When Mathabane’s mother starts hinting that Mathabane be attending school soon, he vows to never go. He runs with a gang of older boys who thinks school is a waste of time, unnecessary for survival in their world, and he believes them. One morning, his mother wakes him at four in the morning and forces him to bathe, which he almost never does. Granny arrives and she and his mother dress Mathabane in his father’s clothes, folding and tucking them to fit his small frame. When Granny lets slip that they’re taking him to school, Mathabane fights and tries to escape, so Granny takes a length of rope and ties his hands and feet. They carry Mathabane to school, meeting a woman on the way who remarks that she wishes she’d hauled her own son to school; instead he became a tsotsi. Now he’s dead.
In addition to the violence Mathabane suffers from his father, the police, and gangs, Mathabane’s mother and teachers often use violence to enforce good behavior as well, such as going to school. While this doesn’t advocate for corporal punishment, it does suggest that violence is so commonplace in Mathabane’s world that it seems the only thing many children will respond to. The woman who lost her son confirms the necessity of binding and physically hauling Mathabane to school against his will, since the alternative is much worse.
They meet the principal at school, who warmly greets Mathabane’s mother and says that he’s heard much about Mathabane already. His mother tells the principal it took nearly a year to get the birth certificate and all the paperwork in order, but Mathabane is finally ready. The principal sympathizes that the paperwork is horrible, but as important for children as passbooks are for adults. Looking through the paperwork, the principal raises the concern that Mathabane is half-Venda, and this is not a Venda school. When his mother tells the principal that the family speaks Shangaan when Mathabane’s father is not present, the principal agrees to make an exception.
Despite her hard work, the fact that it takes Mathabane’s mother nearly a year just to acquire the paperwork to enroll her son demonstrates the scale of disadvantages facing black children. Beyond paying for tuition, getting good grades, finding opportunities, the difficulty of even enrolling a black child suggests that under apartheid, it is monumentally difficult for someone to rise from poverty, even through education.
With registration settled, Mathabane’s mother and Granny take him home, and Mathabane leaves to play soccer with friends. Part of him wants to run away and never attend school, but he remembers the woman grieving her lost son and thinks perhaps he ought to. When he gets home, a neighbor tells him that his parents were fighting. Mathabane’s father won’t let him inside and threatens to come out and kill him. Mathabane says he’ll kill his father too, and then runs to Granny’s house, where he finds his mother with a bruised and swollen face.
This scene marks a major transition in Mathabane’s story where his parents become opposing influences in his life. In the thematic conflict between tribal identity and modern education, Mathabane’s father represents tribalism and a loyalty to one’s roots, even at the cost of one’s own personal development; his mother represents change and modern education.
Mathabane’s mother doesn’t want to talk about the fight, but Granny pushes her to tell Mathabane what caused it. Mathabane’s father is furious that Mathabane’s mother enrolled him in a “useless white man’s education,” and Mathabane’s father doesn’t want his mother to work to pay the school fees, since it makes his father look bad. Granny mentions that, technically, Mathabane’s father does own his mother, since he paid the “bride price” for her, but his mother wants to leave his father. Mathabane’s mother tells him that she wants him to go to school because so he can “have a future” rather than turn out like his father. She assures Mathabane that education “will open doors where none seem to exist” and make him “a somebody in this world.”
Mathabane’s father’s ownership of his family under tribal law limits both Mathabane and his mother’s freedoms, indicating that aspects of his father’s tribal identity are misogynistic and restrictive. His mother’s hope that Mathabane will “have a future” rather than be like his father suggests that she sees no value in Mathabane’s father’s obsessive tribalism, but rather understands the importance of leaving it behind for the sake of modern education and a chance to succeed in the modern, Westernizing world.
When Mathabane’s mother tells him that she never had the chance to go to school, though she always wanted to, he vows to attend school “forever.” Mathabane realizes that the family is now firmly divided into two sides: his mother who wants him educated versus his father who wants him to remain ignorant. He chooses his mother’s side.
Mathabane’s summary of his parents’ convictions suggests that tribalism, though it upholds one’s heritage, is the opposite of progress—it cannot offer the same freedom in the future as a modern education can.