The lives of both blacks and whites in apartheid South Africa were regulated by a very rigid system of rules and laws that dictated where each race was allowed to live, work, play, and travel. Whites had far fewer restrictions, since they were only prohibited from entering the small portions of land that had been set aside for the large population of black South Africans. Black South Africans were regulated heavily. The rules governing the lives of black South Africans were so restrictive that it was nearly impossible not to break them at some point or another. The passes blacks were required to carry were difficult to keep in order, and officials made it more difficult than necessary. Mathabane claims that as he grew up, he recognized that if he stayed in South Africa, his future would be dominated by arrests and punishments at the hands of unsympathetic white officials.
Although apartheid was enforced through the legal system, it was the psychological enforcement that proved most effective for keeping the system going.
Even though Mark found himself on the more favorable side of apartheid after graduating from high school and getting a job at Barclays Bank, he knew he would never be satisfied with life until he had the opportunity to live in a free, democratic society like the U.S.
Race was the most important aspect of individual identity in apartheid South Africa. It determined where you lived, who you married, and what kinds of education, job, and housing was available to you. Whites were the privileged elite, with access to the best education, lucrative jobs, and the ability to employ black servants at non-living wages. On the other hand, blacks were systematically oppressed at every turn; their lives were controlled by an unsympathetic government that saw them as inferior beings. The majority of social, legal, educational, political, and religious organizations worked to keep the apartheid system in place and to prevent blacks from escaping poverty and ignorance and gaining a position of equality with whites. Under apartheid, whites banded together to keep blacks oppressed, while blacks were splintered by their ethnic identities and indigenous languages, a practice that government officials exploited and encouraged.
It wasn't until the Soweto school riots in 1976, which Mark describes in detail, when blacks began to unite on a wide scale and fight against their common oppressor. (We learn after the fact that this was never a unified movement, as the police quickly moved in to incite enmity between various groups and tribes.) We do see how Mark suffers ostracism after he decides to strike out on his own and play tennis after black tennis players turned against him. Mark decided that he needed to look out for his best interests rather than the collective interests of black athletes. This was a decision that made many fellow black athletes angry.
Even though Mark was terrified by white people as a child, he had several experiences that enabled him to work hard to feel comfortable within the white world.
Mark's dad provides an important ideological contrast to Mark. Papa argues that all blacks in South Africa will be returned to the reserves, to live a traditional life. It is therefore necessary that Mark to learn about Venda customs and traditions. Papa thinks Mark's education is useless, given the rules and regulations that prevent most blacks from achieving anything. In contrast, Mark sees "tribalism" as the very thing that is holding people back, and believes that the only way to be successful is to learn how to relate to whites in the world they occupy. Kaffir Boy continuously contrasts education with tradition, logic with superstition, and the need to live a modern with the practice or living a traditional life.
Even though Mark's father thinks he can escape apartheid through tribal life, he is actually playing along with apartheid's theories about segregation by participating in Venda traditions and customs.
Although Mark chooses to reject tribal ways of life, traditional ways of life don't have to be incompatible with participation in industrialized society.
One of the most detrimental side effects to apartheid was its destruction of the black family. The rules that determined where people lived meant that most black families didn't live together. Wives and children lived on the reserves, and the men lived in the cities. Despite their back breaking labor, men in the cities were often unable to provide sufficiently for their families back on the reserves. Even families that were together, like Mark's, were often together illegally. The apartheid system created such rage that it perpetuated violence. Mark's father is a prime example. Worked to the bone, unable to even properly feed or clothe his family, and living under constant threat of arrest, Papa becomes unbearably mean. Yet Mark's family does manage to stay together, in large part due to his mother's persistence and hard work.
Even though Mark's family supports his efforts, it also undermines him with demands for his time and money as the first-born son.
Although Mark faces enormous opposition from his father, his mother's support allows him to succeed. This division in the family is only overcome at the very end of Kaffir Boy, as Mark says goodbye, but the narratives holds out little hope that the family can remain united during the four years Mark is in the United States.
Mark's family, like the black families surrounding them, suffers constantly. They routinely experience extreme hunger, malnutrition, and disease. But it isn't just the hunger and starvation that afflict them. Life under apartheid is designed to make people suffer in other ways: they are dominated by feelings of helplessness, hopelessness, and inferiority. We see how suffering affects individuals when Mark decides to leave the gangster life behind and focus on school. His mother tells him that all young black men growing up in the ghettoes have to make the important choice to be a tsotsi (a gangster) or not to be a tsotsi. Mark has chosen a non-violent path, but we learn that his choice is rare. Other young people chose to respond to their suffering by boycotting the schools, or joining the resistance. Mark's father responds to his suffering by oppressing his family. On the one hand, constant suffering was a strategy on the part of apartheid officials to keep Africans docile and needy, but it ultimately backfired.
Although suffering holds Mark back from enjoying unmitigated success, it is also the impetus that spurs him forward and makes him determined to create a new life for himself.
Fear is the first emotion Mark remembers: the fear of whites and the fear of police. Because the police raid his neighborhood almost nightly, violently removing blacks whose passes aren't in order, Mark experiences terror and pain on a regular basis. His own parents are both arrested on various occasions because their passes aren't in order, or because they're unemployed. This leads to more suffering and more fear. Fear is the dominant emotion of Mark's life until he is able to overcome it. He overcomes it through sheer persistence, willpower, and a little bit of luck. His luck comes in the form of his grandmother, who introduces him to a kind white family. By learning that some whites are kind, Mark develops the initiative necessary to strike out in the white tennis world. Because he does overcome his fear, he is able to succeed through education without needing to dominate others. On the other hand, we see that other young black men who have not overcome their fear have sadly turned to violence and guns as a means of coping with reality of apartheid.
Although fear comes close to destroying Mark's life, he is able to rise above it due to his mother's support and love.
Mark's identity is created for him by the South African government: as a young black boy, his entire childhood is headed towards the eventuality of carrying a pass. The pass delineates his tribal affiliation, where he's able to work, and where he can live. But Mark overcomes the South African government's systematic attempts to define his identity. He charts his own path through education and sports and eventually becomes a self-confident young man who believes he has a destiny different than the one defined by the government.
Although the apartheid state tries to define Mark's identity negatively based on the color of his skin, Mark is able to rise above it through his determination and intelligence.
Mark defines himself in opposition to his father at every turn. Mark realizes that his father, though identifying with black culture and tradition, has internalized the white man's vision of his life.
Christianity is portrayed both negatively and positively in this Kaffir Boy. Mark's initial reaction to Christianity is to see it as a tool of apartheid, as the "opiate for the masses," to quote Karl Marx. Mark's mother's conversion to Christianity is "expedient" – she sees that many Christians have good jobs and she wants the material benefits that seem to occur with conversion to the religion. Ultimately, though, she finds God. It isn't until her conversion is real that things begin to look up for her, and Mark begins to see the usefulness of religion. Mark ultimately sees his mother become a kinder person, willing to help others, and find a decent job herself. Though he never fully accepts religion's role in his life, Mark does begin to attend church, pray, to believe that God may be watching out for him.
Although Mark's mother initially converts to Christianity for the supposed material benefits such a conversion is believed to bring, she ultimately finds peace and solace in her relationship with God, causing Mark to support her faith.
The systematic oppression that blacks experience under apartheid South Africa causes many of them to hate all whites. Mark starts out from this position as well, frustrated with the way he's treated. But his anger and hate dissipate as he meets whites who treat him as a friend and an equal. Ultimately, Mark is able to leave the destructive emotion behind him. His family and friends are not always so lucky. The hatred, rage, and anger that many blacks feel fuels the violence that dominates township life.
Although Papa directs his hatred externally towards the whites that demean him, his self-hatred causes him to punish his family unfairly.
Mark experiences hatred for what whites have done to him and other blacks in South Africa, but he is able to overcome his anger and turn into a positive determination to succeed.
Violence is everywhere in Kaffir Boy. Mark is the victim of police violence, the victim of violence perpetrated by his father, and then the victim of violence when he tries to leave a gang that he joined as a young boy. The violence he witnesses makes life seem worthless and pointless. Mark almost commits suicide one day when he's ten years old, and has come to the conclusion that life is not worth all the violence that comes along with it. Mark makes it through his brief suicidal period because of his mother's love, and his love for his little sisters. But the role of violence in his life isn't over. For a short period, Mark participates in violence, such as during the Soweto riots of 1976. Eventually, he realizes he doesn't have a stomach for that kind of life. When he decides not to be a tsotsi (gangster), his mother is relieved, and tells him he's chosen the more difficult, but correct, path.
Although blacks are the victims of state-sponsored violence, they are also often the perpetrators through their roles as policemen, superintendents, and educators.
Although physical violence in Kaffir Boy is common, there are numerous forms of psychological violence as well; the state used both to oppress blacks.