Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa delivers on all the promises made by its subtitle. It traces Mathabane’s own story growing up in a very poor black family in the segregated Bantu township of Alexandra, near Johannesburg, following him from his birth in 1960 until 1978, when he boards a plane for the United States and college. The story is told in straightforward chronological order, in the first person, in fifty-four short chapters. Dialogue and description bring characters and settings to life—so well, in fact, that the sixteen black-and-white photographs do not add much to the prose.

In the first of three parts, “Passport to Alexandra,” a clear sense of life in South Africa’s black townships evolves. As the action begins, Johannes is awakened by shouting and banging. The police are making early-morning rounds, ostensibly to look for people who do not have the proper passbooks, which every black South African must carry, but also randomly to beat, loot, and vandalize. Johannes, just five years old, must look after Florah and George, his younger siblings, and face down the police. The scene is typical of the brutal ugliness of the boy’s life. His family lives in a rough shack with no heat, water, or electricity. Johannes’ father, Jackson, is imprisoned several times without a trial; when he is out of prison and working, he earns little money and spends most it...

(The entire section is 581 words.)