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

by Mark Mathabane

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Critical Overview

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Initial reviews of Kaffir Boy in the spring of 1986 were mixed. New York Times Book Review critic Lillian Thomas appeared either unable or unwilling to grasp the significance of the book, suggesting that it should have been written in a different way and questioning why the author was no longer living in South Africa. Two other critics, whose reviews appeared in the same month as Thomas's, praised the uniqueness and power of the book. Both Charles R. Larson in the Washington Post Book World and Diane Manuel in the Chicago Tribune Book World commented on its uniqueness as an autobiography written in English by a black native who had actually lived in an apartheid-ruled South African ghetto. Larson believed that Kaffir Boy "might acquire the same status that Richard Wright's Black Boy or Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land had for earlier American readers." For him, Kaffir Boy was "in every way as important and as exciting a book." Manuel called it a "rare" book. "What television newscasts did to expose the horrors of the Vietnam War in the 1960s, books like Kaffir Boy may well do for the horrors of apartheid in the 1980s," she said.

Despite mixed reviews, just a few months after Kaffir Boy's initial publication, Readers' Digest Condensed Books purchased the condensation rights and New American Library bought the paperback rights. Dave Grogan' s favorable story in People and an appearance on the Oprah Winfrey Show in 1987 brought the autobiography to the attention of a wider audience. It became an almost overnight bestseller, reaching third place on the New York Times bestseller list and first place on the Washington Post bestseller list. Its importance as the seminal autobiography of black experience in apartheid-ruled South Africa remains unquestioned. Textbook companies and school systems throughout the United States include it in their standard high school curricula.

Unfortunately, like other books that dare to address racial injustice and abuse, Kaffir Boy has been banned by some parent groups and school systems who find the book inappropriate because of one scene. Ironically, the scene in question is crucial not only to Mathabane's survival but also for his readers to be able to understand just how warped and destructive apartheid is. It separates men from their wives and children and forces them to live hundreds of miles away in all-male barracks. Victims themselves, some of these men turn young, starving boys in the nearby ghetto into prostitutes in exchange for money and food. A starving Mathabane includes the story of being solicited by the promise of food, his horror when he begins to realize what is about to happen, and his successful flight from the barracks in time to prevent becoming a victim. The story not only forces readers to see how corrupt and horrible apartheid is but also warns readers, young and old, of the need to be wary of promises that sound too good to be true, to realize that ignorance often leads to victimization.

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