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

Start Your Free Trial

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

Subscribe Now

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

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

The Road to Alexandra
Part 1 of Kaffir Boy begins in the predawn of a bitterly cold winter day in 1965 with the five-year-old Johannes Mathabane lying awake, terrified by nightmares. After his father leaves for work and his mother for the community outhouse, he finally falls asleep. Within moments, his nightmare becomes reality when Peri-Urban, the Alexandra Police Squad, makes one of its unannounced raids. His mother slips back into the house, awakens Johannes, and engages him in a quiet but frantic search for her passbook (apartheid regulations require that every black person in South Africa carry a document containing his or her photograph, name, address, tribal origin, work and marital status). Once it is found, she again slips out of the house—this time in search of a hiding place. Johannes is left alone with full responsibility for his three-year-old sister and one-year-old brother. The following night Peri-Urban returns, this time raiding the Mathabane home. His mother hides in a small, locked wardrobe, but Johannes is forced to witness his father's emotional emasculation as he is taunted and dragged half-naked out of the house. Along with dozens of others, he is handcuffed, taken away in a convoy of trucks, and forced to spend two months doing hard labor on a white man's potato farm for his past crimes—all because he could not afford to pay his poll tax or his tribal tax, nor did he have the money to bribe the police officer. In 1966, Johannes's father is once again arrested—this time for unemployment—and imprisoned for almost a year.

During his father's absence, Johannes's mother struggles to keep her family fed but can only afford one meager meal a day. When the landlord threatens to evict her, she appeals to her mother for money to pay the rent. After the money runs out, she secures a weekend job doing housecleaning and laundry. At six each morning, she takes her three children to area garbage dumps. There she and the children forage for food and other items they cannot afford: clothes, knives, furniture, and kitchen utensils. Still, gnawing hunger remains Johannes's constant companion, leading him into more and more dangerous situations. He begins stealing liquor bottles and reselling them to the owners, using the money for food and tickets to the movies. When he realizes that his mother is pregnant with her fourth child, he tells her that she should not have had him, that he is "not happy in this world." "It will get better," she tells him, but from his viewpoint it doesn't. Soon, he is hanging out with other six- and seven-year-olds, many of whom are homeless. He innocently accepts an invitation from a thirteen-year-old pimp, Mpandhlani, to earn money and all the food he can eat. However, he runs away in horror, vowing never to tell anyone what he has seen once he realizes that the invitation requires that he become a prostitute for male migrant workers.

Jackson Mathabane returns from prison a bitterly abusive man who uses most of his earnings to buy alcohol. He violently forces his children to follow the tribal rituals of his childhood, even taking Johannes on a trip back to his Venda homeland. Despite his experiences growing up in Alexandra, Johannes is surprised by the primitive conditions and his father's visit to the local witch doctor. "The fact that he willingly, without question or protest, submitted to the witch doctor's rituals made him a stranger to me," says Johannes. "It somehow seemed unwholesome." When his mother had earlier had all of her children baptized in the Christian faith, Johannes responded with a similar skepticism to the church's portraits of God and the devil. The former depicted God "as an old blue-eyed white man," whereas the latter "portrayed a naked black man, his features distorted to resemble the devil with a tail." On the other hand, his mother's nighttime stories, riddles, proverbs, animal fables, tribal folklore , and songs "served as a kind of library, a golden fountain of...

(The entire section is 1,350 words.)