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

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Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

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Postcolonialism—sometimes referred to as Postcolonial Studies or Postcolonial Criticism—is variously defined by different critics and literary professors. However, the terms are most frequently used to refer to the interaction with and influences of European nations upon non-European peoples and their countries. As an autobiography written by an African native whose people are governed by white descendants of European nations, Kaffir Boy belongs to this literary/historical movement. Its themes are in many ways similar to those of other postcolonial writers: abuse of power, victimization, racial injustice, inequality, oppression of the majority by the minority, poverty, and violence. In his preface to the autobiography, Mathabane explains that his two-fold purpose is to persuade "the rest of the world" that apartheid has to be "abolished" because it cannot be "reformed" and also to explain that he "had to reject the tribal traditions" of his ancestors "in order to escape."

Apartheid and Literature
Although racial injustice has existed throughout history, South Africa's over-forty-year legalization of racial abuse under apartheid stands out as one of the most horrific examples in modern history. It is therefore not surprising that it would become the subject matter for a vast number of South African writers, both black and white. Some, like Bessie Head and Mathabane, would write while in exile or abroad, but many would write from within the country itself. In 1987, just a year after the publication of Kaffir Boy, Northwestern University's TriQuaterly magazine published over forty selections of "new'' writing by South Africans. In 1991 Nadine Gordimer was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature. In 1988, J. M. Coetzee won the Booker Prize for his novel The Life and Times of Michael K. In 1991, he won the Booker again for his novel Disgrace, thus earning the distinction of being the only person to win the Booker twice. Regardless of genre, however, almost all South African writing—from autobiography, to essay, to novel, to drama, to short story, to poetry—is in some way both autobiographical and political. Mathabane's Kaffir Boy is no exception.

Apartheid and History
Mathabane's preface makes it clear that his purpose is political. As a boy, he heard again and again how whites opened fire on sixty-nine unarmed black protesters on March 21,1960. The fact that his birth and the Sharpville Massacre occurred in the same year deeply influenced his childhood belief that all whites were devils. Daily experience with multiple instances of racial injustice and abuse finally culminated in his involvement in the Soweto student uprisings of 1976. When the Department of Bantu Education decreed that all black children would be forced to speak and read Afrikaans rather than English, students rebelled, torching the schools. The protests spread rapidly to Alexandra, turning the poverty-stricken ghetto into chaos. Horrified to discover that his local school library had been torched, Mathabane entered the burning building to rescue books. At sixteen, he realized that his only "passport" out of the ghetto was education. Saving the books meant saving himself. Writing the autobiography was an attempt to save those who still remained imprisoned by apartheid.

Literary Style

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

Kaffir Boy takes place in the country of South Africa, primarily in Alexandra, a black ghetto just outside the city of Johannesburg. A shantytown containing shacks made mostly of flimsy wood and cardboard, the one-square-mile ghetto housed a population of over one hundred thousand non-whites. Potholes often rendered its twenty-three dirt streets impassable. There were no sewers, no indoor plumbing, and no electricity in most of the shacks. Everyone shared the community outhouses and water source. Indians, "the cream of Alexandra's quarantined society," lived on First Avenue behind their shops. Second, Third, and Fourth Avenue were inhabited by The Coloureds, a mixed race resulting from...

(The entire section is 2,121 words.)