Don’t let the name Peter Abrahams deceive you, his father was Ethiopian and his mother South African. He was born and grew up in South Africa, but left at the age of twenty to work first as a sailor, then a journalist.
Mine Boy, printed in 1946 (shortly before Cry, the Beloved Country) is the first recognized novel of black South Africa: the first to tell the story of the black plight under apartheid and attract international attention.
Xuma is the hero. (Let’s pronounce his name the way he would have: the X is the click you use to make a horse hurry up. Now add “uma” after that click and you have his name.) Xuma came from the rural areas where food was scarce and jobs were scarcer to find work in iGoli, Johannesburg’s infamous gold mines. The nuance of the title is cryptic but telling. Calling Xuma “boy” would indicate to the average non-South African reader that he was young, untried, inexperienced, much as the boys aboard ship in the British Navy. But on the second page, we read a description of Xuma to set us straight.
We are seeing what the torchlight of Leah, the woman to whose house he has come for lodging, reveals: It started with the big, old tennis shoes that were kept together by bits of string and wire, and saw the toes peeping out in spite of the string and wire; moved up the dusty, colourless old trousers that were ripped at both knees and looked as though they would burst at the waist because they were so tight; up the immense chest and huge shoulders against which the equally tight and tattered shirt seemed to cling fearfully; it lingered on the broad, good-natured face for a moment; then it shifted to the right hand with its bundle and the empty left hand. The torch snapped out and Xuma waited in the darkness.
This “boy” is the protagonist. He is as innocent and guileless as the name implies and is quickly awakened to the harshness of life in Malay Camp as well as the brutalities of the mine. Abrahams chooses his words well, focusing on personalities that become friends and influences in Xuma’s life. His on-going vision is for all people to eventually see without colour. He tried to envision life without the stigma or laws connected to the superficial colour of skin. The poignancy of the struggle is deepened when he falls in love with an educated black woman who wants “white things”: books, furniture, a stove, and amenities.
Abraham chooses to understate as he follows Xuma simple story. Simple examples: discord in the camp, a murder, discrimination and exploitation in the mines, serve as events which draw us into Xuma’s search for a colourless place where friendship happens. He has one brief experience of this utopia when his boss “the red one” invites him for a meal in his flat. Xuma begins to encounter the depth to which the enforced separation of black and white people has created a chasm beyond skin colour that will take a very long time to bridge.
But the friendship holds, despite the fickle society. When a serious accident in the mines kills some friends of Xuma, he and his white boss show solidarity by refusing to return to work before the repairs make the location safe. Paddy (his boss) shouts: “They pay you a little. They don’t care if they risk your lives! Why is it so? Is not the blood of a black man red like that of a white man? Does not a black man feel too? Does not a black man love life too? I am with you! Let them fix up the place first.”
Abrahams underplays the horror of managers and businesses not caring about the workers but insisting on appalling risks for economic gain. His focus is on the character of the person. The horror is the backdrop and leaves us cheering our hero on, knowing that for some years yet, he cannot win. But he has gained a friend--from the inside--who of necessity has chosen to be on the outside with him.