by Mark Mathabane
Where It All Goes Down
Alexandra, South Africa, 1960s and 1970s
Mark Mathabane spends a lot of time explaining the setting of Kaffir Boy. Because the world of black South Africa was off-limits to whites (except policemen) throughout the apartheid era of 1948 to 1994, Mark wanted to be sure that readers had a thorough picture of the poverty and oppression that blacks endured. Alexandra was one of South Africa's blacks townships, nestled near Johannesburg. As such, it was a spot marked for demolition by the authorities that wanted to replace the small homes and shacks with single-sex dormitories. The destruction was never completed due to wide spread protest. But the inhabitants of Alexandra were under constant threat of losing their homes.
Alexandra was an area marked off for blacks to live, but blacks still needed "permission" from the authorities to live there. And this permission was almost impossible to get. In order to live there, an individual black man or woman had to have a job in the city. In order to have a job in the city, they had to have permission to go job-hunting. Those who arrived from the reserves (areas set aside for different ethnicities) had a ten-day period to find a job before they were considered illegal squatters, at which point they could be jailed, deported back to the reserves, or sent to do hard labor on a white farm. Because getting a pass and keeping it in order was made next to impossible by the authorities, many families were living illegally in Alexandra, including Mark's family.
Mathabane refuses to call Alexandra a "township," suggesting that this term offers it too much legitimacy. Instead, he prefers the term "ghetto." The term "ghetto" was first used to describe an area marked off for Jews in Venice, Italy. It became popular during World War II, and was used to refer to the areas reserved for Jews in Nazi-occupied Europe.
Mark also spends some times in areas reserved for whites during the course of Kaffir Boy. His first visit is when he's a young boy, and he's awed by the manicured gardens and homes that look like mansions compared to his own shack. He also learns to enjoy the fabulous tennis courts reserved for whites.