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

by Mark Mathabane

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Arthur Ashe An American, Arthur Ashe was the first black male to win at Wimbledon. His South African match with Jimmy Connors fuels Mathabane's dream of becoming a great tennis player. Even though Ashe loses the South African match to Connors, he provides Mathabane with evidence that blacks can succeed not only in the game of tennis but also in breaking long-standing racial barriers. Ashe becomes Mathabane's role model and his inspiration.

Aunt Bushy Aunt Bushy is Granny's teenage daughter who still lives at home with her mother. She pays for her nephew Johannes's school trips and gives him lunch money on a regular basis.

Granny Granny is Mathabane's maternal grandmother. "Her genial brown eyes had the radiance of pristine pearls. She was, I think, the most beautiful black woman I ever saw," says Mathabane. An excellent and experienced gardener, she is forced to raise her children alone after her husband leaves her for another woman. She works ten hours a day, six days a week, for white families in Johannesburg. She is a tower of strength to her daughter and her grandchildren, opening her home as a refuge from Jackson Mathabane's abuse. Most important, it is Granny who secures work for the eleven-year-old Johannes with the Smiths of Johannesburg. With her, he makes his first trip into the city and the unknown world of white wealth. There he is introduced both to the game of tennis and to the world of books and literature.

Wilfred Horn Horn is a German immigrant who runs a tennis ranch for whites who are training to become professionals. After learning about the ranch from one of his teammates, Mathabane requests an interview with Horn who invites him to participate in matches at the ranch. For the first time, Johannes is not only able to practice and play tennis with athletes of superior caliber but also to compete with and establish friendships with whites. The year is 1973. Realizing that there could be serious repercussions from white South African officials if they discover that he, a black athlete, is playing tennis with white athletes, he gives his name as Mark Mathabane rather than Johannes—probably in an attempt to disguise his true identity from apartheid officials.

Dinah Mathabane Dinah is the sixth of the seven Mathabane children and Johannes's fourth sister.

Florah Mathabane Florah is the second of the seven Mathabane children and Johannes's first sister. She is only three when the autobiography begins and shares a cardboard bed under the kitchen table with her five-year-old brother. He is expected to look after her when their parents are out of the house and to keep her quiet during police raids when his parents hide or flee the house for their safety.

George Mathabane George is the third of the seven Mathabane children and Johannes's only brother. He is only one when the autobiography begins. As with Florah, Johannes is expected to look after George when their parents are unable to.

Johannes Mathabane See Mark Mathabane

Linah Mathabane Linah is the youngest of the seven Mathabane children and Johannes's fifth sister.

Mama Mathabane Mama is Mathabane's mother. Her given name never appears in the story. Originally from Gazankulu, the tribal reserve of the Tsongas, she is married to Jackson, a man twenty years her senior. Although they are legally married, the white apartheid government does not accept their marriage, forcing them to hide or escape from the police who make surprise night raids on the homes in Alexandra. Despite Jackson's abuse, she cannot leave him because her father has already spent the bride price he paid...

(This entire section contains 1922 words.)

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for her. A "mesmerizing storyteller," her "stories served as a kind of library, a golden fountain of knowledge where we children learned about right and wrong, about good and evil," says Mathabane. Determined that Johannes will have an education, she wakes him at 4:00 A.M. on three separate mornings to walk long distances and then stand in line for hours to get a birth certificate that will permit him to attend school. Pregnant with her fifth child, she secures a cleaning job in order to help pay school expenses. Her determination keeps him in school. Her values, instilled through her nightly storytelling, shape the humanitarian and writer he becomes. She is the heart and soul of the family.

Maria Mathabane Maria is the fourth of the seven Mathabane children and Johannes's second sister.

Mark Mathabane Mark Mathabane is both the author and narrator of Kaffir Boy. Johannes is the Afrikaans name Mark Mathabane's parents give him at birth. At the beginning of the story, he is a cold, hungry, frightened, five-year-old, at the mercy of the Alexandra police raids. By the end of the story, he has finished secondary school at the top of his class, secured a banking job with a decent salary, won a tennis championship, and received a scholarship to an American college. He can speak, read, and write in several languages.

In 1973, when he meets with Wilfred Horn to request permission to play tennis at his all-white camp, "for some reason," Mathabane says, "I gave my name as Mark." Perhaps he was already trying to weaken the paper trail that would lead to Johannes Mathabane and get him into trouble with white South Africans who were not as liberal as Horn. In his 1994 book African Women, Mathabane's sister Florah explains that Johannes took the name Mark in 1976 during the student protests in Soweto. Clearly, this was an attempt to hide his identity from the police.

Without his mother's refusal to give up, without her persistence in obtaining his birth certificate, her talking him out of suicide, her willingness to work as a housecleaner, her love and faith, he might not have made it. From her, he says, "I learned that virtues are things to be always striven after, embraced and cultivated, for they are amply rewarded." I realized "that vices were bad things, to be avoided at all cost, for they bring one nothing but trouble and punishment."

Merriam Mathabane Merriam is the fifth of the seven Mathabane children and Johannes's third sister.

Papa Mathabane Mathabane's name for his father, Jackson Mathabane, whom he describes as a "short, gaunt figure, with a smooth, tight, black-as-coal skin," and "large prominent jaws." The "sole function" of his "thin, uneven lips" appears to be "the production of sneers." Other "fearsome features" include a "broad nose with slightly flaring nostrils, small, bloodshot eyes which never cried, small, close-set ears, and a wide, prominent forehead." "Born and bred'' in the tribal reserve of the Vendas, he rules his house according to tribal law, "tolerating no deviance." An uneducated laborer, who paid lobola (a bride price) for his wife, he views her and their children as his property. He is a "tough, resolute and absolute ruler of the house," who expects complete obedience from both wife and children, often using physical abuse to enforce his will. Emasculated by apartheid regulations, imprisonment, and mistreatment, he gradually sinks into a life of alcoholic bitterness.

Mpandhlani Mpandhlani is a homeless, thirteen-year-old gang member who represents one of the worst aspects of victimization in the system of apartheid. He recruits prostitutes for male migrant workers who have been separated from their wives and children and forced to live in all-male dormitories. They pay Mpandhlani to lure innocent boys to the dormitories with the promise of food and money. A hungry Johannes almost falls victim to the lure, but his mother's teachings and wisdom enable him to recognize that something about the situation is not right. He refuses the food he is offered and manages to escape when the other boys begin to undress. He sees what is about to happen and literally runs for his life, vowing never to tell anyone what he has seen. The adult Mathabane, looking back on the incident as narrator, realizes that what was too horrible for him to comprehend as a boy was callously accepted as commonplace by white officials, who simply turned a blind eye.

Peri-Urban Peri-Urban is the Alexandra police squad that terrorizes, abuses, and arrests residents with no warning and often without cause. They drag Johannes's father half-naked from his bed, handcuff him, and throw him in a truck. For two months, he is forced to work on a white man's potato farm. After a second arrest and a year spent in prison, Jackson Mathabane returns home a bitter, abusive man. Peri-Urban is responsible for Johannes's belief that white people are the devil.

Uncle Piet Piet is Granny's teenage son who enables Johannes to stay in school by buying him necessary clothing.

Sacaramouche A self-employed painter and excellent tennis coach, Sacaramouche is "one of the best tennis players among people of colour in Johannesburg." After seeing Johannes hitting tennis balls against a stadium wall, he voluntarily becomes his first tennis coach and mentor, enabling him to polish and hone his game. Two and a half years later, Mathabane wins his first tennis championship, the Alexandra Open, thus becoming one of the most outstanding young black tennis players in South Africa.

Clyde Smith Clyde is the Smiths' (those whom Mathabane's Granny works for) son whose racist taunting challenges the eleven-year-old Mark to prove that he is as capable as any white person. "I vowed that, whatever the cost, I would master English, that I would not rest till I could read, write and speak it just like any white man, if not better. Finally I had something to aspire to."

Stan Smith Stan Smith is the Wimbledon tennis champion who befriends Mathabane during a tennis tournament in South Africa. After returning to the states, Smith begins a correspondence with Mark that leads to a full tennis scholarship at Limestone College in South Carolina. His friendship and financial support make it possible for Mathabane to escape the ghetto and pursue his dreams in America.

The Smiths The Smiths are a white family who employ Granny as a gardener. They live in "Rosebank, one of Johannesburg's posh whites-only suburbs." They give Johannes their son Clyde's old comic books, toys, games, and storybooks like Aesop's Fables and Pinocchio. "These books and toys revealed to me a new reality,'' says Mathabane. "They moulded my thoughts and feelings and made me dream. My interest in learning increased." Mrs. Smith also gave Johannes an old wooden tennis racket. "Practise hard, for one day I want to read about you in the papers, as our next Arthur Ashe,'' she challenges him.

Tsotsis Tsotsis are hoodlums and gang members that roam Alexandra. When Johannes unwittingly witnesses a group of them committing a brutal murder, he is so devastated by the act and the world he lives in that he seriously considers suicide. At the age of ten, he sees no reason to continue living.

A White Nun A white nun is the first admirable, trustworthy white person in Mathabane's experience. She helps Johannes's mother obtain his birth certificate so that he can attend school. The nun's willingness to cut through the red tape designed to prevent blacks from gaining an education, to stand for him and his mother against a white person, convinces the young Johannes that all whites are not devils.

Mr. Wilde A senior manager at Simba Quix, the largest potato chip and rusks company in South Africa, he presents Johannes with a scholarship in recognition of his academic excellence in his three years in secondary school. The scholarship pays for all of Johannes's school expenses and provides him with summer employment as well.




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