The Book Report

‘Kaffir Boy’ is a heartbreaking and inspiring memoir

More stories from Erica Jones

DIY diaries
May 9, 2018

As I worked on this article, I complained about how my computer was running slowly, the fact that I was thirsty and even that my back hurt. Across the world, people are experiencing real reasons to complain, yet they keep their misery to themselves.

A great example of this can be found in Mark Mathabane’s autobiographical “Kaffir Boy.” This book follows Mathabane, whose given name is Johannes, as he grows up in apartheid South Africa. (This was taking place roughly the same time as America’s Civil Rights Movement.) As a young Black individual, he faces discrimination, segregation and humiliation from the time he is born.

The book starts when Mathabane is very young, sleeping under his family’s kitchen table with only a few old newspapers to keep him warm. Throughout his adolescent years, his hatred for his father and his love of school grow simultaneously. He struggles to stay out of Alexandra, South Africa’s gangs, keep his siblings fed and keep his own hopes high in spite of the crushing reality of apartheid.

As he gets older, Mathabane fosters a passion for speaking out against the oppression those in his community face. He finds White people who have no idea what pain the government’s restrictions cause for Black people, and he details their struggles for those who are willing to listen.

Meanwhile, he becomes fluent in English, excelling in his studies and making his family proud. He improves his tennis game and makes connections with influential Whites. All this to hopefully one day realize his dream of going to an American university on a tennis scholarship.

But by no means is it an easy trajectory. Mathabane’s family is usually painfully poor, so he regularly faces corporal punishment at school for not having the proper uniform or books. His father believes so deeply in tribal values that he sees his son as a disgrace and a traitor for thinking of school as a window to the rest of the world.

He witnesses death of children his own age and sees his peers sexually manipulated by soldiers in exchange for food.

Through “Kaffir Boy,” readers get a bit of insight into what it was like to live in South Africa as a Black individual.

Amazon gives Mathabane’s first book 4.6/5 stars, while GoodReads gives it 4.14. I might even go so far as to give it a 4.75. The author is an excellent narrative writer who knows how to keep his audience captivated. I found myself thinking about what would happen next as I sat in class or did my homework. Because it’s a true story, it keeps readers holding out hope for what will become of Mathabane despite his horrific circumstances.

“Kaffir Boy,” is laden with heavy material. Reading of the terrors of apartheid South Africa can be physically repulsive and peering into Mathabane’s onerous struggle is a hard pill to swallow. But you will be better for reading this book. From it, you’ll gain a new perspective on a country you likely knew nothing about.

I recommend “Kaffir Boy” to anyone who is seeking exposure to the problems people experience in less privileged countries. It’s eye-opening and heartbreaking, and it has the potential to make Americans realize how good we have it when we think about our own first-world problems, which is a reality check we could all use from time to time.