Because this is an autobiography, the tone of the narrative is sympathetic to the narrator, Mark Mathabane. For example, though Mathabane was harshly criticized for his decision not to boycott the South African Breweries' Open, and although he was banned for life from playing black tennis because other black tennis players saw his refusal as traitorous, Mathabane justifies his decision as reasonable. In so doing, he plays down the political implications of his act and suggests that it was personally necessary for him act this way in order to escape the repressive system once and for all. In retrospect, even those who denounced Mark as a traitor may find good reasons to justify his deflection from black solidarity. After all, he went on to write Kaffir Boy, an extremely influential book in the fight against apartheid.
In Kaffir Boy, Mark Mathabane tells the story of how he escaped apartheid South Africa through education and sports. His intellect and his athletic talents, combined with sheer perseverance, will power, and help friends made along the way enabled Mathabane to leave one of the most oppressive political systems in the world and find freedom in the United States.
"Kaffir" is an Islamic word that means infidel. It was widely used as a racial slur against black people in 19th and 20th century South Africa, and probably originated among the Cape Malay people, who are Muslim. As Mathabane points out in a note preceding the text, it is equivalent to the n-word used in the U.S. as a racial slur for black American. Mathabane's use of the term here is ironic. He does not think he is a "kaffir" in the manner the term implies. Rather, it is an attempt to reclaim the word, in much the same way the gay community has reclaimed the word "queer," wearing the label proudly rather than allowing it to provoke shame.
The ending of Kaffir Boy is actually the beginning of Mark's life in America. As he says goodbye to his family, and to Alexandra, he realizes that although he's leaving, South Africa will always be with him. Yet when his mother shushes his crying sister by saying that Mark would return soon, Mark wonders if that's true. He wants to turn around and go back, but he doesn't. Instead, he embraces his future, his destiny, in the place he's dreamed about for so many years. Though we don't know what he'll face in America, or who he'll become, we know that the future holds more hope and potential than the past held.
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.
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.
The language used in this book is easy and the plot is so action-packed that, despite its length, you can whirl through it in no time. The difficult part comes in understanding the political and religious ideologies that created and maintained apartheid. It's also important, and somewhat difficult, to comprehend the scope of control that apartheid ideologues were able to exert over South African society for almost fifty years. Using military and police apparatus, the government was able to map society according to skin color, erecting vast barriers between the races that were impossible to overcome unless you were willing to sacrifice your body (literally, in some cases). That such a system endured for so long is boggling for someone who has not lived through it first hand.
This is an incredibly detailed account of Mathabane's life, from his earliest memories to the time he left South Africa. For example, Chapter 2 opens with Mathabane recounting a dream he has at three or four years of age, "in which throngs of black people sprawled dead in pools of red blood, surrounded by all sorts of slimy, creeping creatures" (2.1). The detail that Mathabane brings to his story makes the world of apartheid South Africa come alive for his audience, who are largely people living outside of his home country.
Throughout his childhood, Mark experiences hunger, sometimes verging on starvation. He describes it as a devouring beast that turns his every emotion into hatred: "At times it was the silent destroyer, creeping in unseen, unrecognized, except when, like a powerful time bomb, it would explode inside my guts. At other times it took the form of a dark, fanged beast, and hovered constantly over my dizzy head, as if about to pounce on me and gouge my guts out with its monstrous talons" (10.58).
America is a symbol of freedom for Mark. He sees America as a place where blacks already have equality, or at least tremendous freedom in comparison to South African blacks. Mark aims his life goal towards going to the United States, knowing he wants to experience what it's like to live as a free man.
The entire book is told from Mark Mathabane's point of view. Kaffir Boy is his autobiography, and every scene is offered from his perspective. The narrative is grounded in Mark's experience, although he does extrapolate from his experience to explain to the readers that life in Alexandra was similar to life in other parts of apartheid South Africa, and his family was not alone is suffering through extreme poverty and hardship.
Mark spends his early years afraid of the police, afraid of whites, and consistently hungry. His father is arrested several times, and each time, the family suffers. But his mother is determined that, despite their poverty, Mark will go to school. She takes the time to go through the impossible bureaucratic system, and to get Mark's papers in order so that the primary school will admit him. She makes Mark promise that he'll try to go to school and stay in school, for her sake.
The family never has enough money to pay for Mark's school fees, uniforms, and books, so he is constantly punished at school. But he persists and ends up in the top 1% of his class. His grandmother gets a job with a white family (the Smiths) that sends books and tennis rackets to Mark. Both help him. The books help Mark with his English ,and the tennis racket opens worlds he never imagined before. Mark finds an unofficial coach, joins the tennis team in secondary school, moves on to the elite Barretts Tennis Ranch, and finally meets a professional tennis player (Stan Smith) who mentors. Smith encourages Mark him to keep trying and agrees to look into the matter of tennis scholarships at American universities.
Mark is surprised when he fails his matric. It turns out that he only failed his native tongue, Venda, so the examination committee issues him a second-class pass – not good enough to attend a black college in South Africa. Further, Mark enters the Sugar Circuit and plays in Port Elizabeth and Cape Town, and loses both matches, and spraining his ankle. Life doesn't seem like it's moving along very well for Mark and he begins to wonder what he's doing and whether he'll make it to America.
Because he only received a second-class pass, Mark can't go on to one of the black colleges. Instead, he gets a job at Barclays Bank and helps his family while he waits to hear from the colleges to which he's applied.
Even though he has a good job at the bank, Mark keeps his dream of playing tennis in American alive. He wants to go to America, to experience what it's like to be free, and to get a good education. It takes time, but the wait is worth it. Eventually Stan Smith and Stan's coach at USC work on his behalf, and Mark receives a scholarship from Limestone College in South Carolina.
Even though Mark has received a tennis scholarship to an American college, it's not clear whether the South African government will allow him to go. But Stan Smith pulls some strings, and once Mark has an American visa, the government issues him a passport. Mark is off to America.
His bags are packed and Mark is ready to leave for America. As he says goodbye to his family, he realizes that his father is sorry to see him go; Mark's father realizes that Mark loves him no matter what. Mark wonders what is in store for his family, and whether they will make it through the four years while he's in America. For a minute, he thinks about turning back, but he continues forward to his future.