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Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa
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Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa

4.6 58
by Mark Mathabane

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The classic story of life in Apartheid South Africa.

Mark Mathabane was weaned on devastating poverty and schooled in the cruel streets of South Africa's most desperate ghetto, where bloody gang wars and midnight police raids were his rites of passage. Like every other child born in the hopelessness of apartheid, he learned to measure his life in days, not years.


The classic story of life in Apartheid South Africa.

Mark Mathabane was weaned on devastating poverty and schooled in the cruel streets of South Africa's most desperate ghetto, where bloody gang wars and midnight police raids were his rites of passage. Like every other child born in the hopelessness of apartheid, he learned to measure his life in days, not years. Yet Mark Mathabane, armed only with the courage of his family and a hard-won education, raised himself up from the squalor and humiliation to win a scholarship to an American university.

This extraordinary memoir of life under apartheid is a triumph of the human spirit over hatred and unspeakable degradation. For Mark Mathabane did what no physically and psychologically battered "Kaffir" from the rat-infested alleys of Alexandra was supposed to do — he escaped to tell about it.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Like . . . Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land . . . in every way as important and exciting." — The Washington Post

"This is a rare look inside the festering adobe shanties of Alexandra, one of South Africa's notorious black townships. Rare because it comes . . . from the heart of a passionate young African who grew up there." — Chicago Tribune

"Powerful, intense, inspiring." — Publishers Weekly

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Kaffir Boy (1984), one of the best books ever written about apartheid, became a bestseller everywhere but in South Africa, where it is banned. This absorbing sequel, about Mathabane's life in the U.S. since he arrived here at age 18 in 1978 on a tennis scholarship, describes his painful experiences at three colleges in one year and in American society generally. He recalls his editorship of a college paper, disenchantment with the Columbia School of Journalism, encounters with racism, threats to his life, living on a shoestring budget, speaking out against racism, his decisions to become a writer, live in North Carolina and marry a white woman, his success (with Oprah Winfrey's help) in bringing members of his family on a visit to America and in arranging for some of his siblings to remain here to study. Mathabane is a remarkable human being: responsible, committed, reasonable, level-headed, humane, understanding and empathetic. He tells a wonderful, inspiring story and he tells it well. (June)
Library Journal
This is a sequel to Kaffir Boy ( LJ 4/15/86), a best-selling account of Mathabane's youth in a black township in South Africa. It deals with his life in America as a student, writer, and outspoken opponent of apartheid. Like many sequels, this one lacks the power of the original. Kaffir Boy vividly details the horrors of growing up black in a society premised on radical racial discrimination; its wrenching story virtually grabs the reader by the throat. The sequel, in which the author describes both his trials and successes in coping with and ultimately taking advantage of American mobility, pales in comparison. Still, this work does nicely describe the author's ambivalence toward the United States--both America's lure and its continuing racial problems. Generally well written, it is appropriate for most academic and public libraries.-- Anthony O. Edmonds, Ball State Univ., Muncie, Ind.

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Free Press
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Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.43(h) x 0.90(d)
Age Range:
14 - 18 Years

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I am always asked to explain what it felt like to grow up black under South Africa's system of legalized racism known as apartheid, and how I escaped from it and ended up in America. This book is the most thorough answer I have heretofore given.

The last thing I ever dreamed of when I was daily battling for survival and for an identity other than that of inferiority and fourth-class citizen, which apartheid foisted on me, was that someday I would attend an American college, edit its newspaper, graduate with honors, practise journalism and write a book.

How could I have dreamed of all this when I was born of illiterate parents who could not afford to pay my way through school, let alone pay the rent for our shack and put enough food on the table; when black people in Alexandra lived under constant police terror and the threat of deportation to impoverished tribal reserves; when at ten I contemplated suicide because I found the burden of living in a ghetto, poverty-stricken and without hope, too heavy to shoulder; when in 1976 I got deeply involved in the Soweto protests, in which hundreds of black students were killed by the police, and thousands fled the country to escape imprisonment and torture?

In Kaffir Boy I have re-created, as best as I can remember, all these experiences. I have sought to paint a portrait of my childhood and youth in Alexandra, a black ghetto of Johannesburg, where I was born and lived for eighteen years, with the hope that the rest of the world will finally understand why apartheid cannot be reformed: it has to be abolished.

Much has been written and spoken about the politics of apartheid: the forced removals of black communities from their ancestral lands, the Influx Control and Pass laws that mandate where blacks can live, work, raise families, be buried; the migrant labour system that forces black men to live away from their families eleven months out of a year; the breaking up of black families in the ghettos as the authorities seek to create a so-called white South Africa; the brutal suppression of the black majority as it agitates for equal rights. But what does it all mean in human terms?

When I was growing up in Alexandra it meant hate, bitterness, hunger, pain, terror, violence, fear, dashed hopes and dreams. Today it still means the same for millions of black children who are trapped in the ghettos of South Africa, in a lingering nightmare of a racial system that in many respects resembles Nazism. In the ghettos black children fight for survival from the moment they are born. They take to hating and fearing the police, soldiers and authorities as a baby takes to its mother's breast.

In my childhood these enforcers of white prerogatives and whims represented a sinister force capable of crushing me at will; of making my parents flee in the dead of night to escape arrest under the Pass laws; of marching them naked out of bed because they did not have the permit allowing them to live as husband and wife under the same roof. They turned my father — by repeatedly arresting him and denying him the right to earn a living in a way that gave him dignity — into such a bitter man that, as he fiercely but in vain resisted the emasculation, he hurt those he loved the most.

The movies, with their lurid descriptions of white violence, reinforced this image of white terror and power. Often the products of abject poverty and broken homes, many black children, for whom education is inferior and not compulsory, have been derailed by movies into the dead-end life of crime and violence. It is no wonder that black ghettos have one of the highest murder rates in the world, and South African prisons are among the most packed. It was purely by accident that I did not end up a tsotsi (thug, mugger, gangster). It was no coincidence that, until the age of ten, I refused to set foot in the white world.

The turning point came when one day in my eleventh year I accompanied my grandmother to her gardening job and met a white family that did not fit the stereotypes I had grown up with. Most blacks, exposed daily to virulent racism and dehumanized and embittered by it, do not believe that such whites exist. From this family I started receiving "illegal books" like Treasure Island and David Copperfield, which revealed a different reality and marked the beginning of my revolt against Bantu education's attempts to proscribe the limits of my aspirations and determine my place in South African life.

At thirteen I stumbled across tennis, a sport so "white" most blacks thought I was mad for thinking I could excel in it; others mistook me for an Uncle Tom. Through tennis I learned the important lesson that South Africa's 4.5 million whites are not all racists. As I grew older, and got to understand them more — their fears, longings, hopes, ignorance and mistaken beliefs, and they mine — this lesson became the conviction that whites are in some ways victims of apartheid, too, and that it is the system, not they, that has to be destroyed; just as it was Hitler's regime that had to extirpated, not the German people. Such an attitude helped me survive the nightmare into which my life was plunged by the Soweto protests of 1976. A tennis scholarship to an American college, arranged by the professional tennis player Stan Smith, in 1978, became my passport to freedom.

Kaffir Boy is also about how, in order to escape from the clutches of apartheid, I had to reject the tribal traditions of my ancestors. It was a hard thing to do, for there were many good things in my African heritage, which, had it been left to me to choose freely, I would have preserved and venerated. I, too, had the burning need like human beings everywhere to know where I came from, in order to better understand who I was and where I was going in this world. But apartheid had long adulterated my heritage and traditions, twisted them into tools of oppression and indoctrination. I saw at a young age that apartheid was using tribalism to deny me equal rights, to separate me from my black brothers and sisters, to justify segregation and perpetuate white power and privilege, to render me subservient, docile and, therefore, exploitable. I instinctively understood that in order to forge my own identity, to achieve according to my aspirations and dreams, to see myself the equal of any man, black or white, I had to reject this brand of tribalism, and that in the rejection I ran the risk of losing my heritage. I took the plunge.

Being in America has afforded me the rare opportunity of gaining a proper perspective on my African heritage, of looking at South Africa critically, of understanding what it means to be regarded as a human being, of learning about the nitty-gritty of a democracy and, most important, of using the pen to fight against injustice and racism in my native land.

My family is still in Alexandra, undergoing the same hardships I describe in this book. The youths of my generation have become more militant, the tools of repression have become more numerous and sophisticated and black schools and ghettos have become centers of social protest and bloody conflict with the police and soldiers. South Africa has entered its darkest hour, and all its sons and daughters have a responsibility, a duty, to see to it that truth and justice triumph. I hope to do my part.

I would like to thank Edward T. Chase and Dominick Anfuso, my editors at Macmillan, and Fifi Oscard and Kevin McShane, my agents, for their support and encouragement throughout the writing of this book. I would also like to thank Jeanne Moutoussamy-Ashe and Hajima Ota, whose photographs have been invaluable.

New York, 1986

Copyright © 1986 by Mark Mathabane

Meet the Author

Mark Mathabane is the author of Kaffir Boy in America, Love in Black and White, and African Women: Three Generations.

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Kaffir Boy 4.6 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 58 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I am a high school sophomore and I had to do a research project on the apartheid in South Africa. This book didn’t really help me in terms of my research, but it was a very interesting story. I really like the fact that it was a written by someone who experienced the apartheid first hand. It really went in depth on how the black Africans were treated by the white Africans. Mark Mathabane, the author of the book, shared every emotion he had and described the situations he went through very vividly. Mark tells us how he overcame the apartheid at such a young age with his siblings, and how this experienced changed him. He also talks about his education and he mentions how he was the best in his class. He wanted to become the first doctor in his family. He talks about very important events in his life and how close he was to his family. I really enjoyed this book because I got to know how it really was during the apartheid and how it felt. I recommend this book to everyone.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Mark Mthabane, author of 'Kaffir Boy', gives his story of how he struggled and overcame the `white mans¿ prejudice and oppression in his first eighteen years during apartheid South Africa. Mthabane experiences first hand the harsh conditions and prejudicial laws of apartheid, as he grows up with his family in the poverty stricken township of Alexandria. Mthabane describes how as a boy he strived to distance himself from the cruel streets of Africa¿s most dangerous ghetto. His initiation into a young black man¿s society was surviving nightly police raids and destructive gang wars. Mthabane suffered through starvation, fought to live in a world were death and murder was an accepted way of life and unknowingly fought against a future of child prostitution. As a youth man he challenged the white man¿s dominancy over the black population, his rightful opposition against the way black people were treated was often the cause of much of his abuse and suffering. As a way of overcoming his underprivileged lifestyle Mthabane turned his hunger for food into hunger for knowledge, and hope that he could one day work in the white man¿s world as an equal. His mother was his inspiration she pushed herself to the edge of death, as any true mother would, to give her son the opportunity and education to fulfill his dream. He writes about how life gave him an opportunity to grow in the form of tennis. Tennis became his salvation as he made white friends who saw apartheid for what it really was. He experienced the kindness in white people as they helped him achieve his dream, paid for his schooling and showed him how to succeed in a world that saw black people as slaves and underclassmen. He later on was inspired by Arthur Ashe, a famous black tennis player, who strengthened his hopes and led him into excelling at every aspect of his life. He over passed the idea that a black man must one day work for the white man and strove to make himself seen as an equal in the white man¿s world. He would not be discriminated against, he would not become a slave of apartheid, he wanted freedom and his increasing skill in tennis was his path to equality. The message of this book is that anyone with the determination to survive and thrive can, for among the oppressed of Africans poverty Mark Mthabane rose above his likely future to live a fulfilling life and help bring inspiration to other hopeless people. The book was very powerful and inspiring, written by an author who has been through hardships most can not even imagine. This book really opened my eyes to the hate of the African people and the true extent of their discrimination. Writing from his heart, Mthabane opens the eyes of the world to the treatment of his people. I recommend this book to those who need inspiration or feel that something in their life is missing. Mthabane proved that anyone can rise through grief and poverty keeping their dignity and strength as they build their path to freedom.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Kaffir Boy is a very touching story about the author, Mark Mathabane, who grew up in the ghettos of South Africa. Him and his family lived in deep poverty in a place called Alexandra. Alexandra is an awful living situation with tiny shacks, starving people, and inhuman conditions. Mark Mathabane went through it all from the gangs, to excelling in school. His mom was always encouraging him, while his father would be constantly belittling him. White people ruled everything and police were constantly raiding the neighborhoods. Mark worked extremely hard towards his education and was always finishing in the top one percent of his classes. By him excelling, it gave him hope to one day get him and his family out of poverty. All his mother wanted for him and his many siblings, was to get out of poverty so they didn’t have to live such cruel lives.  This book really puts in perspective how thankful we should be for all that we have. These people living in Alexandra have slim to nothing at all, but they still manage to keep on with their lives. Many don’t realize the hardships that black people went through during these times. It was nearly impossible for parents to find jobs, which made them incapable of providing for their families. They barely had roofs over their heads, their living conditions were beyond unsanitary. Even the poorest children here in the United States live better then the children in Alexandra. Children and young adults have opportunities to become all that they want to be, and for that we should be thankful.  I really enjoyed the writing style of the author. The figurative language he used made the book much more enjoyable to read. The story was so harsh that it was hard to put down the book. The only dislike of the book that I have is how awful these peoples lives were. It really made me upset that there was a point where white people treated black people as such peasants. It killed me that his mother kept on bringing people into the world to live such miserable lives. I can say this is my favorite book I’ve read so far. It really was an eye opener.  If you want to read a book that can constantly engage you, Kaffir Boy is the book to read. Not only are you reading an incredible story, but you learn a lot. It makes you realise if the people in Kaffir Boy can be grateful for some of the little things they have, we can be thankful for much more. It leaves you wondering how people lived in such a world where blacks were so degraded and had little to no hope at all for their futures. Boys and girls my age would already have to be working and providing for their families. None of them had freedom to do what they loved and enjoy their lives. This book is one I would highly recommend anyone to read.  
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Mark Mathabane's "Kaffir Boy" is a moving story of his life growing up in apartheid slums of South Africa and the cruel reality he faced to reach the freedom he badly desired. He struggles with the reality of police raids, brutal gang fights, extreme poverty, and starvation. I loved the detail used to describe his life and while I have not struggled nearly as much as Mathabane, I felt that I was experiencing his pain and success throughout his book. Although, there were a few times the descriptions were very graphic which might not appeal to everyone or might be too much for high school curriculum. However, “Kaffir Boy” made me realize the harsh conditions that people face in history and even today and I believe many people could benefit from reading his story. I also liked how he was able to immerse the reader in the South African culture and language without overdoing it and having lengthy explanations. Mathabane brilliantly wrote his story in a way that was an engaging eye-opener to apartheid life and how his determination and hope can lead to a better life while inspiring his people to rise up. He is able to teach others that you can overcome any challenge, regardless or your race or situation. The only thing I wish Mathabane included was insight to how his family is doing. At the end of the book I was glad he had finally achieved his dreams, but it was curious about the rest of his family still in South Africa. It would be interesting to see this autobiography as a movie because I don’t think it would be able to capture as much depth and meaning, but I am sure that a film could still be impactful. Overall, I would rate this book an eight out ten.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I highly recommend Kaffir Boy: The Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa by Mark Mathabane. Never before have I read a book and so fully felt immersed in the authors situation. The descriptions were so vivid, that by the end of the book I pretty much felt every emotion and felt every action the author went through. And it was a shocking picture, giving me a glimpse at something I've never really known or cared enough to know about, apartheid in South Africa. The book begins when the author is a little child, and experiencing the terrors and humiliations of the frequent raids on his shanty town looking for people without the proper "papers" to live there. The total fear and the degrading nature of these appearances were vividly clear, and the only thing you as a reader could do was turn the next page as his father was beaten and stripped in front of his children, then taken to prison to come back months or years later. As he grows older, the author tries to find work and earn something for his family, and even gets involved with the local gang that is notorious for killing people. But thankfully his mom had a plan, and she and the author go through a humiliating and derogatory process to get the papers in order for the author to attend school, the first in his family to do so. Things go up from there. The author excels in school, finds a love for a sport in tennis, and as he's noticed moves up and makes friends untill he finally gets a tennis scholarship to attend a university in America, which is something very few of his people have ever done, and it might even be a first. Overall, Kaffir Boy: The Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa is a powerful, moving tale about one persons childhood and early life, and what he went through and overcame to get where he is today.
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Mark Mathbane's novel reveals a truly harrowing depiction of what life was like in apartheid era South Africa. His childhood memories of growing up in the township of Alexandra are very insightful. The novel provides a detailed account of a world that would otherwise have been lost over the course of time. I also enjoyed Mark Poynter's novel Middleburg, which examines apartheid from the perspective a white minority. While both books examine a similar theme, Middleburg is more entertaining and far more enjoyable to read.
javajulie More than 1 year ago
While I've read about Apartheid, it was amazing and sobering to hear it from someone who lived it. I have a new appreciation for everything I have. The author has a way of writing in a way that celebrates the resilience of children, inspires hope for the future but without being sappy or manipulative. A great read, I highly recommend. I look forward to the sequel.
Respectthepen More than 1 year ago
At first, I thought this was going to be a boring autobiography about how horrible it is in apartheid South Africa. I was pleasantly surprised to find out that not only was it an eye-opening account of his life with apartheid, but it was also an inspiration. It seems like a cliche, but Mark Mathabane's story shows that you can reach any goal as long as you have the dedication and persistance to do it. You will never regret having read this book and will be thinking about it for a long time after you have read the last word.
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Kaffir Boy was an excellent book. Mark Mathabane is a very gifted writer and it is great that he was able to come to America and spread awareness about apartheid South America. Kaffir Boy is moving beyond belief. I could feel his fear when the police bardged into the shack where Mark lived in Alexandra. I could almost feel his pain from hunger and I sympathized with him when his father was taken away for not having his pass in order. Another impressive feature of this Kaffir Boy is the vivid details that Mark uses to explain the tragic events in his life. He describes his run-down shack where his family lived. He recalls the horrors of the random police raids. I was very much impressed with Kaffir Boy's portrayal of Mark's successes and failures. Mark Mathabane comepletely fulfills his purpose. He expresses at the end of the book how he feels compelled to record the everyday tragedies in apartheid South America to raise awareness for the black people still living under extreme racial discrimination. He could not have done a better job. Mark leaves the reader feeling obligated to help the people under racial discrimination. Anyone who reads this book will understand the struggles of people living in apartheid South America and will have broadened their knowledge of the world. I reccomend this book not only as a tool for learning about the history of South America, but also as an inspiring story of a child's struggle to survive and thrive in a world where he is viewed by many as comepletely worthless.
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