Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa by Mark Mathabane
20 Word Gist
South African Apartheid: Mathabane escapes inhumane squalor. His mother, grandmother, education, tennis and luck arguably play equal roles in exodus.
“And so it was that in the mid-1950s Alexandra boasted a population of over one hundred thousand blacks, Coloureds and Indians—all squeezed into a space of one square mile.”
First off, the first third of this memoir is rough reading. It begins when he is five and living in Alexandria, and his mother and father constantly flee their own home when the police, the Peri-Urban, conduct brutal inspections. Mathabane describes the filthy, cramped conditions of his home in plain language. Few literary flourishes make the literal figurative, which prevents any comforting cognitive or emotional distance from cushioning the reader.
We see through his five-year old eyes the effects of the confounding Pass laws, which regulate where and how blacks lived, worked, and traveled. We also meet his mother, father, maternal grandmother, and siblings (the book begins with two and ends with four? Five? I lost count?). His mother’s harsh realities and reprimands come from love, whereas his father’s come from fear and a struggle to hold on to his tribal past and traditions. The grandmother is almost archetypal, characterized as a moral force with the economic means and necessary connections to literally drag young Mark to school.
Little did they realise that in our world, the black world, one could only survive if one played the fool, and bided his time.
Yet, the second and third parts focus on his education and tennis career. We see him excel in his classes, despite not having textbooks or a uniform and despite the beatings he receives for not having these: “I began coming home with braises, unable to sit down or sleep for days because I had been whipped by teachers for failing to pay my school fees on time, and for lacking in books and a proper uniform.” Luck and determination seem to play equal parts in his success. He is lucky his grandmother gardens for a kind white woman who gives her comic books to give Mark. From these he learns English. However, his effort and ability to learn distinguish him from other students and impress all he meets.
Yet, I asked myself, “What other world was there to run to?”
Was America worth leaving my family behind, suffering?
The ends of coming-of-age biographies are never surprising, and in the end, Mathabane earns a scholarship to an American university. Yet, the path is not a slow, uphill slog; rather the South African Apartheid has created a roller coaster that he rides continuously: after twists and turns, ups and downs, he returns to his same station time and time again. The book doesn’t end with the end of the Apartheid. It ends when Mathabane chooses not to tell the driver taking him to the airport to turn back.
What struck me most as I was reading was how little I knew of South Africa’s history and the Apartheid. I knew it paralleled slavery in America, but at times, the cruelty seemed too asinine and ridiculous to fathom. The only way for me to imagine Alexandra was to envision scenes from District 9 and replace the prawns with people. Which is exactly the political message the movie’s creators intended.
Such a world wouldn’t make sense to me, a white woman in America, but the reader also sees how the people in Alexandra struggle to understand, or quit trying to understand, the senseless division, inequality, and cruelty. The word “why” appears 220 times. For some context, the word “Apartheid” appears 109 times, and the word “tennis” (because, this is an autobiography about a tennis player) appears 342 times. Usually these types of search results can substantiate any point, but here in this particular novel, I think it illuminates an important theme. Characters continually question their situation and offer explanations based on faith, tribal beliefs, luck, motivation, intelligence, and hatred.
Although the living conditions were difficult to picture, the student protests and the government’s response were not at all difficult to picture thanks to current news and #BlackLivesMatter. The descriptions were heart-breaking not only because of the brutality, but also because the same – to a lesser degree – continues here. The quotation describing what happens to the leader of the Black Consciousness Movement sounds all too familiar: “His naked body was then loaded into the back of a van, in the dead of night. He died en route.” Again, not the same exactly, but still unnerving. Or:
Were I to teach…
“As long as you learn something,” she said, “it’s worth it.”
Kaffir Boy is thirty years old and still very relevant. A teacher may choose to focus on the politics and history in the book or to use Mathabane’s story as an “up by your bootstraps” exemplar, but either approach glosses over details that don’t easily fit those narratives.
For instance, although the father seems vile at times when he abuses his wife, drinks, and gambles with money that could buy food, nearer the end, Mathabane forgives him, and tells his brother, “Forgive Papa…. He’s a good and loving father inside. Learn to understand him and his ways. Learn to understand the pain of his life.” Such words add weight to the father’s earlier arguments against education:
“A man who knows nothing about books,” my father said to me one day, “but can feed himself and his family, is a million times better than a man who has read a million books but cannot feed himself and his family.”
“What a man does is more important than what he knows.”
These words ring as a counter point to both the mother’s and grandmother’s arguments for education:
It will make you soar, like a bird lifting up into the endless blue sky, and leave poverty, hunger and suffering behind. It’ll teach you to learn to embrace what’s good and shun what’s bad and evil. Above all, it’ll make you a somebody in this world. It’ll make you grow up to be a good and proud person. That’s why I want you to go to school, child, so that education can do all that, and more, for you.
But such isn’t always the case, as when he attempts to find a job: “You’ve got too much education. If we hired you, you might cause trouble among our obedient workers. We don’t want a mutiny; this is a peaceful country.” And this would be the point I’d want students to remember: an education makes you dangerous. Whether or not you’re able to escape your situation, whether or not you’re able to find a job, change inequalities, or become a star, learning empowers you by showing alternate realities. And Kaffir Boy showed me an alternate reality I will fight to prevent.