Rare personal glimpse behind apartheid

Kaffir Boy -- An Autobiography, by Mark Mathabane. New York: Macmillan. 354 pp. $19.95. On a bed of cardboard on a winter day, young Mark Mathabane dreams of black people in pools of blood. He thinks of the police -- breaking down the door of his shanty, stopping people on the streets, frisking them for passes, searching bodies and shanties for illegal liquor, arresting his father for the crime of unemployment. This is everyday life in South Africa.

Mark Mathabane lives his childhood between fear and nightmares. ``Kaffir Boy'' is the story of him and his family, who encouraged him to attend school to escape the tragedy of many South African black youths who live in abandoned cars and parking lots because apartheid and fourth-class citizenship confine them to life in the ghetto.

``You are too young to know,'' Mark's mother once told him. His father had become an embittered, unemployed man who drank too much and lived in and out of jail. What Mark does know is that whites make the laws and blacks suffer and survive in fear. But Mark's childhood also includes an attraction to the street gangs, who play ``ghost'' in the infested alleyways and hunt for buried treasure. Mark is drawn to their more ``exciting'' life, and thinks that school will be a waste of time. Fortunately, his mother and grandmother eventually convince him that education offers a possible escape from the racism and poverty of his life.

The dust jacket of ``Kaffir Boy'' compares it to Richard Wright's ``Native Son,'' although Wright's character, Bigger Thomas, is a psychopath, and Wright's novel is about a man without conscience who succumbs completely to the racism of Chicago in the 1930s. Mathabane's book better resembles Wright's autobiography, ``Black Boy,'' and, like that book, concerns a search for freedom, a growing pride and strength. An even closer resemblance may be found to James Baldwin's ``Notes of a Native Son,'' for the depiction of conflictive affection between Mark and his father, and the close ties between Mark and the women in his family.

With relentless honesty, Mathabane observes the effects of apartheid on family and community relationsips. The people in his narrative are often illiterate, victims of poverty and constant fear, and consequently are often cruel and harsh with one another. Theirs is a system that turns blacks against blacks. In ``Kaffir Boy,'' the reader is given a rare personal glimpse, behind the televised protests and boycotts, of the daily fear and hunger which is devastating to both the body and the soul.

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