Passages from Mark Mathabane’s “Kaffir Boy”

Not too long ago I read the autobiography Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane. Its about the author growing up in apartheid Alexandra, South Africa. The Arabic word kaffir is South Africa’s equivalent to nigger.

The book begins in the mid 1960’s. South Africa’s regime is like the United States government after reconstruction. Blacks are always in fear of disappearing or committing suicide under police custody. The apartheid regime raid poor black townships asking people to show their “pass,” which during American slavery, would’ve been the same as a free black person showing a proto-patrol officer his or her freedom papers.

Coming from an ultra capitalist consumer culture, Mathabane’s description of poverty reads like science fiction. Its unfathomable: shacks, dirt beds, cardboard blankets, rags for clothes, trash is food, families scavenge dump sites and the likelihood of finding a dead baby in the garbage isn’t uncommon. At one point Mathabane and his family ate boiled cow’s blood because it was the only part of the animal that butchers threw away.

The terrorism of starvation and South Africa’s police state gave Mathabane every reason to become a tsotsis (a street kid). It would be like becoming a drug dollar for lack of options. The tsotsis themselves had already claimed his fate, threatening to hack him to death for thinking that he was too good to join them. School was for suckers. Getting high, prostituting, and boosting food or merchandise was the hustle. Blacks were living in subhuman conditions. Whites had plush homes and paved streets.

In America, its a stereotype that in order for a poor black kid to escape poverty, they either have to be a phenom basketball player or rapper. Mathane played tennis, which at that time, for South African blacks, was a white rich man’s sport.

This is by no means a book review. I just wanted to throw up some revealing passages. Definitely peep that joint though, Kaffir was enthralling and a great story about perseverance. Read the excerpts below:

Another thing that caused a stir among teachers and students was my peculiar way of writing: I wrote upside down, literally. When I first learned how to write in Sub-standard A, I found it natural to write upside down, for it seemed that somehow my brain and left hand could only coordinate when I wrote upside down. To me, writing this way was the most natural thing; yet those who saw me do it shook their heads in disbelief and remarked that they had never seen anyone who wrote like me.

I understood well what she meant by “trouble.” It being a sunny Saturday afternoon, white people milled all over the place—walking in and out of boutiques, in and out of flower shops, in and out of hotels, in and out of department stores, in and out of Mercedes Benzes, Rolls-Royces and other expensive cars, in and out of tennis courts, in and out of houses and flats, and in but never out of my consciousness.

I remained silent, wondering whether I had underestimated the enormity of my crime of standing on the steps of a white bus. Were the poor white passengers going to die as a result?
After a long pause, during which she calmed down, Granny said,
“Forgive me for the outburst, child, but what you did was no small thing in the eyes of white people and the law. There’s something you ought to know about how things are in this country, something your Mama I see has not told you yet. Black and white people live apart–very much apart—that, you already know. What you may not know is that they’ve always been apart, and will always be apart—that’s what apartheid means. White people want it that way, and they’ve created all sorts of laws and have the guns to keep it that way.”
“We live in our world,” she continued, after taking a pinch of snuff and loading it under her tongue, “and white people live in their world. We’re their servants, they’re our masters. Our people fought hard to change things, but each time the white man always won. He has all the guns. Maybe another generation of black people will come which will defeat the white man, despite his many guns. But for now, he says how things should be, and we have to obey. Do you see those two things over there?” Granny pointed across the street.
“Yes, Granny, they’re phone boxes.”
“That’s right,” she affirmed. “But they are not just phone boxes. One is a black phone box, the other a white phone box. Don’t forget that. And for as long as I’ve been working for white people, and God knows I’ve been working for them for centuries, I’ve never seen a black person in his right mind go into the wrong one. It might be a matter of life and death, and still he wouldn’t. Even blind people know which is which.”
“Which one is for black people, Granny?” I asked, somewhat confused, for the two phone booths were exactly the same in all respects—colour, size and shape.
“I don’t know which is which,” Granny grooped for words, “but there’s always a sign on each door, to tell which race is allowed to use which phone.”
As she said this, it struck me that she could not read, like millions of other blacks who worked for whites. How did they function normally in a world totally ruled by signs?
Thus my consciousness was awakened to the pervasiveness of “petty apartheid,” and everywhere I went in the white world, I was met by visible and invisible guards of racial segregation. Overtly, the guards—larger-than-life signs that read, European Only, Non-European Only, Whites Only, Non-Whites Only… greeted me, and led me as a blind man would be led to the door I should enter through, the elevator I should ride in, the water fountain I should drink from, the park bench I should sit on, the bus I should ride in, the lavatory I should piss in.
The invisible guards, however, did not greet me as conspicuously to orient me about my place in line. Instead, remarks such as “Your’re in the wrong place, Kaffir,” “We don’t serve your colour here, Kaffir,” “Who do you think you are, Kaffir?” “Are you mad, Kaffir?” told me it was still the guards of Jim Crow talking.

He couldn’t donder (whip) me as he used to when I was a child, for I was growing stronger and more stubborn every day. We both knew that we were on a collision course. I was set in my ways, he in his. He disparaged education, I extolled it; he burned my books at every opportunity, I bought more; he abused my mother, I tried to help her; he believed all that the white man said about him, I did not; he lived for the moment, I for the future, uncertain as it was.
It soon became evident that the reason my father lived for the moment was because he was terrified of the future—terrified of facing the reality that I was on the way to becoming a somebody in a world that regarded him as a nobody, a world that had stripped him of his manhood, of his power to provide….
His suffering convinced me that there was no way he could come to understand reality the way I did, let alone understand the extremes of emotions which had become so much a part of me and were altering my perspective toward life, that I no longer seemed his son, and he, to me, seemed no longer the father whose blood still ran in my veins.
By pining for the irretrievably gone days of drums, of warriors, of lion skins, of huts and of wife-buying, I know that he could never travel, in thought and in feeling, the course of my life was embarking upon, because everything he wholeheartedly embraced, I rejected with every fiber of my being.

I flatly refused to sit under some leaking roof listening to a demagogue out to make money by sending people on guilt trips and pretending to speak in tongues. That was the nature of some preachers in Alexandra, whose extremely obedient flocks were variously known as “The Donkey Church,” “The Seven Wives Church,” “The Hundred Rand Net Worth Church.”
I frowned upon organized religion for the simple reason that about me I saw it being misused: by the government in claiming that God had given whites the divine right to rule over blacks, that our subservience was the most natural and heavenly condition to be in; by some black churches to strip ignorant black peasants of their souls; and by the same churches to turn able-bodied men and women into flocks of sheep, making them relinquish responsibility for their lives in the hope that faith in Christ would miraculously make everything turn out right.
Worst of all, I found among members of some churches a readiness to accept their lot as God’s will, a willingness to disparage their own blackness and heritage as inferior to the white man’s Christianity, a readiness to give up fighting to make things just in this world, in the hope that God’s justice would prevail in the hereafter, that the hungry and the oppressed and the enslaved of this world would feast on cornucopias while singing freedom songs and hosannas in a heaven without prejudice. In short, organized religion made blacks blind to, or avoid or seek to escape from, reality.
Maybe my mother did see reality in all its shades and colours, and was simply using organized religion to cultivate qualities like patience, resilience, fortitude, hope and optimism. I do not know. All I know is that I wanted to carry the burden of my own life, to use whatever talent I had to carve a niche in a world where the odds were against my doing so. I instinctively knew that organized religion would hinder rather than help me; would torpedo my best-laid plans.
My mother tried to convince me that the preacher, herself and myself should work together as a trio to accomplish these goals I had set myself in life, but I wouldn’t be convinced. What did the preacher know about tennis?
“Don’t you think God has had some influence on the way your life is turning out?” she said one night after I had just finished reading her Scriptures. Because she could not read, my mother always requested that I read her several verses every night before she went to sleep. I gladly obliged; that was the least I could do at the moment to show appreciation for all she had done and was doing for me. Besides, I loved reading the Bible, mainly for the beauty and richness of its language, the early wisdom contained in many of its passages, and that sharpness which comes to the mind when one listens to the case of the existence of God Being persuasively argued by men and women of different viewpoints who walked this earth in time immemorial.

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