ONE IRONY of the increased American perception of apartheid is that most of the South African writers currently being published in the United States are white. As concerned Americans, we profess our abhorrence of government policies in South Africa, including rampant censorship, though our reading is limited to the country's white literary spokesmen. Nadine Gordimer, Andr,e Brink, Breyten Breytenbach, J. M. Coetzee, Athol Fugard -- all of them fine writers -- provide us with their liberal views of what's wrong with South Africa, yet, still, for all their concern, the picture is one-dimensional.
Perhaps the publication of Kaffir Boy will help change this, though I doubt that Mark Mathabane's autobiography will assuage all liberal guilt. It's too violent and hard-hitting for that. Rather, I'd like to think that Kaffir Boy might acquire the same status that Richard Wright's Black Boy or Claude Brown's Manchild in the Promised Land had for earlier generations of American readers. It is in every way as important and as exciting a book -- with the additional factor of showing us apartheid's horrors through the victim's eyes.
The earliest part of Mathabane's story describes his life as a child in Alexandra, a non- white ghetto of 100,000 people outside of Johannesburg. What he remembers so horrifically are the police raids, night after night, week after week, slicing the darkness with violence and death. Families are torn asunder. Parents are carted off and thrown into prison -- in almost all instances under the guise of the state's attempt to control the Africans' movements from one locale to another.
At the slightest infraction of the Pass laws, people simply disappear. "My parents," he says, ". . . lived the lives of perpetual fugitives, fleeing by day and fleeing by night, making sure that they were never caught together under the same roof as husband and wife." As Mathabane demonstrates, the red tape involved in acquiring proper papers (even for a black man to live with his wife and family) would strain the imagination of Franz Kafka.
Poverty and starvation (in addition to the repeated nocturnal raids) quickly tear families like Mathabane's apart. People become animals. Children grow up accepting violence and death as the norm. Rationality breaks down; life is lived on the bitter level of mere existence. Of his father -- formerly a strong man whom Mathabane comes to hate -- he tells us, "Born and bred in a tribal reserve and nearly twice my mother's age, my father existed under the illusion, formed as much by a strange innate pride as by a blindness to everything but his own will, that someday all white people would disappear from South Africa, and black people would revert to their old ways of living."
Nothing is more pathetic in this book than the author's description of a trip he takes with his father to the tribal reserve, ostensibly so that the boy will identify with the homelands. The son, however, sees the land for what it really is -- barren, burned out, empty of any meaning for his generation. He also understands his father's real purpose for the trip: a quick visit with the witch doctor, who supposedly will assure him of steady work back in the white man's domain. The episode backfires. The boy is determined to give up his father's tribal ways and acquire the white man's education.
That passport to knowledge forms the central part of the story and shifts the focus away from Mark's father to his mother. The two adults could hardly be more unsuited for one another. As his father becomes a shell of his former self (drinking, gambling, even burning his son's school books), Mathabane's mother scrimps, begs and borrows -- and works like a slave -- to keep her children in school. The matriarchal side of the family is further enhanced by Mark's grandmother, who works for a family of liberal whites. Using the discarded comic books that she brings home, Mark teaches himself English. (All schooling for Africans at the time was restricted to tribal languages). He not only excels as a student, but eventually gains one of the prized government scholarships for secondary school.
BECAUSE of a series of coincidences involving his acquaintanceship with liberal whites, Mathabane learns how to play tennis -- ironically his final passport and the one which eventually gets him out of South Africa. He sees Arthur Ashe play and determines to become the equal of the black American athlete. Yet tennis also leads to a further loss of tribal identity. His companions accuse him of becoming an Uncle Tom, little realizing the guilt and rage he keeps stored up within himself. One night, they go so far as to attempto kill him, but Mark is able to outrun them because of his training as an athlete.
In a way, Kaffir Boy is a ghetto tragedy with a happy ending. Mark Mathabane is a survivor -- one of the lucky ones who managed to get an education as well as a visa. (Through his tennis connections, he was awarded a scholarship to a school in North Carolina.) If I have any reservation about the book, it is only the author's use of language. There is no poetry here, as in his compatriots' earlier autobiographies (Peter Abrahams' Tell Freedom, 1954, or Ezekiel Mphahlele's Down Second Avenue, 1959).
Perhaps that is as it should be. Mathabane's life would not seem so extraordinary were it not for the wreckage he describes all around him, his story not so powerful except for the dearth of first-hand accounts from other survivors.