Kaffir Boy

Kaffir Boy


Mark Mathabane

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Kaffir Boy Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Mark Mathabane's Kaffir Boy. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Mark Mathabane

Mark Mathabane was born in South Africa in 1960, the oldest of seven children. As a black child in South Africa, Mathabane felt the full weight of apartheid’s oppression throughout his childhood. As detailed in Kaffir Boy, his autobiography, Mathabane excelled in school, but his education was constantly challenged by poverty, racism, police brutality, and gang violence. He took up tennis as a teenager, and mentors and coaches soon recognized his athletic potential. He formed positive relationships with several white foreigners in South Africa who did not abide by apartheid’s strictures, which gave him glimpses of the outside world and the freedom it offered. Mathabane’s profile in South African tennis steadily rose, though it was disrupted for several months when he participated in the Soweto Uprising in 1976, a student protest movement against the apartheid government’s forcing of the Afrikaans language on black students. White police opened fire on unarmed students, turning the protest movement into months of angry mobs, riots, and violence, in which an estimated 700 people died—mostly at the hands of police. After graduating secondary school, tennis star Stan Smith helped Mathabane get an athletic scholarship to a college in South Carolina, though he changed schools twice before graduating with an economics degree in 1983. Although Mathabane eventually worked as a lecturer and college professor, his literary success began shortly after college. In 1986, Mathabane published Kaffir Boy, which became a national best-seller and garnered him interviews with Oprah Winfrey and President Bill Clinton at the White House. Mathabane wrote his follow-up autobiography Kaffir Boy in America in 1989, as well as several biographies about his family members, and two novels, Ubuntu and The Proud Liberal. Mathabane lives with his wife and children in Portland, Oregon.
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Historical Context of Kaffir Boy

Although racial segregation already existed in South Africa, where Kaffir Boy takes place, in 1948 the ruling National Party strengthened its legal enforcement and widened its scope with their new battery of laws called “apartheid,” which is Afrikaans for “separateness.” Apartheid aimed to consolidate land, wealth, and power within the white minority, at the expense of the black majority. In 1950, the government passed The Group Areas Act, which banned certain races from living, travelling, or working within certain zones, partitioning sections of land for each race. This was the first of the three Lands Acts, completed in 1955, which gave white people full ownership of over 80 percent of South Africa’s land, despite being a very small minority. To enforce this segregation and prohibit black people from traveling on white land, the government enacted several “pass laws,” requiring every black citizen to carry government identification on them at all times that dictated where they were or were not allowed to live, travel, and work. Between 1959 and 1970, when Mathabane grew up, the National Party passed a series of acts that established 10 tribal “homelands,” called Bantustans, and declared every black South African to be a citizen of one of the Bantustans, regardless of whether they truly were or not. By making every black person a citizen of a Bantustan rather than South Africa proper, the National Party completely eliminated the black majority population’s ability to vote. Resistance to apartheid policy by both black and white people lasted for decades. Internally, South African police met protestors and insurgents with brutal violence, opening fire on thousands of unarmed adults and children at several events. Internationally, many countries condemned South Africa’s racial policies and called for apartheid’s abolition, forcing the country to withdraw from the British Commonwealth, forgo participating in international sports, and become increasingly insular rather than give up the white minority’s authoritarian rule. In 1990, the white president F.W. de Klerk began dismantling apartheid’s legislative authority, allowing people of any race to run for public office, though much segregation remained and heavily disadvantaged the black population. In 1994, anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela was elected South Africa’s first black president and led the coalition government in finally disbanding all of apartheid’s legal strictures. However, many of apartheid’s social and economic effects remain to this day.

Other Books Related to Kaffir Boy

Mathabane wrote several books that continue his account of his life and experiences as a black man, both in South Africa and America. His second autobiography, Kaffir Boy in America, describes his early years in America experiencing both American freedom and American prejudice. Mathabane also wrote Love in Black and White, exploring the dynamics and social taboos of his marrying a white woman named Gail Ernsberger. His biographies Miriam’s Song and African Women tell the stories of his sister, mother, and grandmother, exploring the burden of apartheid from female perspectives. Beyond Mathabane’s writing, Alan Paton’s novel, Cry, the Beloved Country, is widely considered one of the most significant pieces of literature concerning apartheid—Mathabane references it multiple times in Kaffir Boy. Published in the same year that apartheid law became established, Paton’s novel depicts a priest, Stephen Kumalo, as he travels Johannesburg searching for his son and grieving the economic and social disparities that gave rise to apartheid. Additionally, Nelson Mandela’s landmark autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, tells his own story of coming of age under South African apartheid, including his long imprisonment for speaking against it. Since apartheid was primarily the conflict between native African and encroaching Europeans, Chinua Achebe’s novel, Things Fall Apart, is also of value. Though concerning Nigeria rather than South Africa, it reflects on the same conflict between Europeans and Africans, and describes white people’s incursion into Nigeria in the late 19th century and the disruptions they caused.
Key Facts about Kaffir Boy
  • Full Title: Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa
  • When Written: New York
  • Where Written: 1984-1985
  • When Published: 1986
  • Literary Period: contemporary
  • Genre: Autobiography
  • Setting: South Africa
  • Climax: Mathabane receives athletic scholarships from several American universities and is able to escape apartheid South Africa for the U.S.
  • Antagonist: Apartheid
  • Point of View: First Person

Extra Credit for Kaffir Boy

Banned in the U.S.A. Kaffir Boy is banned in several American schools due to the scene depicting child prostitution, which some critics deemed “pornographic.”