On an early winter morning in 1965, when Mathabane is five and his sister Florah is three, Mathabane wakes to see his father leaving for work while it is still dark. His mother steps out to use the bathroom but rushes back in, yelling that Mathabane and his sister need to wake up. Outside he hears sirens, dogs, glass shattering, and men yelling and stomping in heavy boots. His mother tells him, “Peri-Urban is here.” Even at five, Mathabane recognizes the name of the police force; it fills him with terror.
Mathabane begins his direct narration with a long, detailed scene of violence and terror from his early childhood. This not only establishes the hellish environment apartheid creates for children, but also suggests that the trauma and terror of such instances shape his early childhood memories, which will, in turn, shape his development as an adult.
Outside, Mathabane hears gunshots—it sounds like “the world [i]s somehow coming to an end.” His mother lights a candle so he can dress, but keeps it away from the window. She looks frantically for her passbook until Mathabane remembers that he’d hid it under the table, beneath the cardboard he sleeps on. A shaft of light shoots through the window and Mathabane’s mother hides behind the door until it’s gone. Mathabane’s infant brother, George, cries from the next room and Mathabane knows he must go quiet him, but he feels frozen with terror. Mathabane’s mother inches out the door and tells Mathabane that she’ll be back soon. He’s terrified by the prospect of being alone, but she leaves him with George and Florah.
As Mathabane recognizes, this scene has an almost apocalyptic air to it, suggesting that at his young age, a violent police raid truly feels like the world is crumbling around him. The responsibility that Mathabane bears on his shoulders—watching after his younger siblings when he is only five, quieting his infant brother so the police don’t find him—indicates that suffering under apartheid will force him to grow up far faster than he would in a safer environment.
As soon as his mother leaves, Mathabane bolts the door shut and barricades it with furniture so the police cannot kick it in. George and Florah are both hysterical, and Mathabane tries to quiet them by slapping them and yelling at them, though he too is gripped with fear. He holds a blanket over George’s head to muffle his screaming, unaware that the baby could suffocate. The screams stop. Mathabane creeps back to the window and sees black policemen, directed by a white man, rounding up naked black men and women in the yard.
The image of five-year-old Mathabane beating his younger siblings to quiet them not only suggests that he is too young to handle such responsibility, but also suggests that violence frames his entire world. Outside, the police inflict violence onto his neighbors, possibly his parents. Inside their home, desperation and fear drives Mathabane to inflict violence on his little siblings.
Three of the policemen walk toward Mathabane’s shack. He hears them say there are probably no gangsters in this shack, but at least they can extort a bribe. However, George rolls off a bench in the next room and gashes his forehead open, howling with pain. When the policemen hear the infant screaming, they decide it’s only children in there so it isn’t worth their time. Mathabane stems the bleeding from George’s head while they wait three hours for their mother to return home.
The policemen’s frank admission that they will try to extort money suggests that not only is apartheid oppressive and racist, but the people who enforce it are utterly corrupt. Such corruption only adds to the disadvantages facing black people under apartheid, from which it seems nearly impossible to rise.