Though Mathabane's narrative tells the story of one young man's escape from apartheid, the four epigraphs emphasize the struggle against apartheid, and the fight for liberation. Let's take a look at each individual epigraph.
"I, as a Christian, have always felt that there is one thing above all about 'apartheid' or 'separate development' that is unforgivable. It seems utterly indifferent to the suffering of individual persons, who lose their land, their homes, their jobs, in pursuit of what surely is the most terrible dream in the world."– Albert Luthuli, 1960 Nobel Peace Prize Winner.
This quote from Luthuli declares the great evil of apartheid is that it makes people suffer. Albert Luthuli was president of the African National Congress from 1952 until his death in 1967. In 1961 he became the first African to win the Nobel Peace Prize. Many South Africans believe his death was no accident. (A train struck him while he was out walking.) Though Luthuli has not gained the fame of Mandela outside of South Africa, he was an important part of the liberation movement inside of the country.
"Rise like Lions after slumber
In unvanquishable number—
Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you—
Ye are many—they are few."
– Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Mask of Anarchy
The second and third quotes are calls to break the chains of bondage, to rise up against the oppressor. Percy Shelly wrote "The Mask of Anarchy" after the British government sent a cavalry charge into a public gathering of people protesting corn laws and calling for massive government change. Eleven people were killed and over 500 injured. The "Mask of Anarchy" is critical of corrupt government and supportive of the masses. The verses that Mathabane quote here call for revolution. In the context of South Africa, the "many" would be the majority black population, suppressed by the white minority.
"The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress."
– Frederick Douglass
Frederick Douglass was an American abolitionist. This quote suggests that tyrants can only rule with the consent of those tyrannized. The implication is that the oppressed will soon tire of slavery and will do something about it. Though Frederick Douglass was clearly talking about slavery in the Americas, the quote is applicable to South Africa in several ways. Black South Africans protested their treatment from the earliest encounters with white colonizers, and endured a series of wars as they fought to maintain their freedom and their land. After a series of defeats that left black South Africans demoralized and oppressed, they spent the better part of a century recovering before attempting another violent overthrow of the oppressive government. Serious attempts for liberation through use of guns, bombs, and other military tactics began in the 1960s when Nelson Mandela created the armed wing of the political organization, the African National Congress.
"Give me the liberty to know, to utter, and to argue freely according to conscience, above all liberties."
– John Milton
The fourth quote by poet John Milton, author of Paradise Lost, addresses the need for freedom of speech, and evokes Mathabane's own weapon of choice. Mathabane didn't join the liberation struggle in the way that many young people who grew up in Alexandra during his era did. He didn't protest in the streets or flee north to become a soldier for Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC). Instead, he escaped to America, went to college, and wrote a book. In short, he declared his freedom through words.