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

by Mark Mathabane
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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1350

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.

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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 knowledge" from which the children learn "about right and wrong, about good and evil." Determined that her son will be educated, his mother gets him up at four o'clock on three separate mornings and stands in line for hours, waiting to get the birth certificate required for school enrollment.

Passport to Knowledge
Part 2 begins in the predawn of another winter day two years later when Johannes's mother awakens him and forces him to bathe and dress in his father's shirt and pants, folding and tucking them to fit. His mother and grandmother have to tie his hands together and lead him against his will to the Shangaan tribal school. He returns home at the end of a horrendous first day only to discover that his father has brutally beaten his mother for enrolling him in school. When he realizes not only why education is so important to his mother but also what she is willing to endure to secure her son's education, Johannes agrees to stay in school. His father's refusal to pay his school expenses results in Johannes being beaten daily for not wearing a school uniform or having the required textbooks. However, he continues to go to school and to excel, achieving the highest marks in his class. The physical abuse from daily beatings and his chance witnessing of a brutal murder at age ten leave Johannes despondent and suicidal. His mother, finding him with a knife, appeals to his conscience. Forcing him to look at his sisters, she asks what would happen to them without an older brother to protect them. "I too would want to die if you were to die. You're the only hope I have. I love you very much," she tells him. "Now give me that knife," and he does.

Pregnant with her fifth child, Johannes's mother takes a cleaning job to pay his school expenses, and he continues to stay in school, remaining at the top of his class through Standard Six. His educational success results not only from a keen mind and diligent study but also from the generosity of Mrs. Smith, one of his grandmother's employers, who sends him her son's old clothes, books, and toys—thereby broadening his education. After Granny secures permission to bring Johannes with her as a helper, Mrs. Smith's generosity continues, making it possible for Johannes to read classic English novels that are not part of his school curriculum. She also gives him an old tennis racket, initiating his involvement in the sport.

Passport to Freedom
Johannes's life begins to revolve almost entirely around school, reading, and tennis. He earns a First Class pass on his final Standard Six exams and is awarded a government scholarship to pay for all three years of his secondary schooling. In 1972, Johannes enrolls in the local Alexandra Secondary School. Once again he is an excellent student, leading the Form One classes in final exams and becoming the number one tennis player. In June of 1973, Tom, a fellow teammate, sets up an interview for Johannes with Wilfred Horn who runs Barretts Tennis Ranch. An employee at the all-white facility, Tom has played tennis against numerous whites. Uneasy about the repercussions of moving into the white world, Johannes introduces himself to Horn as "Mark Mathabane" and begins working and playing tennis at the ranch. In November of 1973, Horn buys Mathabane a ticket to see Arthur Ashe play at Ellis Park. In 1974, Mathabane wins his first tennis championship. In June of 1975, he represents the southern Transvaal black junior tennis squad in the National Tournament in Pretoria. In the spring of 1976, Mathabane wins a matriculation and university scholarship from Simba Quix. In June, when black student-initiated Soweto protests spread to Alexandra, Mathabane enters the burning school library to rescue books. In 1977, he enters the South African Breweries Open, gets banned from black tennis for life, and meets Wimbledon Champion Stan Smith. Smith and his wife Marjory help Mathabane get a tennis scholarship to an American college. On September 16, 1978, he boards a plane for the United States, armed with a student visa, his passport to freedom.

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