 4.5 million whites were not all racist....

...this lesson became the conviction that whites are in some ways victims of apartheid, too, and it is the system, not they, that has to be destroyed....

These statements make it obvious that Mathabane wished the world to understand that not only non-whites suffered under the system and that not all whites supported it. The novel later makes it apparent that it was through the intervention of such people that Mathabane could leave South Africa and pursue his studies and a professional career in the United States.

The book also serves to inform readers that Mathabane "had to reject the tribal traditions of...ancestors" to free himself from oppression. He had to turn his back on age-old customs and practically re-create himself to find emancipation. He realized that tradition had been used by the apartheid regime to further its own pernicious agenda. 

Finally, the novel acts as an inspirational directive for those who suffer under the burden of abuse and discrimination. By telling us of his struggles and his successes, he wishes to inspire all those in similar situations to continue fighting, to never give up, and to strive for victory because help may be provided by those from whom we least expect it.       

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In my opinion, Mark Mathabane's main purpose in writing this book was to highlight the ways in which apartheid was an evil and inhumane system.

When you think about this book, you should remember that it was published in the United States in 1986.  At that point, the issue of apartheid was just starting to be relevant to many Americans.  We did not know a whole lot about how apartheid affected the lives of black South Africans like Mathabane and his family.

I believe that Mathabane wrote the book in hopes of educating Westerners and in hopes of getting them to pressure the South African government to end apartheid.

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