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

Mark Mathabane

Historical Context

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

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...

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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 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...

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Bibliography and Further Reading

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

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

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Compare and Contrast

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • 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,...

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Topics for Further Study

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • Research the American writer Richard Wright author of Black Boy. What themes and subject matter dominate his work? When and why did he write? In what ways are his themes and subject matter similar to Mathabane's? Write a comparative review of the themes and subject matter of each book.
  • The 1980s were often characterized by political controversy concerning international financial investments and involvement in South Africa. Research the role of the United States in this controversy. Find out why many American college students led protests calling for divestment of American holdings in South Africa. Write the opening statement for the affirmative side of a debate in favor of U.S. economic divestment in South Africa in the year 1986.
  • Research the student protests that took place in Soweto and Alexandra, South Africa, in June of 1976. Why did the students loot and burn the schools? What specific books does Mathabane tell us in chapter 44 of Kaffir Boy he risked his life to save? Make an annotated list of three or four books you would be willing to risk your life to save. Explain why you think they are books that all students should read.
  • Research the action and findings of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Exactly what is the commission? How does it work? Why did the post-apartheid government in South Africa choose this...

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Media Adaptations

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • 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.

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What Do I Read Next?

(Nonfiction Classics for Students)

  • Kaffir Boy in America (1989) is Mathabane's thoroughly candid story of his first ten years in the United States: his long-standing friendship with his patrons, Stan and Marjory Smith; the culture shock that led him to transfer from one college to another; the beginning of his writing career; the overwhelming success of his first book, Kaffir Boy; his marriage to Gail Ernsberger; the reunion with his mother and siblings on the Oprah Winfrey show; and his provision of a home and education for three of his siblings in North Carolina.
  • Love in Black and White: The Triumph of Love over Prejudice and Taboo (1992) is co-written by Mathabane and his Caucasian wife, Gail. It is the story...

(The entire section is 271 words.)