Study Guide

Kaffir Boy Quotes

  • Rules and Order

    And in that shack I was born, a few months before sixty-nine unarmed black protesters were massacred – many shot in the back as they fled for safety – by South African policemen during a peaceful demonstration against the pass laws in Sharpeville on March 21, 1960. Pass laws regulate the movement of blacks in so-called white South Africa. And it was the pass laws that, in those not so long ago days of my childhood and youth, first awakened me to the realities of life as a Kaffir boy in South Africa. (1.11)

    Mark is born at an auspicious time in South African history. He witnesses the moment when the struggle for liberation takes a violent turn from peaceful protests to the creation of an armed wing of the African National Congress.

    That evening the neighborhood was gripped by rumors that the Peri-Urban police were going to launch another raid soon, to "clean up" the neighbourhood, so to speak, because the one that morning had been – by police standards – unsuccessful. The back-to-back raids, the rumors went, marked the beginning of the annual "Operation Clean-up Month," a month during which hundreds of black policemen, led by white officers, combed the entire Alexandra ghetto – street by street and yard by yard – searching for people whose passbooks were not in order, gangsters, prostitutes, black families living illegally in the township, shebeen owners and those persons deemed "undesirables" under the Influx Control Law. I did not understand what many of these names meant, though I was told that we and most of our neighbours were counted under them. (3.1)

    Mark's early life is dominated by police attempts to control where blacks live.

    "Hurry up, old man!" the interrogator said, as my father fidgeted with his overalls, "we haven't got all day. Do you have it or don't you?" he said, trying to wring a bribe out of my father.

    "Nkosi, I beg you," my father whimpered, dropping his bony shoulders and letting the overalls dangle limply at his side. "I have no money," he sighed.

    "Nothing," the policeman cried, astonished; the black policemen were used to getting bribes.

    "Nothing, nkosi," my father said, slowly running his right hand through his kinky hair. "Not a cent. I have no job. I just applied for a permit to look for a job yesterday."

    "Well," frowned the policeman, closing the bulky book in my father's face, "I gave you your chance. You refused it. Now hurry up and put on your clothes and come with us." (3.83-87)

    The police use humiliation to control blacks. Bribes go a long way towards avoiding arrest, but Mark's family doesn't have the extra money necessary to bribes.

    But other men were not so lucky. They had no money, having paid it all out in bribes over the course of many arrests. They would be carted in vans and trucks to Number Four, a notorious prison for black people in Johannesburg. Repeat offenders and those whose passbook crimes were considered more serious would be processed to a maximum-security penitentiary called Moderbee, on the outskirts of Kempton Park. I would often hear the womenfolk say that Moderbee was a "hell which changed black men into brutes, no matter how tough and stubborn they may be." Almost every night before we went to bed, whenever my mother happened to have one of her premonitions, she would pray in earnest to our ancestral spirits that the day never would come when my father would be sent to Modderbee. (4.13)

    It was one thing to be arrested for violating the pass laws, but getting sent to Moderbee for this "crime" is quite another and often turned men into violent brutes.

    My father had been arrested that morning at the bus stop – for being unemployed. A man who had been with him as they waited for the bus to Johannesburg to apply for permits had brought my mother the grim news. The man's story was as follows: as he and my father waited fro the bus several police vans suddenly swooped upon the bus stop. People fled in all directions. My father was nabbed as he tried to leap a fence. His pass was scanned and found to contain an out-of-work stamp; he was taken in. His crime, unemployment, was one of the worst a black man could commit. (6.4)

    It's hard to imagine a system where it's criminal to be unemployed. In apartheid South Africa, however, black men were required either to live on the reserves (where there was no way of making a living) or to be employed at all times. Both were extremely difficult, if not impossible to do.

    At home, as we washed the ash off our faces, legs and arms, and off the items we had gathered for the day, I asked her for more details about how a dead black baby ended up in a garbage dump. She told me that some maids and nannies who worked for white people, because of fears of losing their jobs in the event of an accidental pregnancy, would often smother the baby and dump the corpse in garbage bins so they could continue working.

    "Wouldn't the police arrest such people for murder?" I asked in shock.

    "Police don't arrest black people for killing black people," my mother said. (7.68-70)

    Though the police were systematic in their attempts to dominate blacks and to make them follow the laws of the state, they didn't care to regulate violence that occurred in the townships. The sole function of the police department was to make certain that blacks adhered to the pass laws. In other words, police officers had to make sure that blacks lived where the state said that they lived, were employed at jobs they were allowed to have, and didn't bring their wives and children from the reserves unless they had a permit to do so.

    "They say next time they pick me up," she told my father, "they'll deport me back to the homeland. And you, too, for having a wife without a permit."

    "What can we do?" my father asked.

    "If only I could get a permit," my mother lamented. My parents now lived the lives of perpetual fugitives, fleeing by day and fleeing by night, making sure they were never caught together under the same roof as husband and wife. (11.16-18)

    Mark's parents have no legal right to live together, even though they've been married for years and have several children.

    Turning to me, he said, "What's shameful about working in white people's gardens? My grandmother too worked there when I was going to school. That's how I was able to go through school. That's nothing to be ashamed of. Those are the kinds of jobs white people have in abundance for us. You should be thankful she's working there, otherwise you wouldn't be getting all those books."

    From that day onward, I never again felt ashamed to tell people, when they asked me, that Granny was a gardener, or that she, my mother and my father never went to school. In a way, that incident helped me overcome the type of shame that leads many people to deny their heritage, to forget where they come from, for the sake of acceptance. (29.41-42)

    Mark learns to appreciate his heritage, and the hard work his parents and grandparents have done.

    Bootlegging was a serious crime and those caught during raids were handed huge fines. Some were given long jail sentences or deported to the tribal reserves. Yet despite such hazards, the bootlegging club continued to grow; new members were added each day, more than making up for those arrested daily.

    It came as no surprise, therefore, when one Friday evening my father said to my mother, as the family sat for dinner: "Now that we're both working, how about starting a little beer business. Other wives are doing it. Look at our neighbors, they've made such big profits they've even bought a new bathtub and a wardrobe."

    Aware of the risks involved, my mother was quick to reply, "You know about raids on shebeens, don't you? Our pass and permit problems are enough to worry about." (29.47-49)

    The apartheid state made it illegal to sell liquor to a black man except in governmentally designated "beer halls." Though African women had been brewing a low-alcohol content beer for thousands of years, this practice was also made illegal by the state. Violating the alcohol laws, as well as boycotting the officially approved beer halls, were all methods for black Africans to resist state control. But they did so at their own peril.

    One day I was arrested for being in a white neighbourhood after the ten o'clock evening curfew, and for being without a pass. I told the arresting officers, one black and one white, that I was a student. Luckily I was in the habit of carrying several books with the name of my former school on them. They let me go with the warning to get a pass.

    "You're eighteen now," said the black officer. "You should have got one two years ago."

    I began making plans to go apply for one, even though I detested the idea of carrying a pass. At the pass office I was interrogated by a young black man in a checkered suit who appeared to enjoy the job he was doing: putting his own folks through hell. (53.1-3)

    Mark finds that getting a pass is no simple matter. Not only does he need all the proper papers – papers that are difficult to get – but he has to voluntarily undergo a humiliating process in order to receive them.

  • Race

    …more than 90 percent of white South Africans go through a lifetime without seeing firsthand the inhuman conditions under which blacks have to survive.

    Yet the white man of South Africa claims to the rest of the world that he knows what is good for black people and what it takes for a black child to grow up to adulthood. He vaunts aloud that "his blacks" in South Africa are well fed and materially better off under the chains of apartheid than their liberated brothers and sisters in the rest of Africa. But, in truth, these claims and boasts are hollow.

    The white man of South Africa certainly does not know me. He certainly does not know the conditions under which I was born and had to live for eighteen years. (1.2-4).

    Mark begins Kaffir Boy by commenting on how important race was in South Africa. Society was constructed around the rigid concept of race, and the practice of keeping races separate. Thus, white society claimed its blacks were "happy," and had no idea of the reality of black life under apartheid.

    "What's a pass, Mama?" I knew vaguely what a pass was, but not its reality.

    "It's an important book that we black people must have in order always, and carry with us at all times."…There was something about it which made me fearful, helpless. But I could not figure out what about it made me feel that way. It seemed a mere book. Yet it was, I was to later find out, the black man's passport to existence. (6.17-18)

    Without the pass, a black man or woman couldn't find a job, legally live anywhere in the black designated urban areas, or move from one place to another without fear of arrest.

    Continuing, the old woman, in a hoary voice, said, "I worked for a madam a long time ago, when my papers were still in order, who had three refrigerators all stacked with food. And no children. And she would always throw away packages of meat because they were a day old. When I asked her to give them to me, she would reply: 'I buy you meat, girlie, is that not enough?' And the meat she was talking about was dog meat."

    "They eat well, them white people," said an old man nearby. "Yes sir, they eat well."

    "They have everything," a jet-black woman said in a shrill voice, "and we have nothing." (7.26-28).

    There is a strong contrast between the lives that whites lead and the lives that blacks lead. This is a contrast of which blacks are fully aware, given their proximity to white lives through their jobs as servants and gardeners. The fact that blacks are aware of the difference is also a contrast to whites, who don't know how blacks live.

    From my experiences with white policemen, I had come to develop a deep-seated fear of white people; and seeing the bloody murders and savage beatings and indiscriminate shootings in the movies, that fear was fueled in phobic proportions. I vowed that never would I enter such a world, and I thanked the law for making sure I could not do so without a permit. Maybe, I repeatedly told myself, white people have placed these restrictions on the movement of black people in the white world because they did not want them to unwittingly wander into an Indian village or into a gladiator arena or into a cowboy shootout, and end up getting killed.

    I had sense enough to know that there were white residential areas, where black maids and garden boys worked, and firms like the one where my father worked; but, in the main, I was fully convinced that somewhere in the white world, the events depicted in the movies were everyday occurrences. Otherwise how were those movies made? (8.2-3)

    Mark's first encounters with the white world are through the police, who use violence to control and subjugate the black population. Mark is also introduced to the white world through movies, which hardly give Mark an adequate or realistic vision of what life is like outside of the townships.

    I watched the evangelist bring in equipment in mud-covered jeeps, while pondering on what could have possibly made my mother say so positively that my father would take us to the tent to listen to what he called "white man's nonsense and lies." Had he not repeatedly refused my mother permission to attend any of the several churches in our neighbourhood? (9.15).

    Papa associates Christianity with the white man and hates it. This is a reaction born out of his allegiance to his ethnic religion, and is also a result of what the white man has done to him, his family, and his friends.

    Two portraits in particular always had me thinking: one depicting heaven and God; the other, hell and the Devil. The former portrayed God as an old blue-eyed white man with a long white beard, sitting between white, fluffy clouds, flanked by two bearded white men. And all around heaven were groups of angels – all of them white people. The latter portrayed a naked black man, his features distorted to resemble the Devil with a tail, twisted horns like a kudu's, writing vipers around the horns, big wild red eyes, and a wide mouth spewing flames and smoke. He carried a long fork, which he used to stab, one by one, the black men and women and children on their knees about him, begging that he not roast them in the pit of fire. (9.44)

    One particularly repugnant use of religion in South Africa was to suggest that whites were pure and godly – the receptacles of God's grace and goodness – while blacks were often considered to be children of the devil.

    I was walking along a street one afternoon when I saw a piece of magazine impaled against a fence of cacti. I freed it and found that it contained pictures of big beautiful houses, white people's houses. I took the magazine home and there told my mother that someday I would amass hordes of money and build her a house similar to the ones in the magazine.

    "What makes you think you can build a house like that?" my mother asked me gently but in a tone touched with sarcasm.

    "I'll have lots of money, so it will be easy," I said naively.

    "Even if you had all the money in the world, my child," she said, "you wouldn't build that house."

    "Why not? Money can buy everything, can't it?"

    "Because it's against the law for black people to own houses," my mother said matter-of-factly.

    "What law is that?" I asked. "White people build nice houses, don't they? So why can't we?"…

    "It's a law for black people only," my mother said, and added that such a law had long stripped black people of the right to buy land and own homes.

    "Who makes such unfair laws?" I asked. The fact that white people made all the laws, ran the country alone, had not yet entered my mind. My encounters with whites in the movies had revealed none of the politics of the country.

    "White people," my mother said.

    "Why?"

    "That's a stupid question to ask," my mother said. "White people make laws because they've been making all the laws since they took over our country."

    "Can't we black people make our own laws? Alexandra is our world, isn't it? And white people have their own world." My conception of the world, of life, was wholly in racial terms; and that conception was not mine alone. It was echoed by all the black people I had come across. There were two worlds as far as we were concerned, separated absolutely in every sense. But somehow, in my knowing about these two worlds, it had never occurred to me that thought the two were as different as night and day, as separate as east and west, they had everything to do with each other; that one could not be without the other, and that their dependency was that of master and slave. (16.9-21)

    Mark learns that even though white and black worlds are separate, the white world still dominates and has control over the black world.

    When my mother ended her story, the white woman, almost in tears, stormed into the office, fuming. We stood ourselves by the door and heard a brief altercation take place inside the office. In a matter of minutes, my mother was called to the window, where an irate young black man, who earlier had ordered that my mother be towed away, shoved apiece of paper in her face. We finally had the birth certificate. My mother fortressed it in her bosom, as if it were a golden nugget. I had never seen a happier mother than the one who, as we trotted home, kept on singing songs of praise about the white "sister." She even proudly said: "You see, child, not all white people are bad; remember that."(20.116)

    After Mama gets the run-around from different white and black officials who don't want to help her enroll Mark in school, a nun offers to help her. It's Mark's first experience with a kind white person.

    The teacher chuckled. He clasped the lapels of his faded, tight-fitting jacket and said, "Did I just hear you say that they give them to her? White people, my boy? Are you mad? What kind of white people would give books to a black man?"

    "Nice white people, sir."

    As if I had just uttered the joke of the century, the teacher burst into peals of maniacal laughter. (29.28-30)

    Though Mark's teacher doesn't believe white people would give books to a black man, Mark has finally realized that there are nice white people in the world. Mark continues to believe this, even if he doesn't know very many, and even if no one else believes him.

    He began talking about what went on inside the building. "There are scores of tables inside," he said. "And brother, you have to go through every one of them. God help you if you don't understand Afrikaans, for the tables are manned by stubborn Afrikaners who believe very much in apartheid. They'll make that clear in their treatment of you. They'll humiliate you to the point where you feel you are not human. They'll strip you of your dignity, and there's not a damn thing you can do about it. You'll get angry, yes, you'll hate, yes, but here's not a damn thing you can do. After all, they know they hold your fate in their hands: you, not they, need the 'passport to existence.'"(53.89)

    The process of obtaining and maintaining a pass is necessary humiliation blacks must endure in order to live and work in apartheid South Africa. But the entire process of obtaining a pass is also structured to show blacks their place, and to demonstrate their inferior position in society.

  • Tradition and Customs

    Soon after George was weaned my father began teaching him, as he had been teaching me, tribal ways of life. My father belonged to a loosely knit group of black families in the neighbourhood to whom tribal traditions were a way of life, and who sought to bring up their offspring according to its laws. He believed that feeding us a steady diet of tribal beliefs, values and rituals was one way of ensuring our normal growth, so that in the event of our returning to the tribal reserve, something he insistently believed would happen soon, we would blend in perfectly. This diet he administered religious, seemingly bent on moulding George and me in his image.

    […]

    Born and bred in a tribal reserve and nearly twice my mother's age, my father existed under the illusion, formed as much by a strange innate pride as by a blindness to everything but his own will, that someday all white people would disappear from South Africa, and black people would revert to their old ways of living. To prepare for this eventuality, he ruled the house strictly according to tribal law, tolerating no deviance, particularly from his children. At the same time that he was force-feeding us tribalism we were learning other ways of life, modern ways, from mingling with children whose parents had shed their tribal cloth and embraced Western culture. (5.3, 5.5)

    Mark's father tries to impose tribal law and tradition on his family, despite the resistance he encounters.

    "Everybody does rituals, Mr. Mathabane," my mother said. "You just don't notice it because they do theirs differently. Even white people do rituals."

    "Why do people do rituals, Mama?"

    "People do rituals because they were born in the tribes. And in the tribes rituals are done every day. They are a way of life."

    "But we don't live in the tribes," I countered. "Papa should stop doing rituals."

    My mother laughed. "Well, it's not as simple as that. Your father grew up in the tribes, as you know. He didn't come to the city until he was quite old. It's hard to stop doing things when you're old. I, too, do rituals because I was raised in the tribes. Their meaning, child, will become clear as you grow up. Have patience."

    But I had no patience with rituals, and I continued hating them.

    Participating in my father's rituals sometimes led to the most appalling scenes, which invariably made me the laughing stock of my friends, who thought that my father, in his ritual garb, was the most hilarious thing they had ever seen since natives in Tarzan movies. Whenever they laughed at me I would feel embarrassed and would cry. I began seeking ways of distancing myself from my father's rituals. I found one: I decided I would no longer, in the presence of my friends, speak Venda, my father's tribal language. I began speaking Zulu, Sotho and Tsonga, the languages of my friends. It worked. I was no longer an object of mockery. (5.27-33)

    Mark hates tradition and rituals, believing that only Papa follows such things. Mama, however, points out that people everywhere participate in rituals.

    My mother explained that my father's relatives would not allow us to move in with any of her relatives because according to tribal marriage customs we were my father's property – her, myself, my brother and my sister; therefore, as long as my father was alive, regardless of his being in prison, we had to stay put in his kaya (house), awaiting his eventual return. (7.5)

    Although it would make their lives easier to move in with Granny, Papa's relatives won't allow such a move because of tradition. Mark and his siblings suffer from starvation while they wait for Papa to get out of prison.

    Then suddenly I remembered snatches of long dreary conversations between my mother and father, in which my mother told my father that because of the hard times we had been experiences continuously over the years, despite repeated sacrifices to tribal gods, it was high time we looked for new ways of dealing with our poverty and suffering, and that maybe Christianity might be one such way. (9.16)

    Mama begins believe that following traditional ways of life has bought her nothing, and she wants to convert to Christianity.

    The evangelist, by denouncing tribal religions, had entered the forbidden zone upon which my father stood guard. No one dared do that with impunity. And my father had support. A group of tribal men nearby heaved their massive chests in anger and clenched their fists.

    […]

    Seemingly unaware of the mounting opposition to this sermon, the cross-eyed evangelist said, in an even louder voice, "Believe in ancestral spirits is sheer nonsense and hogwash. Those dead people you revere and worship are impotent and wouldn't harm a fly. I repeat: Christ is the only true God. So let all those with pagan hearts accept Him tonight and be saved."

    At that, my father and several of the men from the tribal reserve leaped up and shook threatening fists at the evangelists…(9.37, 39-40)

    There is a strong conflict between Christianity and the "old" religions in South Africa. In this scene, the conflict becomes personal as an evangelist trounces on the foundations of Mark's fathers belief system.

    Though my parents differed on many things, including the usefulness of Christianity to black people, they agreed on one thing: the power of witchcraft. Both believed that many, if not all, of our household problems were somehow the result of bad voodoo inflicted upon us by evil-minded and jealous neighbours, and that a powerful witch doctor was needed to remedy things. There was no room for bad luck or chance in their lives. My mother thought that her inability to find jobs in the white world was not only due to her papers not being in order, but also because some neighbour out there simply did not want her to better her lot. We children were led to believe that the world was steeped in voodoo, witchcraft and sorcery. (11.1)

    Even though Mama converts to Christianity, she doesn't give up her belief that the world is dominated by evil forces, including witches who are out to cause harm.

    My mother's vast knowledge of folklore, her vivid remembrance of traditions of various tribes of long ago and her uncanny ability to turn mere words into unforgettable pictures, fused night after night to concoct riveting stories.

    On some nights, she would tell of chiefs, witch doctors, sages, warriors, sorcerers, magicians and wild, monstrous beasts. These stories were set in mythical African kingdoms ruled by black people, where no white man had ever set foot. She would recount prodigious deeds of famous African gods, endowed with unlimited magical powers; among them the powers of immortality, invincibility and invisibility, powers which they used to fight, relentlessly and valiantly, for justice, peace and harmony among all black tribes of the Valley of a Thousand Hills.

    […]

    As we had no nursery rhymes nor storybooks, and, besides, as no one in the house knew how to read, my mother's stories served as a kind of library, a golden fountain of knowledge where we children learned about right and wrong, about good and evil. (12.3-4, 9).

    Mama is able to teach her children about her culture and values by telling stories.

    Another thing that awed me was their almost total lack of information outside their own milieu. They never stopped asking us about goings-on in the city and about the world of white people. Even though I had never been beyond the confines of Alexandra to know what Johannesburg was really like, I told them secondhand stories about it. They believed me completely, and thought me vastly knowledgeable; I felt superior to them. The way they went about their daily life reminded me of my mother's stories about primitive tribes, and I felt a slight revulsion at being connected, through my father, to what everyone in the city called a "backward" way of life. My father, on the other hand, seemed very much at home; I wondered why. (15.8)

    Mark goes on a trip with his father to the Venda reserves, so his father can visit the witch doctor to end his string of bad luck. While on the trip, Mark compares the way of life there with the way of life in the urban areas and decides it's vastly superior. Yet, his description of the poverty in the homelands is not different from the poverty his own family experiences in the city.

    On the day that my father and I returned from the tribal reserve my mother gave birth to a baby girl, my third sister. In keeping with tribal tradition, she and the baby remained in seclusion for about two weeks, and for that period my father, George and I had to be housed by neighbours, for the presence of males was forbidden during seclusion. The day the baby was born, I spied, in the dead of night, midwives, under a cloak of great secrecy, digging small holes near the house. When I asked what the holes were for, I was told that "sacred things from my mother and the new child" were being buried to prevent witches from taking possession of the stuff and using it to affect the well-being of both (16.1).

    Mark's mother continues to follow traditions. This scene depicts one example.

    It soon became evident that the reason my father lived for the moment was because he was terrified of the future – terrified of facing the reality that I was on the way to becoming a somebody in a world that regarded him as a nobody, a world that had stripped him of his manhood, of his power to provide.

    Years of watching him suffer under the double yoke of apartheid and tribalism convinced me that his was a hopeless case, so long as he persisted in clinging to tribal beliefs and letting the white man define his manhood.

    His suffering convinced me that there was no way he could come to understand reality the way I did, let alone understand the extremes of emotions which had become so much a part of me and were altering my perspective toward life, that I no longer seemed his son, and he, to me, seemed no longer the father whose blood still ran in my veins.

    By pining for the irretrievably gone days of drums, of warriors, of loinskins, of huts and of wife-buying, I knew that he could never travel, in thought and in feeling, the course my life was embarking upon, because everything he wholeheartedly embraced, I rejected with every fibre of my being.

    The thick veil of tribalism which so covered his eyes and mind and heart was absolutely of no use to me, for I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that black life would never revert to the past, that the clock would never turn back to a time centuries ago when black people had lived in peace and contentment before the coming of the white man. (33.31-35)

    Mark finally realizes that his father clings to tradition because he has nothing else to validate his life.

  • Family

    The next day, as I nursed my wounds, while my father was at work, I told my mother that I hated him and promised her I would kill him when I grew up.

    "Don't say that!" my mother reprimanded me.

    "I will," I said stoutly, "if he won't leave me alone."

    "He's your father, you know."

    "He's not my father."

    "Shut that bad mouth of yours!" My mother threatened to smack me.

    "Why does he beat me, then?" I protested. "Other fathers don't beat their children." My friends always boasted that their fathers never laid a hand on them.

    "He's trying to discipline you. He wants you to grow up to be like him."

    "What! Me! Never!" I shook with indignation. "I'm never going to be like him! Why should I?" (5.13-20)

    Violence is so common in his life that Mark thinks nothing of threatening to kill his father.

    Pangs of hunger melted my resentment of my father away, and now that he was gone I longed night and day for his return. I didn't even mind his coming back and shouting restrictions at me and making me perform rituals. I simply wanted him back. And as days slid by without him, as I saw other children in the company of their fathers, I would cry. His absence showed me how much I loved him. I never stopped asking questions about when he would be coming back. (6.8)

    Although Mark struggles with his father's violent nature, ultimately, life is easier when Papa is around because more of Mark's basic needs are met. Eventually Mark does realize that he loves his dad after all.

    While it seemed that no help was forthcoming, we resigned ourselves to the inevitable: eviction and starvation. Luck of some sort came when my maternal grandmother…came back unexpectedly. My mother told her of our plight. Granny had some money to spare.

    She paid the rent a week before we were to be evicted; bought us bread, sugar and mealie meal; and gave my mother one hundred cents to take George and Florah to the clinic, where their sickness was diagnosed as advanced malnutrition and chicken pox. More money was required to continue their treatment, and Granny gave my mother three hundred cents. Thinking her rich, I proposed to my mother that we move in with her until my father's return from prison. My mother told me that that could not be, that Granny was already overburdened with looking after herself and her other children and could not afford to take us in. Moreover, my mother said, my father's relatives would never sanction such a move.

    "Why?" I asked. "We're starving as it is, and they aren't helping us in any way." I had close to a dozen relatives on my father's side scattered all over Johannesburg; yet since my father's arrest none had come forward to help us.

    My mother explained that my father's relatives would not allow us to move in with any of her relatives because according to tribal marriage customs we were my father's property – her, myself, my brother and my sister; therefore, as long as my father was alive, regardless of his being in prison, we had to stay put in his kaya (house), awaiting his eventual return. (7.2-5)

    Even though Papa's relatives refuse to help Mark and his family, they also refuse to allow them to seek shelter with Mama's relatives. This represents a decision that causes Mark's immediate family to suffer enormously.

    By some stroke of luck my father got his old job back. Now armed with a steady job, he set out to rebuild our former life. We now ate full meals, and dressed in clothes slightly better than rags. But things were never quite the same; there was now a definite change in our life. We could not regain the past; it seemed gone forever. A definite sense of insecurity and helplessness had entered our life, to stay for years to come. My father was now a completely changed man; so changed that he now began drinking and gambling excessively, and from time to time quarreling with my mother over money matters and over what he called my mother's streak of insubordination not befitting "the woman he bought." But he still tried, in his own way, to be a father and husband.

    One evening he came staggering home, drunk as a sot. It was a Friday. He called Florah, George and me to the table, saying he had a big surprise for us. We kneeled in front of him, as we were not allowed to sit at the table, and watched him unpack a brown paper bag. There was muhodu and mala (chicken feet, intestines and heads), a delicacy the equivalent of a steak; a packet of candles; a small bag of mealie meal; packets of salt and sugar; and then the surprise – a packet of fish and chips wrapped in paper. We children were overjoyed; it had been ages since we last had fish and chips; we danced and sang with delight. George and Florah ran up to my father and embraced him. He blushed; I could see he was happy. My mother smiled. That was one of the few times I was to see our entire family happy. (7.94-95).

    Mark's father returns from prison a changed man. His violence and alcoholism have gotten worse. But despite all of that, there are moments when Papa tries to be a father and make his family happy.

    "But we have to eat, Mama," I protested. I thought that regardless of the size of my father's debt, he should still borrow more. I don't know why I thought that. Maybe hunger made me. "We are his children, aren't we?" I repeated, implying that it was a father's duty to provide for his children no matter what.

    "Why do you keep on saying, 'We are his children, aren't we?'" my mother said angrily. "Who told you you're not his children?"

    "I heard him say that," I said, alluding to statements my father had often made when quarrelling with my mother. (Whenever the two went head to head, my mother would threaten to leave my father and take us children with her; and my father would retort: "Take those bastards with you, I don't care! I sometimes wonder if they're my children the way they disobey my laws!")

    Before I knew it, my mother had given me a stinging smack across the mouth with the back of her hand…(10.40-43)

    Mark repeats his father's question, wondering anxiously if they're his father's children. (Mark does not realize that he is implying that his mother cheated on his father.)

    They seemed lost in their own little world of mud, pebbles and tins, and oblivious to my suicide attempt.

    "They'll miss you very much," my mother sighed deeply. The tone of her voice had changed, suddenly, to one full of sorrow. "They'll have no big brother to help them and to protect them. They'll have no big brother to look up to. They'll have no big brother to help them go to school when they grow up. They'll miss you very much."

    I was very much touched by what she said. I remembered the many times my sisters had turned to me for help whenever anyone harassed them. I remembered the many times I had told my mother that when I was done with school, I would go out and work so that I could help my sisters go to school and become nurses and teachers. Remembering all that made me start crying. (28.13-15)

    When Mark contemplates suicide, it's the thought of his family and their love for him that pulls him out of it and makes him decide he wants to live after all.

    Phineas was one of thousands of black migrant workers in Alexandra forced to live hundreds of miles from their families because of Influx Control laws, which discouraged black family life in what the government called "white South Africa." In the township, no other group lived as unnaturally as the migrant workers. Housed mostly in sterile single-sex barracks, they were prey to prostitution, Matanyula [sex with young boys, paid for in food], alcoholism, robbery and senseless violence; they existed under such stress and absorbed so much emotional pain that tears, grief, fear, hope and sadness had become alien to most of them.

    Stripped of their manhood, they hated the white man with every fibre of their being. Anger would leap into their eyes each time the words white man were uttered. Rage would heave their chest each time something or someone reminded them that it was the white man who kept their families away from them. Each time I saw that anger and hate, I knew that they felt a pain so deep it could not be expressed; that though they laughed and chaffed with one another, as they tried in vain to drown their sorrows in gourds of liquor, something inside them was slowly dying.

    There is a death far worse than physical death, and that is the death of the mind and soul, when, despite toiling night and day, under sweltering heat, torrential rain, blistering winds, you still cannot make enough to clothe, shelter and feed your loved ones, suffering miles away, forcibly separated from you. (29.103-105)

    Apartheid deliberately separated black families, destroying lives and creating problems that still plague South Africa even today, many years after apartheid officially ended.

    Impassively he stood there against the wall, in the shadow of the flickering candle, seemingly trying to awaken himself from some bad dream, some nightmare. I could tell from the look on his face that he found the fact that I was leaving hard to believe: I, his son, his firstborn, his own flesh and blood, the son he had watched grow, the son whom he had wanted to so much to be like him, but who had grown up to be so much different, was about to leave him suffering, gaunt, aging, helpless, hopeless, fearful of the future.

    As I kissed him again, and embraced his emaciated body, a tear and a twinkle came to his eyes: he understood that despite my fanatical opposition to his way of life, despite all the shocks of childhood he had subjected me to, I still loved him, dearly.

    "Take care of yourself, son," he said softly. (54.9-11).

    This is one of the first moments where we see Papa's softer, more compassionate side. Unfortunately this moment occurs when Mark leaves for another the United States.

    I shuddered to think what life in Alexandra, in Johannesburg, in South Africa, in apartheid country, in the land of slavery, held for them. Did they have a future? Would the family remain together long enough for them to finish school, to grow up? Or would the authorities tear them from each other, deport some to the tribal reserves, arrest some, killing some? They were so young and unknowing; the same storms of life that had battered my life, warped my character and had stunted my growth they still had to face. Would they survive such storms? Would they live long enough to swim safely to the other shore? What shore? (54.20)

    Even as he leaves his siblings, Mark wonders whether the life they'll continue to lead under apartheid will allow his family to stay together.

  • Suffering

    Pangs of hunger melted my resentment of my father away, and now that he was gone I longed night and day for his return. I didn't even mind his coming back and shouting restrictions at me and making me perform rituals. I simply wanted him back. And as days slid by without him, as I saw other children in the company of their fathers, I would cry. His absence showed me how much I loved him. I never stopped asking questions about when he would be coming back. (6.8)

    Though Mark suffered when Papa was around, he suffered even more when Papa was gone. One of the reasons that Mark suffered more when Papa was not around is that his basic needs were no longer met.

    Each day we spent without food drove us closer and closer to starvation. Then terror struck. I began having fainting spells. I would be out playing when suddenly my head would feel light, my knees would wobbles, my vision would dim and blur and down I would come like a log. (6.24)

    The family quickly goes hungry, as soon as Papa is arrested and sent to jail. Though Papa was unable to provide adequately, it was better than nothing.

    A few weeks later George and Florah came down with a mysterious illness, which left them emaciated and lethargic, their stomachs so distended that I thought they would burst. Their bodies were covered with sores, which punctured and oozed pus, and their hair turned to a strange orange colour. There were times when, while fanning off blowflies with a piece of cardboard from their filmy, half-closed eyes, mucus-covered noses and bruised mouths, while they lay writhing with pain on the damp cement floor, I thought I could see their tiny, empty intestines. Seeing them like that made me cry. Occasionally, they excreted live worms with their bloody stools. Their tearing coughs kept everyone awake at night. Each time my mother gave them a morsel of food, whenever she could get it, the vomited. Their suffering made the days and nights unbearably long and gloomy.

    My mother did not have the one hundred cents to take them to the clinic, and no witch doctor, our last resort, was willing to treat them on credit. But with determination, courage and love, she tried her best to nurse them back to health using some herbs Granny gave her. My brother and sister fought with the tenacity typical of African children to stay alive, but I wondered for how long. The strangest thing was that, except for a minor cough, I felt fine. (6.36-37)

    Despite his initial fainting spells, Mark soon manages to get used to feeling hunger. It's interesting to note that while Mark adjusts to hunger, his younger siblings start to slide towards starvation.

    But things didn't get better. If they did, I didn't notice it. Gradually, I came to accept hunger as a constant companion. But this new hunger was different. It filled me with hatred, confusion, helplessness, hopelessness, anxiety, loneliness, selfishness and a cynical attitude toward people. It seemed to lurk everywhere about and inside me: in the things I touched, in the people I talked to, in the empty pots, in the black children I played with, in the nightmares I dreamt. It even pervaded the air I breathed. 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)

    Mama keeps reassuring Mark that things will get better. Instead, however, the constant hunger turns into rage and anger.

    Winter came, and turned out to be a very bad one. Our shack…had no heat, electricity or plumbing, and we had no stove, so my mother had to keep t he brazier indoors, as she had done all previous winters.

    […]

    We went to sleep. Toward the middle of the night, I was awakened by something choking me, as if two steel claws had locked themselves around my throat.

    […]

    Finally, my mother said, in a whisper, "That's what nearly killed you, children," pointing at the coals from the spilled brazier, from which puffs of smoke coiled upward as raindrops fell on them.

    "What was in there, Mama?" I asked, thinking that maybe witches had been in the coal.

    "Poison gas," my mother said ominously. (13.1, 3, 20-22).

    Because they lack the money for electricity, the family suffers through the biting winter cold, and almost dies as a result.

    My father had been arrested again. Hunger in the house was again acute. I was faced with two choices: starve or beg. (17.2)

    Though the Mathabanes suffer all the time, their troubles are always worse when Papa is arrested due to some arbitrary law. There is thus a direct link between South African laws and Mark's personal suffering.

    My tenth birthday came and went away, like all the other nine, uncelebrated. Having never had a normal childhood, I didn't miss birthdays; to me they were simply like other days: to be survived. Strangely, however, on each birthday I somehow got the feeling that I had aged more than a year. Suffering seemed to age more than birthdays. Though I was only ten, black life seemed to have, all along, been teaching me the same lessons of survival, and making the same demands upon me for that survival, as it was doing to grown-ups. Thus, emotionally, I had aged far beyond my ten years. (27.1)

    The constant fight for survival makes Mark feel older than his years.

    A few months after I witnessed the grisly murder a strange feeling that I should end my own life suddenly came over me. I don't know why I felt that way, though the feeling seemed connected with the witnessing of the murder. All the memories of my childhood suffering came back and multiplied to a lifetime of continuous suffering, and I felt I could take no more.

    I was weary of being hungry all the time, weary of being beaten all the time: at school, at home and in the streets. I felt that somehow the whole world was against me. I felt that the courage, the resiliency and the unswerving, fanatical will to survive, to dream of a bright future, to accomplish, to conquer, of early years had deserted me. (28.1-2)

    Seeing somebody's life end with no regard to his humanity makes Mark begins to wonder if his own life is worth anything at all. He begins to contemplate suicide.

    I often cried when I read these letters, especially those detailing the suffering of children. One day I was reading one such letter to a migrant worker named Phineas, when I was overcome with feelings and started crying. Phineas patted me on the shoulder, consolingly, as we both sat on a makeshift bench of milk crates in his tiny shack.

    "Now, now, my boy," he said. "I admit things are bad back there, but not that bad. Look at it another way. If this one child is going to die, as the letter says, I'll still have six others left. I'm working seven days a week," he continued, "and one of these days I'll amass enough money to be able to take care of all their needs. Just you wait and see." (29.99-100).

    The suffering is so bad that Phineas can't even see it. He just hopes things will get better, even though there is no reason to assume that they will.

    "Why don't you get a job and help me keep your brothers and sisters in school, my child?" my mother said to me one evening.

    I looked at her. She appeared exhausted, no doubt from being worked like a mule by white people: she washed and ironed for them, cleaned their homes, weeded their gardens, washed and fed their children and catered to their every whim. Even when she was ill she had hobbled to work, even when any of my siblings was ill she had gone to work, reluctantly. We had to eat, she would say, we had to have books and school fees, we had to pay rent, we had to have bribes for the policemen. She had recently been diagnosed a diabetic, and told to watch her diet, not to worry too much, not to work too hard. But she continued working too hard and worrying too much. There was no doubt she was suffering, yet she remained upbeat, downplaying everything with a shrug and saying, "Any caring mother would do all that and more for her children."

    I began to feel guilty for being selfish, for thinking too much of myself and tennis. If I got a job, I could help tremendously. I could take the burden off my mother's shoulders and repay her for all she had done for me by making the rest of her life comfortable. (53.73-75)

    The tremendous sacrifices Mama has made for the family have finally created health problems for her.

  • Fear

    "Peri-Urban!" I gasped and stiffened at the name of the dreaded Alexandra Police Squad. To me nothing, short of a white man, was more terrifying; not even a bogeyman. (2.25)

    Mark's life is dominated by two fears: white men and policemen.

    "Shut up, you fool!" I yelled at my brother, but he did not quiet. I then uttered the phrase, "There's a white man outside," which to small black children had the same effect as "There's a bogeyman outside," but still he would not stop. (3.48)

    Mark uses fear to try to get his brother to be quiet so they can be safe. Just as fear doesn't work to change Mark's behavior, it doesn't work to change George's either.

    Following that brutal encounter I had with them, the Peri-Urban police became a tormenting presence in my life. Whereas in the past I had been more or less conscious of their presence in black life – as they stopped people in the streets and demanded passes, as they cashed after tsotsis and other hoodlums, as they raided shebeens in search of illicit liquor, and as they launched an occasional pass raid into the neighbourhood – they now moved permanently into my consciousness. Scarcely a week passed without the neighbourhood being invaded by waves of black and white policemen.

    They always came unannounced, at any time of day or night, and gradually I came to accept, and to dread, their presence as a way of life. They haunted me in real life and in my dreams, to the extent that I would often wake up screaming in the middle of the night, claiming that the police were after me with dogs and flashlights, trying to shoot me down….So, barely six years old, I was called upon to deal with constant terror. (4.1-2).

    Because the police use brutality, their appearance alone creates nightmares.

    My father came back, and our lives became somewhat normal again. But my instincts told me that that normalcy could be shattered at any moment – by another arrest. At this point in my life I realized that, willy-nilly, black people had to map out their lives, their future, with the terror of the police in mind. And that that terror led to the hunger, the loneliness, the violence, the helplessness, the hopelessness, the apathy and the suffering with which I was surrounded.

    My father's repeated arrests gave me insight into the likely nature of my own future. As a black boy, the odds were heavily stacked against my establishing a normal, stable family when I came of age…

    Knowing that, my heart sank, and I began to wonder whether life – black life – was really worth living. (18.1-3)

    Looking at his future as a black man in apartheid South Africa, Mark begins to realize that he will live in terror of the police as long as he lives here.

    Many of those who came settled in our neighbourhood and, as a result, before long my playmates included boys from various tribal reserves. These boys brought with them voodoo superstitions, more mysterious than the ones I already held. My sensibilities became sharpened to the point where I began paying singular attention to little oddities hat previously I had dismissed without thought, now thinking that they were manifestations of witchcraft. For instance, I would be sitting outside at night, and a shiny object would suddenly streak across the sky and vanish mysteriously. I would bolt into the house and tell whichever adult was around that I had seen a witch. To my surprise some of the people around me would openly and publicly support my claims of witchcraft sightings, so that soon I began walking around with the paranoiac attitude that every strange thing that no adult could explain was the "deeds of witches," that strangers were not to be trusted, that every crone was a potential witch and out to get me. (18.4)

    Fear of witches also dominates Mark's life. Because adults confirm his fears, these worries grow larger and more absurd, until he can no longer explain anything without reference to superstition.

    With almost three years of constant police terror behind me, I had now become, at seven years old, so conditioned to expecting predawn police raids that each time my mother awakened me in the middle of the night, I would spring up and ask, "Are they here? I didn't hear any noises," thinking that the police had invaded the neighbourhood. And on many occasions it turned out they had. (19.1)

    The police are in the forefront of Mark's consciousness and leave him in a constant state of dread.

    My father's metamorphosis was now complete. In his new personage he was always cold, sullen, distant, contemplative; always wrinkling his brow and scratching his balding head and wringing his heads and muttering curses and complaints, especially on Fridays. Our emotional lives and his now moved on vastly different planes. My sisters could no longer run up to him, as he came through the door from work, and welcome him with a hug or a kiss as other children did their fathers on Fridays. They tried it once, but he simply shoved them aside and warned them never to do it again. He never even said goodnight to any of us at bedroom. I dearly and desperately wanted to love him as I loved my mother. I tried, persistently but in vain, to reach out for his love and understanding, and each time he reciprocated by becoming more distant and inscrutable, more morose and frightening to me. Gradually I came to fear him, to fear even the sound of his voice, even the sight of his shadow. I came to spend days and nights wishing he were dead; wishing he were blotted out of my life; wishing that a better father had taken his place. (20.53)

    Mark's father acts so cold and unloving that Mark and his siblings fear him, rather than love him. (The change in Papa's behavior can be attributed to the hard labor and prison time he has unfairly been subjected to.)

    It soon became evident that the reason my father lived for the moment was because he was terrified of the future – terrified of facing the reality that I was on the way to becoming a somebody in a world that regarded him as a nobody, a world that had stripped him of his manhood, of his power to provide.

    Years of watching him suffer under the double yoke of apartheid and tribalism convinced me that his was a hopeless case, so long as he persisted in clinging to tribal beliefs and letting the white man define his manhood.

    His suffering convinced me that there was no way he could come to understand reality the way I did, let alone understand the extremes of emotions which had become so much a part of me and were altering my perspective toward life, that I no longer seemed his son, and he, to me, seemed no longer the father whose blood still ran in my veins.

    By pining for the irretrievably gone days of drums, of warriors, of loinskins, of huts and of wife-buying, I knew that he could never travel, in thought and in feeling, the course my life was embarking upon, because everything he wholeheartedly embraced, I rejected with every fibre of my being.

    The thick veil of tribalism which so covered his eyes and mind and heart was absolutely of no use to me, for I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that black life would never revert to the past, that the clock would never turn back to a time centuries ago when black people had lived in peace and contentment before the coming of the white man. (33.31-35)

    Mark has overcome his fear but his father hasn't and still lives with it every day. It is safe to say that Papa's fears paralyze him to the point of inaction.

    One of my sisters – despite my insistence that everything be kept secret – told one of her friends that "her brother would soon be going to America," and soon all Alexandra knew. I began to receive threats that everything would be done to stop me from going. Each time I went to play tennis in a white neighbourhood, I thought I was being followed. The police began stopping me in the streets and demanding my papers: luckily my pass was in order. I began wishing that I were leaving the next day, instead of in a year's time. Anything could happen in a year.

    I couldn't afford to cut off my relationship with white tennis players, which probably would have placated the militants, and not give the police the excuse to lock me up; if I did that, how would I prepare myself to face the rigors of American collegiate tennis? I continued with my life as before, and hoped for the best. (53.143-144)

    Though fear has dominated so much of Mark's life, he has finally learned to ignore it, and not to live his life by its demands.

  • Identity

    My father's response was more or less typical of that of other men in the yard. So when my mother and other women in the yard sought ways of escaping from the police – at times hiding in ditches, at times in outhouses, at times in trees, at times on rooftops, at times in secret underground hollows and at times waking in the middle of the night and leaving home to drift along some faraway street until the police were gone – he and other men would frown, and, with affectations of bravery, continue with business as usual. For a long time I did not understand why my father and other men acted this way, until one day I heard talk among the womenfolk that the real reason why their husbands refused to run away was that they considered it cowardly and unmanly to runaway from other men (4.11).

    The black men of Alexandra need to save face. Though they don't want to get arrested, they don't want to appear cowardly in front of the women. Even if prison and hard labor is brutal and ugly, they choose to endure it, rather than lose face.

    Participating in my father's rituals sometimes led to the most appalling scenes, which invariably made me the laughing stock of my friends, who thought that my father, in his ritual garb, was the most hilarious thing they had ever seen since natives in Tarzan movies. Whenever they laughed at me I would feel embarrassed and would cry. I began seeking ways of distancing myself from my father's rituals. I found one: I decided I would no longer, in the presence of my friends, speak Venda, my father's tribal language. I began speaking Zulu, Sotho and Tsonga, the languages of my friends. It worked. I was no longer an object of mockery. My masquerade continued until my father got wind of it.

    "My boy," he began. "Who is ruler of this house?"

    "You are, Papa," I said with a trembling voice.

    "Whose son are you?"

    "Yours and Mama's."

    "Whose?"

    "Yours."

    "That's better. Now tell me, which language do I speak?"

    "Venda."

    "Which does your mama speak?"

    "Venda."

    "Which should you speak?"

    "Venda."

    "Then why do I hear you're speaking other tongues; are you a prophet?" (5.3e-46)

    Papa tries to instill in Mark an identity similar to his, as a Venda man. The language he speaks is a critical part of his identity. Mark discovers at an early age just how political language can be. He realizes he wants acceptance, not just from his father, but from his peers. As a result, Mark starts speaking the language of his peers to distance himself from his father's culture and be accepted in theirs.

    I was a fool all right, but I was a fool of my own free will. I was not prepared to prostitute myself for food or money. I would rather have died than do that….

    Throughout all the years that I lived in South Africa, people were to call me a fool for refusing to live life the way they did and by doing the things they did. Little did they realize that in our world, the black world, one could only survive if one played the fool, and bided his time. (10.125-126)

    Mark charts his own path. He refuses to sell his body, mind, or soul. He'd rather be himself and find freedom than have a full stomach.

    The ordeal lasted the entire day, at the end of which I seethed with hatred and anger; I wanted to kill somebody. I can't take this degradation anymore, I told myself as I headed for the black bus stop, new passbook in hand: it contained my picture, fingerprints, address, employers address, age, colour of hair and eyes, height, tribal affiliation – it contained every detail of my life necessary for the police to know my life history upon demand, and I was supposed to carry the damn thing with me every hour of the day and night.

    But how could we blacks allow whites to do this to us--to degrade us, to trample on our dignity – without fighting back? The fact that for the rest of my life I was doomed to carry the odious thing – a reminder of my inferior station in South African life – filled me with outrage and revived my determination to get to America. (53.98-99)

    Mark realizes that as much as whites degrade blacks, blacks are allowing it and perpetuating the vicious cycle. He is determined not to let them define his life and resolves to go to America, where he can live a free life.

    My father, in light of my continued successes at school, had begun claiming all the credit. For instance, each time we had visitors, my performance at school would come up for discussion, and my father would be quick to point out that I had "inherited his exceptional brain." Yet the next minute he would be warning my mother not to "waste money on school materials, because an education was a worthless thing to have as a black man." I could not understand the apparent contradiction. (29.84).

    Though Mark's father wants to see Mark be like him, he's also proud of Mark's success and feels it reflects on him.

    "Pickaninny has one brother and three sisters," Granny said of me, "and the fifth one is on the way."

    "My God! What a large family!" Mrs. Smith exclaimed. "What's the pickaninny's name?"

    Using pidgin English, I proceeded not only to give my name and surname, but also my grade in school, home address, tribal affiliation, name of school, principal and teacher – all in a feverish attempt to justify Granny's label of me as a "smart one." (30.68-70).

    Mark is as eager as Granny to demonstrate his intelligence. Mark's entire family feels it reflects well on them to have a relative as smart as Mark. It boosts their collective identity, just as it does his.

    The remark that black people had smaller brains and were thus incapable of reading, speaking or writing English like white people had so wounded my ego that I vowed that, whatever the cost, I would master English, that I would not rest till I could read, write and speak it just like any white man, if not better. Finally, I had something to aspire to. (30.114).

    Spurred on by Clyde Smith's racist remarks, Mark gives himself the personal goal to become educated. He resolves to become just as educated as a white man.

    Thus my consciousness was awakened to the pervasiveness of "petty apartheid," and everywhere I went in the white world, I was met by visible and invisible guards of racial segregation. Overtly, the guards---larger-than-life signs that read, European Only, Non-European Only, Whites Only, Non-Whites Only, Slegs Blankes, Slegs Nie-Blankes – greeted me, and led me as a blind man would be led to the door I should enter through, the elevator I should ride in, the water fountain I should drink from, the park bench I should sit on, the bus I should ride in, the lavatory I should piss in.

    The invisible guards, however, did not greet me as conspicuously to orient me about my place in life. Instead, remarks such as "You're in the wrong place, Kaffir," "We don't serve your colour here, Kaffir," "Who do you think you are, Kaffir?" "Are you mad, Kaffir" told me it was still the guards of Jim Crow talking. (32.40-41).

    The constant reminders of apartheid – both physical and verbal – represents constant attempts to shape Mark's identity as an inferior human being.

    We both knew that we were on a collision course. I was set in my ways, he in his. He disparaged education, I extolled it; he burned my books at every opportunity, I bought more; he abused my mother, I tried to help her; h e believed all that the white man said about him, I did not; he lived for the moment, I for the future, uncertain as it was. (33.30)

    Mark fashions his identity in total opposition to that of his father's identity.

    "I always knew you would end up going to America," he [Mr. Montsisi] said.

    "Is that so?"

    "You're an unusual type," he said. "You believe in yourself. That's what we blacks as a nation need. Faith in ourselves. We believe too much of what the white man tells us about ourselves, and the results of that have been disastrous: whites are running our country." (53.155-157).

    Partly because of his mother and grandmother's encouragement, Mark has kept his determination to do what he needs to do to save himself from apartheid. Mr. Montsisi points out that self-confidence has allowed him to do it.

  • Religion

    But other men were not so lucky. They had no money, having paid it all out in bribes over the course of many arrests. They would be carted in vans and trucks to Number Four, a notorious prison for black people in Johannesburg. Repeat offenders and those whose passbook crimes were considered more serious would be processed to a maximum-security penitentiary called Modderbee, on the outskirts of Kempton Park. I would often hear the womenfolk say that Moderbee was a "hell which changed black men into brutes, no matter how tough and stubborn they may be." Almost every night before we went to bed, whenever my mother happened to have one of her premonitions, she would pray in earnest to our ancestral spirits that the day never would come when my father would be sent to Modderbee.

    "Will prayers stop the police from coming, Mama?" I asked one evening. Somehow I had the vague feeling that all my mother's prayers were useless, that no amount of prayer could stop the police from violating our lives at will.

    "No," my mother replied.

    "Then why do you pray?"

    "I don't know." (4.13-17)

    Mama prays because she's helpless and has no human to turn to that can help her. She feels that praying is the one thing she can do to try to protect her husband and children.

    That evening I listened as my mother weaved a poly to get my father to take us to the tent: she played on his obsession to acquire wealth and status by telling him that the prosperity of some of his neighbours, nominal Christians, was probably due to their conversation to the Christian faith.

    My father listened, and afterward reflected deeply, seemingly trying to find a way to rebuff my mother's claims. But there seemed no way he could disprove them, for our Christian neighbours were indeed faring better than we and other adherents to tribal religions: they had better furniture, better clothing, more food on the table, radios and stoves, better shacks, more beds, and some of them even had used cars.

    "And this afternoon," I put in, "I heard them say that those who came to the tent will hear 'good news' so glorious…" I went on to restate the evangelists' invitation.

    "Okay," my father said finally…(9.17-20)

    Swayed by material concerns, Papa agrees to give Christianity a try. At least, he agrees to go to the revival.

    At that a Zulu woman in tribal garb stood up and shouted: "We don't need Christianity. We have our religions of a thousand years. We don't need to worship a white man's god when we have our own."

    The cross-eyed evangelist turned a full circle and faced the woman. He lifted his megaphone and directed it to the woman's head, took a deep breath and blared: "O, woman of little faith. The Bible is full of people like you, whose sins made them doubt that Christ is the only true living God. Unclean woman, did you know that our ancestors never knew Christ until the white missionaries came?"

    "We had no need for Christ," the woman retorted.

    "See how the devil speaks through you," the cross-eyed evangelist gloated. "Everybody needs Christ. Our forefathers, who for centuries had lived in utter darkness in the jungles of Africa, worshipping false gods involving human sacrifices, needed Christ bad. That's why God from his sacred seat in heaven one day looked at Africa and said to Himself, "I cannot in all fairness let those black children of mine continue to follow the evil path. They've already suffered enough for the transgressions of their cursed father, Ham. I've got to save them somehow." 'But how can I save them," the mighty God wondered, 'for there's none among them who knows how to read or write, therefore I cannot send them my Ten Commandments.' God worried over the problem for days and nights, until one day he stumbled across the solution: He would send to Africa his other children in Europe, who already knew the Word. Indeed the white missionaries – valiant men like Dr. Livingstone – heard the call and braved treacherous seas and jungles and disease to bring our ancestors Christianity.

    After years of fervent preaching by the missionaries, many of our stubborn ancestors finally opened their dark hearts and grass huts to God's light. Some became full Christians, and discarded tribal ways of worship. Others, however, while they did take up Christianity, continued to worship tribal religions, under the delusion that they could have it both ways. Still others refused completely to see the light, and they passed that refusal to their descendants, down to this day." (9.29-33)

    The conflict between Christianity and the ancient religions of African ethnicities is demonstrated in this scene. The Africans who have converted to Christianity look down on their brothers and sisters as inferior because they haven't accepted the good news. The Africans who have maintained allegiance to traditional beliefs react with predictable anger to the Christians' attitude.

    "But I need a job," my mother insisted, "and haven't you noticed that all the Christians have jobs?" Besides, going to church won't mean that I will stop worshipping your religion." She put an emphasis on the word your.

    "You can't have it both ways, dammit," my father said angrily.



    A month or so later my mother defied my father and secretly took us to the local Full Gospel Church, where we were baptized. Though baptized, I still continued being skeptical about Christianity. As for my mother, despite openly and proudly calling herself a Christian, her tribal beliefs continued as strong as ever, latently when things seemed to be going right, and actively when things were going wrong. Hers was a Christianity of expediency. (11.27-28; 30).

    Initially, Mark's mother becomes a Christian out of practical concerns. She doesn't want her children to go hungry any longer, and believes that converting to Christianity will bring financial gains.

    "I agree makulu, madam," Granny said, wiping her sweaty brow wither forearm. "All children, black and white, are God's children, madam. The preacher at my church tells us the Bible says so. 'Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not; for of such is the kingdom of heaven,' the Bible says. Is that not so, madam? Do you believe in the words of the Bible, madam?"

    "I'm afraid you're right, Ellen," Mrs. Smith said, somewhat touched. "Yes, I do believe in the Bible. That's why I cannot accept the laws of this country. We white people are hypocrites. We call ourselves Christians, yet our deeds make the Devil look like a saint. I sometimes wish I hadn't left England." (30.96-97).

    Mrs. Smith is the first white person that either Granny and Mark have met who recognizes that apartheid is evil. She also recognizes that justifying it with religion is wrong. Through his experience with Mrs. Smith, Mark learns that there are sympathetic whites even in South Africa.

    I frowned upon organized religion for the simple reason that about me I saw it being misused: by the government in claiming that God had given whites the divine right to rule over blacks, that our subservience was the most natural and heavenly condition to be in; by some black churches to strip ignorant black peasants of their last possessions in the name of payment for salvation of their souls; and by the same churches to turn able-bodied men and women into flocks of sheep, making them relinquish responsibility for their lives in the hope that faith in Christ would miraculously make everything turn out right.

    Worst of all, I found among members of some churches a readiness to accept their lot as God's will, a willingness to disparage their own blackness and heritage as inferior to the white man's Christianity, a readiness to give up fighting to make things just in this world, in the hope that God's justice would prevail in the hereafter, that the hungry and the oppressed and the enslaved in this world would feast on cornucopias while singing freedom songs and hosannas in a heaven without prejudice. In short, organized religion made blacks blind to, or avoid to seek escape from, reality. (36.4-5)

    Mark believes in justice here on earth, and faults religion for its emphasis on rewards in the afterlife. He also recognizes that religion seems to be a legitimizing force for apartheid.

    "Don't you think God has had some influence on the way your life is turning out?" she said one night after I had just finished reading her Scriptures….

    "I have no way of telling, Ma," I said, "except that I do somehow believe there is something more powerful than man out there in the universe. Some call it a Force, some call it God, some call it luck."

    "What do you call it?"

    "I call it 'The Force,'" I said, laughing. (36.8-11).

    Though he criticizes organized religion, Mark still believes in God.

    "They keep returning, my boy," Limela said, shaking his head despairingly. "And each time they tell me, in different ways and each way more devious than the last, that this God of their forgives all sins, be they a black man's or white man's. Boy, would you, if you were God, forgive white people for what they're doing to us?"

    "Never," I said.

    "Don't lead the children astray, now, Limela," said the mfundisi. "Jesus said, 'Let the children – '".

    I cut him short. "I'm not a bloody child, mister, and I'm going to no fucking Jesus." Warming up, I continued, "I know people of your kind. You're dirty stinking liars! You make people forget reality and dream about some stupid heaven no one really knows exists!" (36.35-38)

    Mark declares that there are some sins God can never forgive. He believes that enslaving people and forcing them into poverty is one of those sins. Another such sin is providing people with false hope.

    The house became a pulpit. Everyone who passed through our house had to be told abut my mother's God. Her new God turned her into a believer that every problem was solvable, every obstacle surmountable; she never got angry or wished anyone ill or hated her enemies, for she believed that her all-loving God would not approve of such emotions. Even her criticism of my father lessened; she tolerated every abuse he hurled at her; she even gave him money. She loved to share the little she had and would often bring home complete strangers off the streets – tramps, prostitutes, lunatics and even tsotsis – and would share with them whatever little food was there, and occasionally she would let them sleep over for a night or two. (39.19)

    Mark's mother has finally "got" religion, and it's transformed her into a new person that Mark barely recognizes.

    I left the church as confused as I had entered it. But one thing was certain: my mother wasn't insane. She could in some mysterious way communicate with her God. But I knew I could never have her kind of faith; I could never believe as deeply in a God who seemed oblivious to the pain of blacks and seemed to favour whites, for suffering had made me, at too young an age, too dependent upon my own free will. (39.31).

    Though Mark is able to recognize that his mother's faith is genuine, he is unable to submit himself to any power other than his own mind and will.

  • Hate

    The other policeman meantime was still at the doorjamb, reveling at the sight of my father being humiliated. The emotional and physical nakedness of my father somehow made me see him in a different light – he seemed a stranger, a total alien. Watching him made tears surge to my eyes, but I fought desperately to keep them from flowing. I cannot cry, I told myself, I would not cry, I should not cry in front of these black beasts. For the first time in my life I felt hate and anger rage with furious intensity inside me. What I felt was no ordinary hate or anger; it was something much deeper, much darker, frightening, something even I couldn't understand. As I stood there watching, I could feel that hate and anger being branded into my five-year-old mind, branded to remain until I die. (3.82)

    Mark's first brush with the police teaches him what it means to be hated and to hate. It will affect him the rest of his life.

    He tore me away from my mother and lashed me. She tried to intervene, but my father shoved her aside and promised her the same. I never finished my meal; sobbing, I slunk off to bed, my limbs afire with pain where the rawhide had raised welts. The next day, as I nursed my wounds, while my father was at work, I told my mother that I hated him and promised her I would kill him when I grew up. (5.13)

    Trying to teach Mark to abide by Venda traditions and rules, Papa only succeeds in teaching Mark to hate and fear him.

    But things didn't get better. If they did, I didn't notice it. Gradually, I came to accept hunger as a constant companion. But this new hunger was different. It filled me with hatred, confusion, helplessness, hopelessness, anxiety, loneliness, selfishness and a cynical attitude toward people. It seemed to lurk everywhere about and inside me: in the things I touched, in the people I talked to, in the empty pots, in the black children I played with, in the nightmares I dreamt. It even pervaded the air I breathed. 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)

    Hunger produces hate and anger. The physical has severe ramifications on the emotional.

    The ordeal lasted the entire day, at the end of which I seethed with hatred and anger; I wanted to kill somebody. I can't take this degradation anymore, I told myself as I headed for the black bus stop, new passbook in hand: it contained my picture, fingerprints, address, employers address, age, colour of hair and eyes, height, tribal affiliation – it contained every detail of my life necessary for the police to know my life history upon demand, and I was supposed to carry the damn thing with me every hour of the day and night.

    But how could we blacks allow whites to do this to us--to degrade us, to trample on our dignity – without fighting back? The fact that for the rest of my life I was doomed to carry the odious thing – a reminder of my inferior station in South African life – filled me with outrage and revived my determination to get to America. (53.98-99)

    While trying to get his pass, Mark realizes that every official part of the apartheid system is intended to degrade and oppress blacks. Not surprisingly, he reacts with anger and hatred.

    "Those aren't men, boy, that's vermin," the scarfaced man retorted. There was fire in his big bloodshot eyes as he spoke. "That vermin is being brought here to get gold for the white man, boy," he went on, "to make the white bastards fat and rich and powerful and deadly." He paused and took three deep draws from tobacco wrapped in brown paper. "If all these years that vermin hadn't been licking the white man's ass, boy," he went on, making another obscene gesture with several stub fingers in his left hand, at another passing truck, "we would have long had political rights in this country. And I wouldn't be standing here freezing my ass off waiting for the bloody offices to open so that I could have my pass stamped so that I could hunt for a job so that I could feed myself, my wife and my brood so they wouldn't die." His run-on sentences throbbed with anger and hatred. It seemed as if somehow my questions, naïve and unpremeditated though they were, had, nonetheless, provided him with some long-awaited opportunity to vent his pent-up frustrations and bitterness. The way he denounced the blanketed people, and the way the rest of the men around the fire supported what he was saying, made it seem that, somehow, their inability to find work, to earn a living, to have self-respect and dignity, to be real men in the eyes of their wives; in short, the disintegration of their lives, was blameable on the convoys coming into the township. Somehow, in their anger and hatred, I could see traces of my father's anger and hatred. What created men like these? I didn't know. (20.27)

    Though Mark doesn't yet know the psychological damage that apartheid does to black men – that it turns them into violent, angry, hateful men – he'll learn soon enough.

    I couldn't quite understand why white people would suddenly give a black child things. Out of the goodness of their hearts? No, white people had no hearts – that I had been learning every day of my life. They were to be feared and hated. (29.7)

    When Granny's new employers send books back with her to give to her grandson, Mark wonders what ulterior motive they have.

    Phineas was one of thousands of black migrant workers in Alexandra forced to live hundreds of miles from their families because of Influx Control laws, which discouraged black family life in what the government called "white South Africa." In the township, no other group lived as unnaturally as the migrant workers. Housed mostly in sterile single-sex barracks, they were prey to prostitution, Matanyula [sex with young boys, paid for in food], alcoholism, robbery and senseless violence; they existed under such stress and absorbed so much emotional pain that tears, grief, fear, hope and sadness had become alien to most of them.

    Stripped of their manhood, they hated the white man with every fibre of their being. Anger would leap into their eyes each time the words white man were uttered. Rage would heave their chest each time something or someone reminded them that it was the white man who kept their families away from them. Each time I saw that anger and hate, I knew that they felt a pain so deep it could not be expressed; that though they laughed and chaffed with one another, as they tried in vain to drown their sorrows in gourds of liquor, something inside them was slowly dying.

    There is a death far worse than physical death, and that is the death of the mind and soul, when, despite toiling night and day, under sweltering heat, torrential rain, blistering winds, you still cannot make enough to clothe, shelter and feed your loved ones, suffering miles away, forcibly separated from you. (29.103-105)

    When men cannot provide adequately for their families, it creates anger and rage. In South Africa under apartheid, the fact that so many men couldn't provide for their families provoked justifiable hatred for whites – those who perpetrated the system.

    A million times I wondered why the sparse library at my tribal school did not carry books like Treasure Island, why most of the books we read had tribal points of view. I would ask teachers and would be told that under the Bantu Education law black children were supposed to acquire a solid foundation in tribal life, which would prepare them for a productive future in their respective homelands. In this way the dream of Dr. Verwoerd, prime minister of South Africa and the architect of Bantu Education, would be realized, for he insisted that "the native child must be taught subjects which will enable him to work with and among his own people; therefore there is no use misleading him by showing him the green pastures of European society, in which he is not allowed to graze. Bantu education should not be used to create imitation whites."

    How I cursed Dr. Verwoerd and his law for prescribing how I should feel and think. (31.3-4).

    Mark is angered by the system's broad scope. It has even created a system of education intended to produce inferior blacks, whose only purpose in life is to provide labor for the people in power.

    Thus my consciousness was awakened to the pervasiveness of "petty apartheid," and everywhere I went in the white world, I was met by visible and invisible guards of racial segregation. Overtly, the guards---larger-than-life signs that read, European Only, Non-European Only, Whites Only, Non-Whites Only, Slegs Blankes, Slegs Nie-Blankes – greeted me, and led me as a blind man would be led to the door I should enter through, the elevator I should ride in, the water fountain I should drink from, the park bench I should sit on, the bus I should ride in, the lavatory I should piss in.

    The invisible guards, however, did not greet me as conspicuously to orient me about my place in life. Instead, remarks such as "You're in the wrong place, Kaffir," "We don't serve your colour here, Kaffir," "Who do you think you are, Kaffir?" "Are you mad, Kaffir" told me it was still the guards of Jim Crow talking. (32.40-41)

    The laws of apartheid aren't nearly as problematic as the hate that inspired the system in the first place.

    I just didn't want to see the man [Bob Foster, the black American light heavyweight champion of the world.] Why? I had begun to hate him. Since his arrival in the country, he had made various statements that infuriated many black people. Statements like: he was in South Africa only to fight, and not to engage in politics; therefore the press should stop hounding him for comments on apartheid. That he felt South Africa was not such a bad place after all, and he was thinking of someday building a vacation home here. (38.27)

    Mark sees Bob Foster's decision to be apolitical as betraying blacks everywhere. Ironically, he later justifies his own decision to spurn the black boycott of white tennis during the South African Breweries' Open because it benefited him. Do you think Mark is doing the very thing he accused Foster of doing?

  • Violence

    The pounding and kicking at the door awakened y sister, and she started screaming from under the table. After what seemed like an eternity I unlatched the door. As it swung wide open, with tremendous force, two tall black policemen in stiff brown uniforms rushed in and immediately blinded me with the glare from their flashlights. Before I knew what was happening one of them had kicked me savagely on the side, sending me crashing into a crate in the far corner. I hit the crate with such force that I nearly passed out. With stars in my eyes I grabbed the edges of the crate and tried to rise, but I couldn't; my knees had turned to Jell-O, my eyes were cloudy and my head pounded as if it were being split with an axe. AS I tried to gather my sense, another kick sent me back to the floor, flat on my face. As I went down, my jaw struck the blunt side of the blade of an axe jutting form the side of the crate. My head burned with pain. Blood began oozing form my nostrils and lips. Several of my teeth were loose. I started screaming, forgetting all about my fathers' rule, begging for forgiveness form my assailant for whatever wrong I had done. (3.25)

    The Peri-Urban police use violence even on black children because under apartheid, blacks of all ages are seen as inhuman. Such a conclusion was used to justify all kinds of repugnant behavior.

    "Shut your mouth!" she screamed. "Don't you have enough brains in that big head of yours to realize that you can't talk like that here! Not in front of him! You know what he'll do when he hears you talk like that about him? He'll shoot you dead, that's what he'll do! Now calm down and keep your mouth shut, when we get in there! He won't hurt you so long as I'm with you. Keep your mouth shut, you hear? – or you're dead." (20.69)

    When Mark sees the white man who leads the nightly raids in Alexandra, he's terrified. His mother tries to shut him up by using terror and violence to control him. Violence is such a normal part of their world that it seems normal to use it to control a child.

    My parents, thinking I was bewitched, took me to a witch doctor, who made me drink a strange brew and bled me with a razor blade, all to no avail: I continued withdrawing into myself. What made this death different from the many others I had seen previously I do not really know.

    One thing I do know was that I could not understand the morbid cruelty and satanic impulses that drove people to kill others. For what? I asked myself. What is to be gained from killing a fellow-sufferer? (27.38-39)

    Witnessing such an inhumane act as a vicious murder causes Mark such anguish that he isolates himself from the rest of humanity.

    I kept silent, sensing that Jarvas was provoking me into saying something that might give him an excuse to stab me. I bore the stream of filth he and his cohorts spewed at me, for I knew that it was better to act a coward and live than to act a hero and end up six feet under.

    "What have you to say, wimp?" Jarvas sneered. "Will you fight, or will you hide behind your mama's apron like a little girl?"

    "I'll fight in the next fight," I said. (31.18-20)

    The gang is not going to let Mark leave without a fight. Although Mark recognizes the necessity of staying away from violence, he is afraid and agrees to fight.

    On the way home, voices kept ringing in my head. Why do you fight when you don't want to? It could easily have been you with the gouged eye. Are you willing to pay such a price for conformity? Leave the gang, leave it now, while you still have both eyes, and your life; leave it now and be called a wimp for the rest of your life, if need be; but do not needlessly, recklessly and foolishly jeopardize your future.

    I never again fought for any gang. (31.25-26)

    Mark draws a line in the sand, realizing he doesn't want to lead a life that will get him killed. He'll take his books and tennis and run for his life.

    My mother, when she heard the full story behind my decision, heaved a deep sigh of relief and said, 'You had two paths to choose from, just like every black boy in Alexandra: to become a tsotsi, or not to become a tsotsi. You chose the difficult way out. From now on, the going will be rough, for your tsotsi friends will try everything to make you change your mind. I hope you will remain firm in your decision. If you do, chances are you'll live to be old enough not to regret it."

    My father in a typical remark said, "Watch out they don't kill you." He paused, then added, "Maybe it's about time I sent you to a school back in the homelands, where they'll make a warrior out of you." (31.29-30)

    Mama is relieved that Mark has chosen not to be violent. Ironically, his father suggests his way out of one kind of violence is learning another kind – the life of a Venda warrior.

    "Okay, now, boy," growled one of the men. "Put that knife down and come quietly. You'll only be gone three months."

    "Three months," exclaimed my mother. "He can't afford to be gone that long! Exams are coming up soon."

    "This is the most important exam of his life, musadi," said one of the men. "He's to be tested for his manhood."

    "Maybe he can go next year."

    "I'm not going anywhere, ever," I said. "If I need to be circumcised I'll go to the clinic. I'll kill anybody that dares lays a hand on me." (37.14-18)

    Mark knows that violence is the only thing that will make him safe, and the only thing that these men will listen to. He therefore uses violence to protect himself from his father's decision to kidnap him and make him attend tribal school in the bus.

    We in South Africa had never been called slaves, though, all along, day in and day out, we had been treated worse than slaves. None of our ancestors, as far as I could tell from our distorted history, had ever been shackled and considered chattel, bred and traded like cattle, as the ancestors of the American black had been.

    Yet somehow, in a mysterious, diabolical way, our growth as a people, our aspirations as individuals, our capacity to dream and to create, our hopes for the future as a nation united, had been ruthlessly stunted by whites who possessed our lives from birth to death. (38.45-46)

    Though blacks in South Africa were never slaves, the psychological violence committed against them under the system of apartheid was just as bad.