Food prices, rent, and bus fares all go up, but Mathabane’s father’s wages remain the same. The family again grows desperate for food, so they begin finding cheap alternatives to groceries, including black worms that resemble leeches, weeds that grow near lavatories, and cattle blood, which they get for free from a nearby slaughterhouse. Mathabane hates all of it. They stop drinking blood when the men at the slaughterhouse start charging for it.
Mathabane’s father’s wage stagnation demonstrates yet another way that poor black people suffer under apartheid, as the cost of living rises despite their income remaining the same. Eating leeches and drinking cattle blood typifies the suffering and desperation that define Mathabane’s early childhood.
One day Mathabane sits in the yard, watching after his siblings while his mother looks for work in town. As he watches stray dogs sniff at a rotting cat’s carcass, he wonders if there’s any way for him to safely get meat from the carcass and avoid the worms that are eating it. Maria, still an infant, smears her own feces on herself because it makes the dogs lick her, tickling her. Mathabane kicks the dogs away and drags Maria to the yard’s communal water tap to clean her. His mother returns home; she couldn’t find a job.
Mathabane’s description of their daily life again demonstrates his extreme destitution under apartheid. Such a scene is particularly awful when the reader recalls that white people in the same city enjoy one of the highest standards of living in the world, demonstrating the severe economic disparity between races in South Africa.
Mathabane asks his mother why their father can’t provide for them, but she has no real answer. When he asks if he and his siblings truly are his father’s children—something he hears his father insinuate when angry at his mother—his mother smacks him hard across the mouth. She quickly apologizes and explains her nerves are brittle because of their poverty, and Mathabane sees how sad she is and forgives her. He accepts that hunger is always with him, present in his days and his dreams. During the days, he finds soccer games to play in the street, so that he can think of something besides food. This is how he develops a love of sports.
Mathabane’s question of whether he and his siblings are really his father’s children foreshadows his later conflict about how to regard his father as their familial situation continues to worsen. Just as the police are a constant fear for Mathabane, hunger forms a constant presence in his mind, suggesting that ongoing suffering influences his behavior much like acute trauma does. Mathabane’s use of soccer to ignore his hunger suggests that sport can be a an effective method of escape from one’s suffering.
In Mathabane’s neighborhood, there is a compound that houses migrant workers from the tribal reserves. One day, he sees a group of boys around his age—between five and seven years old—accompanied by a 13-year-old named Mpandhlani. The boys ask Mathabane if he wants to get food and money, but Mpandhlani tells them that they’ll have to wait until tomorrow. Mathabane joins them the next day, eager to see how they’ll get food and money, and Mpandhlani leads them into the compound, past a grinning guard keeping watch at the gate.
This episode in Mathabane’s life demonstrates the degree that many young black people go to survive apartheid’s oppressive poverty. Although it’s unclear at this point what the boys are doing to earn money, given that Mpandhlani is much older than them, the reader can guess that he is preying on the younger boys' desperation. On the other hand, the fact that Mpandhlani is only 13 himself suggests that in such an environment, one may begin exploiting others at a very young age in order to survive.
Inside the compound, grown Zulu warriors practice fighting in the yard. One of them winks at the young boys as they walk past. Mathabane feels an inexplicable urge to flee, but all the warriors in the yard make him too afraid to try. Mpandhlani leads the boys into a building in the back of the compound, full of bunks and shirtless men. It smells ghastly. The boys walk to a group of men in the back, who are stoking fires and cooking lots of food and invite the young boys to eat their fill, saying, “The food is free.” There are eight men and 10 boys.
Although everyone in Alexandra seems to suffer, the wealth of food in the barracks contrasts with Mathabane’s family’s struggle to feed themselves at all. This suggests that along with the economic disparity between white and black people, there is also significant disparity within the ghetto in Alexandra and the black community itself.
Mathabane refuses to eat, which bothers the men, but Mpandhlani explains that “he’s new.” After the other boys eat their fill, the grown men give them each a handful of coins to keep, except for Mathabane since this is his first time. All of the boys strip naked and line up, touching their toes, while the men smear Vaseline on the boys’ anuses and their own penises. One of the men reassures Mathabane that it’s just “a game” the men and boys play together. Mathabane still doesn’t completely understand what is happening, but panics and flees, sprinting out the building, across the compound, and through the gate before any of the men can catch him.
Although this scene is horrific—and has gotten autobiography banned in several high schools—it candidly reflects the horror and desperation of many black people’s lives as they struggle under apartheid. In this case, the boys are willing to prostitute themselves to older men in order to earn food and money. The other boys have clearly done this before, suggesting that they habitually endure such suffering and sexual assault so they can survive. Exposure to such evil at his young age suggests that Mathabane is losing his innocence far earlier than what is normal and healthy.
Mathabane never tells anyone about what he saw, afraid that the Zulu warriors will react with violence if the police come for them. Later, Mathabane learns that child prostitution is common practice in Alexandra and that the police never stop it. On occasion, Mathabane sees Mpandhlani and his crew of young boys, all well-fed. They call Mathabane “a fool” when they see him, as many will throughout his life for not living the way most black people in South Africa do. Mathabane reflects that such foolishness is the only way to truly survive.
Mathabane’s reflection that he must be a fool to truly survive suggests that life under apartheid encourages people to give in to their desperation and do whatever it takes to ease their pain, whether drinking or prostituting. However, his reflection suggests that in doing so, they trap themselves in the impoverished lifestyle instead; one can only escape by refusing to submit to their own desperation.