Study Guide

Kaffir Boy Race

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…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.


"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.

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