Study Guide

Kaffir Boy Introduction

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Kaffir Boy Introduction

Kaffir Boy is Mark Mathabane's autobiographical story of his escape from life in apartheid South Africa through education and sports. Apartheid was a political system enacted by the white-minority-led government in South Africa in 1948 and lasted until 1994. Although black South Africans had endured racial oppression for almost three hundred years at the start of apartheid, this political system was an especially virulent form of racial oppression.

"Apartheid" literally means "separation" or "segregation." The idea behind the apartheid political system was the belief that God intended the races to develop separately. In theory, the idea contains a core of positive attributes – each race should celebrate its heritage as God-given, and each person should strive to be the best [fill in blank here, e.g., Zulu or Dutchman or Britishman] that they could be.

In practice, we know that apartheid was an extraordinary attempt to control the movements of blacks and people of mixed-race (known as "coloureds" in South Africa). The government designated certain areas of land for different ethnicities, reserving the majority of land for whites. Blacks were crowded onto reserves, where land was of poor quality and where there was no industry or natural wealth. These men and women were required to have permission by the government in order to leave the reserves to seek employment elsewhere. These people were stripped of citizenship, denied the right to vote, paid wages too low to survive on, and educated into a servile class.

Published in 1986, during the height of civil strife in South Africa, Kaffir Boy quickly became a best seller in the U.S. Mathabane had been living in the U.S. for less than a decade when he wrote the book. He has remained in the U.S. and married a white American woman, with whom he later co-authored a book on interracial marriages.

Because Kaffir Boy has been banned several times for use in high school, Mathabane issued a revised version that eliminates a controversial section that depicts child prostitution between young street boys and black migrant workers in Alexandra, where Mark grew up. Shmoop is using the unexpurgated version of the book.

What is Kaffir Boy About and Why Should I Care?

Tennis, anyone?

That's the kind of question that we might hear over the clink of expensive china, with ladies in immaculate skirts tittering politely at jokes made by guys named Thad. Nice pastel sweater, buddy. That whole tying it around your shoulder thing? A great look.

But you know who else is into tennis? Young boys and girls, living in areas that suffer the most abject poverty and violence. They may not be the first folks to jump into your mind, but Mark Mathabane is here to prove you wrong. Snap.

Kaffir Boy is about flipping the script on so many things in so many radical ways. It's like one of those crazy drop shots in tennis, where you think a full-on backhand smash is coming. You back up and get ready for the power, but no—it's just a soft, little spinner that floats right over the net. Script = flipped.

Okay, enough with the tennis analogies. What's this book really all about? For one, it's about apartheid, the South African system of racism and social oppression that kept black South Africans down for hundreds of years. Today, we look back and rightly celebrate Nelson Mandela as the leader of the ultimately successful anti-apartheid movement. There were many others, though, who all played their part in the struggle for equal rights.

So how can playing tennis be a radical social statement, you ask? Read the book, we say. Not every bid for social justice has to involve tear gas or a Rage Against the Machine t-shirt. Small gestures can have huge effects, and that's what this book is all about. Read it to find out how one man was able to overcome an entire government that wanted to keep him down. You'll be inspired by his example and amazed to think about what you might accomplish, simply by being true to yourself. (Of course, having a wicked backhand helps, too.)

Kaffir Boy Resources


Mark Mathabane speaks to students
Mark Mathabane encourages students not to let anything stop them from achieving their dreams.

On Suicide
Mathabane discusses his own suicide attempt at age ten.


United Nations Apartheid Photo Gallery
A gallery of photos related to the struggle against apartheid.

Mark Mathabane
Mathabane receives an honorary degree from Wittenberg University after speaking at commencement in 2006.

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