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Review: Historicity in Mark Mathabane's Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youths Coming of Age in Apartheid South Af

Updated on January 27, 2021
Pictured is the edition this review is based off of.
Pictured is the edition this review is based off of. | Source

Mark Mathabane. Kaffir Boy. New York: Free Press, 1986. 354.

Mark Mathabane’s autobiographical novel Kaffir Boy breathes life into apartheid; the social movement many have only ever viewed as a symbol of a long-past time of segregation. The novel however, demonstratesthe extent to which the fact that blacks and whites were physically and socially separated does not do justice to the plight they faced on a day to day basis. The true nature of apartheid in South Africa as presented in Kaffir Boy paints a much starker picture than can be perceived when considering the social movement from any western perspective and is consequently an invaluable source to the historical record.

The historical purpose of Mathabane’s novel appeared to be two-fold. Firstly, his biographical account demonstrated that apartheid in contemporary South Africa needed to be absolved, as reforming only allowed for more cover-ups and more corruption to seep into the system and secondly, that the black African society needed to reject traditional tribal African practices and wholly accept attaining a ‘white’ education as the key to accelerating African societal development (Mathabane, 102-103).

a) The White Reality

The novel was set in the late twentieth century in South Africa where apartheid meant absolute segregation by keeping blacks out of the white urban centers and limiting black movements to designated facilities and homeland territories. Implementing this segregation was a passbook system described by Mathabane as “regulating the movements of blacks in so-called white South Africa” (5). It was the brutalities of this pass book system which Mathabane described as having “first awakened [him] to the realities of life as a Kaffir boy in South America (5).” The narrative which followed presents the realities of this passbook system as having inflicted desperately trying economic and social realities on the black population. It was Mathabane’s mother who explained to his frustration that these difficult realities were in existence because black people had no political rights as the “white people make laws because they’ve been making all the laws since they took over (92)”. The passbook system and the fact that blacks had no political influence whatsoever, kept the black population in South Africa contained, monitored and powerless.

b) Life in the Ghettos

Without a doubt the most appalling and striking parts of the novel depicted the extreme hardships faced by the black populations in the ghettos. The historical realities at work present the extent to which the nature of apartheid was rooted in the white’s desire to prevent the majority black population from impinging upon or dominating the white’s population. Therefore the enactment of legal and territorial restraints provided the groundwork to restrict the blacks on every level. The implementation of the “separate but equal” system of apartheid allowed the South African white population to justify black oppression on the pretense that if they worked hard enough, the black population would be able to gradually increase their autonomy. As Mathabane demonstrated through his autobiography, the theory behind the white apartheid structure however, was that blacks would only attain more autonomy by correctly following the mandates of the system all of which worked to increase and support white prosperity in South Africa. By implementing the pass system which so terrified Mathabane, the whites were securing their access to cheap black labor while at the same time assuring themselves that the black presence in economic South Africa would not grow to the extent that the whites would have to compromise their manipulative grasp on the black population.

Through reading Mathabanes’ account however it became increasingly clear that this initial vision of gradual black autonomy was nothing more than a comforting justification for white domination. Examples of this were abundant in the narrative as the story described how when Mathabane’s father was arrested for not having a job, Mathabane and his family were forced to carouse the local garbage dumps in search of food and came away with so little they were lead to feed on fried locusts and cows blood soup. This poverty and oppression was held in place by the authorities, the “Peri-Urban”, who performed weekly raids on the ghettos violently demanding passbooks and documentation, several of these brutal occasions were described by Mathabane throughout the work (Chapter 2-3). To this extent, the nature of apartheid in South Africa was inescapable because non-conformity was impossible, blacks were not allowed a political say and on a more base level blacks were not allowed to own guns so they could by no means defend themselves from their white oppressors.

c) Justification for the Immobility of the Black Reality in South Africa

Above all, the experiences related by Mathabane in this novel tell us that the nature of South African apartheid was oppressive and was rigorously orchestrated to limit the black populations’ access to equality. The most apparent hindrance to the black populations’ inability to progress and defend themselves against the white minority was their education system. From Mathabane’s account it becomes apparent that because the white populations did not want to encourage the black populations to surpass their use as hard labor slaves, funding for black schools was low, and attaining entrance to school was a difficult feat for the average black family to support on both a financial and social level as attaining proper documentation was made difficult for blacks (117). Even when access to education was achieved the facilities were vastly inferior to those found in white urban centers, the staff much less qualified, the libraries under-stocked and censored and the class sizes were double or triple the size of white children’s (140)”. As was made clear by Mathabane in the novel, education or as Mathabane labeled it his “passport to knowledge” was similarly his passport to progress and it was exactly this passport which the white population wanted to prevent the blacks from attaining. In fact, school even for Mathabane, would have been unattainable and unmaintainable if it weren’t for his extraordinarily sharp mind, and the circumstances which enabled his family and friends (and eventually an American university) to finance it. Very clearly, if it weren’t for Mathabane’s luck in securing a thorough education he would have been unable to ever leave South Africa to pursue higher learning and access to his remarkable account would never have been made available to western readers.

A further justification for the immobility of the black reality in South Africa as depicted in Mathabane’s tale were the traditional African practices which Mathabane protested even as a young boy. Mathabane described how faith in ancestral spirits and rituals were holding back his people and allowing them to hide in their faith as opposed to standing up in the face of oppression. Initially, Mathabane did not explore where his distain of rituals and traditions stemmed from but rather he summarized it as “somehow they did not make sense to me; they simply awed, confused and embarrassed me, and the only reason I participated in them…was because my father made certain I did, by using, among other things, the whip, and the threat of the retributive powers of my ancestral spirits (32)”. Mathabane’s distain for the rituals imposed upon him by his father eventually lead to his exploration of Christianity and his identification of the wrongs which were occurring against his race and lead him to take on a more prominent role in working to abate the plight of his people.

In conclusion, the historicity of Mark Mathabane’s Kaffir Boy clearly depicts many realities of apartheid in South Africa which would otherwise have been overlooked by the historical record. The work is vital for facilitating a clear understanding of the oppressive and restrictive nature of apartheid in South Africa. Most importantly, the work demonstrated that segregation was only at the surface of the racial discrimination which took place in this region. Domination of the white race and their desire to maintain their superiority culminated in a barrage of economically, politically and socially repressive laws being enacted at the expense of black progression and development. Mathabane concluded his autobiography by advocating education, and a movement away from tribal devotion as the best defense against the restraints of the white population.


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