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

by Mark Mathabane

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Historical Context

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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

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SettingKaffir 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....

(This entire section contains 709 words.)

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Second, Third, and Fourth Avenue were inhabited by The Coloureds, a mixed race resulting from the 1652 "arrival of white settlers in Africa without women." The remainder of the ghetto was occupied by full-blooded Africans, whom Mathabane describes as "black as coal."

The novel's action covers the first eighteen years of Mathabane's life from 1960 to 1978—eighteen years that fall roughly in the middle of the long rule of apartheid. Instituted in 1948, it would continue in force until the early 1990s. For over forty years, this white, minority-enforced system legalized the forced separation of residential communities, public transportation, education, and social institutions—including religion and marriage. All non-whites were forced to secure and carry permits that identified both their tribal origin and their current work, home, and marital status. They were forced to reside in Bantu (non-white) locations. Work permits and passes were necessary for securing any kind of employment. Even with a work pass, movement in white neighborhoods was restricted to daylight hours unless the pass specified that the carrier was employed in the residence or business after daylight hours. Neglect or failure to carry an up-to-date pass often resulted in unpaid, forced labor on white farms or imprisonment.

First-Person Point of View First-person viewpoint is, of course, the norm in autobiography. In Kaffir Boy, however, Mathabane skillfully juxtaposes the voices of Mark Mathabane, the adult author, with the developing voices of Johannes, the child, and Mark, the politically savvy teenager. In chapter 1, for instance, the adult author begins his story with the full text of the legal warning posted on every road into the ghetto of Alexandra—a warning deliberately designed to prevent whites from entering the black world. Thus, most white South Africans remain ignorant of how blacks are forced to live, because the forced segregation allows them to believe what they want to believe and to turn a blind eye to the true conditions apartheid not only creates but also enforces daily. "The white man of South Africa certainly does not know me," Mathabane challenges and then dares the white man to ignore the warnings and enter the black world through his story, to feel vicariously what he felt each time a white called him a "Kaffir Boy'' (a term equivalent to that of nigger).

Chapter 2 opens in a predawn nightmare world with five-year-old Johannes hysterically narrating being awakened from a dream of black people lying dead in pools of blood. Almost immediately, the nightmare turns to reality when his father leaves for work and his mother flees the house in search of a hiding place. Readers, like Johannes, remain at the mercy of Peri-Urban (the Alexandra police squad that terrorizes, abuses, and arrests residents with no warning and often without cause.) Forced to experience the real world of apartheid vicariously, they can no longer ignore or deny the facts. They must confront the evils of apartheid head-on.

Most important, first-person point of view not only gives immediacy and validity to Mathabane's experiences growing up under apartheid but also models the values crucial to his physical and spiritual survival: his mother's tenacious support and will, his own pursuit of education, his determination to succeed in tennis, and the friendship of others.

Tone and Mood The tone of Kaffir Boy takes the reader on a roller coaster ride of severe drops, wild curves, and steep climbs relieved by very few level straightaways. At times ironic or didactic, it moves rapidly from fear, to reassurance, to anger, to despondency, to determination, to hope, to disappointment, to despair, to elation. The resulting mood changes provide readers with a real sense of having walked in Mathabane's shoes, forcing them to confront head-on the evils of apartheid and other forms of racism.

Compare and Contrast

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  • 1960s and 1970s: Alexandra, South Africa, Mathabane's birthplace, remains a designated Bantu location where over 100,000 blacks live in segregation and poverty as a result of apartheid laws. Throughout South Africa, thousands of blacks are brutalized, imprisoned, or killed.

    1980s and 1990s: Mathabane's family members remain in apartheid-governed Alexandra where the conditions of the previous two decades have changed very little—even after the abolishment of apartheid in the early nineties.

    Today: Alexandra and her citizens still suffer from the long-term effects of poverty and racial abuse, but apartheid has legally ended. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, established in 1994, is ongoing. Its mission is to establish democracy and national unity. Its three commissions cover human rights violations, amnesty, and reparation and rehabilitation. The commissions seek to give victims the opportunity to relate the full details of their suffering, force perpetrators of violence against blacks to publicly confess their actions, and then attempt to rehabilitate those perpetrators who acted within apartheid law (now acknowledged as wrong) and to make reparation to the victims of that law.

  • 1960s and 1970s: Despite enduring eighteen years of poverty, physical abuse, and malnutrition, Mathabane makes excellent grades in school, remains at the top of his class and secures scholarships for his secondary education. Perseverance and his mother's guidance and support enable him not only to survive but also to win an athletic scholarship to an American college.

    1980s and 1990s: Mathabane graduates from Dowling College, New York, with a degree in economics and becomes a best-selling author. He triumphs over prejudice and taboo by marrying a white American with whom he co-writes a book and raises a family.

    Today: A husband, father, and highly successful writer, Mathabane serves as the director of multicultural education at a private school in Portland, Oregon.

Media Adaptations

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  • An abridged audio version of Kaffir Boy was released in 1988 by Dove Audio Inc. The three-hour tape is read by the actor Howard Rollins. Currently, it is out of print but can still be purchased from Amazon.com.
  • The Library of Congress maintains a free reading service for the blind and handicapped at http://www.loc.gov/nls/ with links to unabridged audio recordings of Kaffir Boy that may be requested either by qualifying individuals or teachers of qualifying individuals.
  • Mathabane maintains a web page at http://www.mathabane.com/index.html with links to numerous speeches, essays, prefaces, and first chapters of his books—including three recent novels: Ubuntu, The Last Liberal, and Deadly Memory. Visitors may also request free copies of articles or purchase autographed copies of Mathabane's books online.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Larson, Charles R. Washington Post Book World. April 20, 1986.

Manuel, Diane. Chicago Tribune Book World. April 13, 1986.

Mathabane, Mark. Kaffir Boy. Penguin Books USA Inc., 1987.

———. "Memories of a Native Son; Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa." In People Weekly, Vol. 26, July 7, 1986, pp. 67-71.

Olney, James. "African Autobiography and the Non-African Reader." In Tell Me Africa: An Approach to African Literature. Princeton University Press, 1973, pp. 26-78.

Thomas, Lillian. New York Times Book Review. April 27, 1986, p. 23.

Further Reading Achebe, Chinua. "Girls at War" and Other Stories. Heinemann Educational Books Limited, 1972. "Girls at War" and Other Stories is a collection of twelve short stories including the often anthologized "Marriage Is a Private Affair" and "Dead Men's Path." Set in the twentieth-century changing world of Nigeria, the stories focus on conflicts arising from the clash between eroding tribal customs and the growing influences of the modern world.

Fugard, Athol. Master Harold and the Boys. Alfred A. Knopf, 1982. In this sadly poignant play, Fugard forces his audience to confront the depth and power of racism that has become repressed or hidden. He demonstrates just how tenuous white and black relations can be, how easy it is for one moment of hurt and anger to destroy years of love and compassion.

Head, Bessie. Maru. Victor Gollancz Ltd, 1971. Maru is one of three significant novels by Head that are set in Botswana, where she herself lived in political exile for fifteen years before gaining citizenship. The protagonist, like Head herself, is an orphaned girl and teacher who seeks refuge in a small Botswana village, only to be treated as an outcast whose presence divides the village.

Mandela, Nelson. Long Walk to Freedom. Little, Brown and Company, 1994. Long Walk to Freedom was published after apartheid had been abolished. It is the deeply moving memoir of Nelson Mandela, president of the African National Congress and the 1993 recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. Having spent a quarter of a century in prison for his anti-apartheid activities, he was the first black to be elected in South Africa's first-ever multiracial elections in April, 1994.

Olney, James. "African Autobiography and the Non-African Reader." In Tell Me Africa: An Approach to African Literature. Princeton University Press, 1973, pp. 26-78. Olney explains that African autobiography is paradoxically both diverse and unified. Despite its "diversity of motives, points of view, and forms," African autobiographical literature shares a unified "vision of the human experience'' that is uniquely African.

Paton, Alan. Cry the Beloved Country. Scribner, 1948. Published in February before the National Party and apartheid came into power in May, Cry the Beloved Country was the first book to make the international community aware of the coming horrors of apartheid. It was adapted into the Broadway musical Lost in the Stars in 1949 and into two major films under its original title. The 1951 version starred Sidney Poitier; the 1995 version starred Richard Harris and James Earl Jones.


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