Mark's journey from childhood to the beginning of college is a journey from fear and suffering to self-confidence and determination. When Kaffir Boy begins, Mark is three or four years old and lives a life dominated by fear of the police, who constantly raid their house searching for his parents.
Mark's parents aren't criminals on the run from the cops. They are ordinary, working-class blacks in apartheid South Africa, and their only crime an inability to keep their passes in order. The pass was a document issued by the South African government that classified blacks according to name, age, and tribal affiliation. It had to be constantly updated with respect to place of employment and living situation. If it wasn't in order, it was an arrestable offence, with sentences ranging from jail time to hard labor on a white farmer's land. The cops that beat down Mark's door were violent, and he was terrified.
Mark's life is changed forever when his mother forces him to start school. He doesn't want to go, and it's hard to blame him since the teachers use violence to keep kids in order. But his mother coaxes him to promise that he go to school, for her sake. Despite his parents' inability to pay his school fees on time and the harsh punishment meted out by teachers and principals, Mark manages to stay in the top 1% of his class throughout primary school, and he earns a scholarship to pay for three years of secondary school (high school).
Mark experiences many moments of despair when, tired and hungry and feeling the effects of the violence that surrounds him, he wants to give up. At age ten, he almost commits suicide, but his mother's loving concern prevents him from going through with it.
At one point, one of Mark's grandmother's employers gives Mark a used tennis racket. Mark hacks around with it in the tennis courts in Alexandra, and meets a mixed-race tennis player (Scaramouche) who becomes Mark's unofficial mentor and tennis coach. Throughout high school, Mark works on becoming the best tennis player and the best student that he can be. He wants desperately to escape South Africa by going to college in the United States. In order to pay for an American university, Mark dreams of getting a tennis scholarship. He's aided in his dreams when another tennis student introduces him to Wilfred Horn, who runs an elite Tennis Ranch. Like Scaramouche, his unofficial tennis coach, Wilfred becomes one of Mark's many mentors.
Mark makes it successfully through secondary school. However, because he fails his native tongue, Venda, he only passes with a second-grade pass, making him ineligible to go to one of the black colleges in South Africa. He gets a job in a bank instead, and starts helping his family out financially. Meanwhile, he's been banned from playing black tennis in the country after he broke the boycott of the South African Breweries' Open.
Mark makes the decision to continue to play tennis out of a sense that he needs to save himself before he can help his countrymen. He believes that his only salvation will come through playing tennis. Though other black tennis players and activists criticize his decision, he downplays both the importance of the decision and how he felt about being criticized. He does consider withdrawing from tournaments when he receives death threats, but with the encouragement of those around him, he stays in the Open. He mentions that he feels lonely, but doesn't spend a lot of time trying to persuade the reader that his decision was correct. Rather, he glosses over his loneliness as he discusses his ongoing attempts to liberate himself from the stranglehold of official racism.
Mark continues to seek out the approval of whites that are in positions to help him. For example, he meets professional tennis player Stan Smith, who pays for his entrance fees to play in the Sugar Circuit. After meeting Stan Smith, Mark is certain his luck will change. Stan agrees to talk to his (Stan's) former college coach at the University of Southern California on Mark's behalf. Stan's former coach writes to Mark, letting him know that USC doesn't have a scholarship for him, but that he has personally contacted other colleges who do. Soon, Mark receives an offer of a tennis scholarship at Limestone College in South Carolina, which he accepts. Though he does have a moment or two of sorrow that he's leaving his family, his need to escape the oppressive twin forces of poverty and apartheid propel him to America.
Mark's early childhood terror melts in the face of his perseverance. Once he starts school, it's obvious that Mark has a great intellect and willpower to overcome even the worst obstacles. Though he continues to suffer, he persists. It is Mark's singular desire to live a free life in a free country that causes him to take a new path.