Published in 1986, four years before apartheid was officially abolished and eight years before the first truly democratic elections, Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane is a voice from the township of Alexandra. This is not fiction, but autobiography, subtitled, “The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa.”
So, how did a young man, growing up in the worst of township conditions, with parents living there illegally, manage to learn to write at all--much less an articulate, vibrant, and passionate account of his life and family? His description of the Bantu Education system, under which he was schooled, marks it as a travesty. The constant beatings he received from the people mandated to educate him on the grounds that he did not have the proper uniform would have defeated a less determined person, and probably did drive many children out of schools that could at least have granted them literacy.
Not surprisingly, Mathabane’s inner strength came through his mother and grandmother. Both illiterate menial servants, they cajoled, inspired, threatened and encouraged him to choose the path of learning over the “tsotsi” (gangster) path. Mark’s vivid description of a gang of tsotsis murdering a father on the evening of payday is just one of the raw episodes that separates this book from sanitized accounts. This very close encounter with death also clarified the choice in Mark’s mind. However, it was the comics brought home from the place his granny gardened and the back-breaking labour his mother performed to pay his school fees that taught him to value a life committed to learning.
A critical element in Mathabane’s story is his father’s tenacious hold on all things tribal and African. Sadly, his father could not see the possible “best of both worlds” acceptance of some elements of education. As his father fought his mother’s championing of school, Mark was caught between them:
That night, at seven and a half years of my life, the battle lines in the family were drawn. My mother on the one side, illiterate but determined to have me drink, for better or for worse, from the well of knowledge. On the other side, my father, he too was illiterate, yet determined to have me drink from the well of ignorance. Scarcely aware of the magnitude of the decision I was making, or rather, the decision which was being emotionally thrust upon me, I chose to fight on my mother’s side, and thus my destiny was forever altered. (p. 134)
So Mark continued the dichotomy, abandoning vast segments of his culture to seek a better life: this he found through avid reading and, unlikely enough--playing tennis. This may be a source of disappointment to many who would prefer a balanced acceptance of both cultures and what they offer. But Mark was forced to choose one or the other and sadly felt obliged to turn his back on his culture.
Although the book reads like the memoirs of a young person, it is against a background of understanding of the price his people paid for being born black in South Africa:
There is a death far worse than physical death, and that is the death of the mind and soul, when, despite toiling night and day, under sweltering heat, torrential rain, blistering winds, you still cannot make enough to clothe, shelter and feed your loved ones, suffering miles away, forcibly separated from you. (p. 181)
The perception Mathabane brings, despite the polarized position of his parents gives great insight into more of the stresses and conflicts of township life, besides the standard weight of poverty, constant strain of police raids and degradation from the laws of apartheid.
This book is not for the faint-hearted, but it is an authentic voice of one who grew within the dehumanizing township and was able to escape through friendly white friends on a tennis scholarship. Mathabane went to an American university and now lives in the US, modeling a rainbow family. He is a speaker and writer on these important issues.