In the end of 1966, Mathabane’s father’s employer lays him off. His father decides he needs a new job, so he goes to the Bantu Affairs Department to get the permit that allows him to look for work. However, a policeman arrests him on his way there for having a stamp in his passbook that signifies he has no job. “His crime, unemployment, [i]s one of the worst a black man could commit.” Mathabane and his mother hope that his father will return in four weeks, the usual sentence. When he does not, they fear he’s gone to Modderbee. Without his father’s income, Mathabane’s family goes hungry. He realizes that his hunger makes him love and miss his father, rather than resent him.
Mathabane’s father’s arrest demonstrates how apartheid uses bureaucracy to structurally oppress black people, trapping them in catch-22 situations and then unjustly imprisoning them for it. Although Mathabane’s father lost his job through no fault of his own, and though he’s trying to find a new one, the police arrest him for trying to adhere to the law. Such a system suggests that apartheid’s laws are written exclusively to oppress black people and hold them back from their full potential, rather than serve any actual administrative function.
After two months of his father’s absence, Mathabane asks his mother why his father is arrested so often. His mother explains that his father’s passbook is not in order, nor can it ever be, and that every black person must always carry their passbook with all the particular permits. She shows Mathabane her own and the sight of it fills him with dread. Later, Mathabane learns that the passbook is “the black man’s passport to existence.”
The passbooks symbolize apartheid’s dominion over black people’s lives. Just as they must always carry their passbooks, they must always carry the burden and fear of apartheid as well, since they can be arrested at any time for nearly any conceivable reason. Just as it’s virtually impossible to have one’s passbook in order, succeeding under apartheid as a black person seems similarly impossible.
As months go by, Mathabane’s family grows desperate. He is so hungry he often passes out. His mother struggles to pay rent on their shack. Zulu men arrive with spears and machetes, demanding payment for some unknown reason, and take all of the furniture as collateral. George and Florah come down with a “mysterious illness” that nearly kills them, leaving them “emaciated and lethargic.” Although few people in Alexandra are Christians, everyone celebrates Christmas each year by buying cheap new clothes from an Indian shop and cookies and Kool-Aid for the children. However, Mathabane’s mother announces that they won’t celebrate Christmas, and Mathabane and Florah are crushed.
Mathabane’s family’s near-starvation embodies the suffering they endure simply to survive. Their lack of a Christmas celebration demonstrates how such suffering and poverty—ultimately caused by apartheid law—negatively impact their social lives as well. On top of the family’s hunger, Zulu men (who are also black and oppressed) extort them for even more money, suggesting that oppression and violence from their fellow sufferers adds to their struggle to survive under apartheid. This unfortunate situation thus demonstrates the many layers of disadvantages facing people like Mathabane and his family.
January, February, and March pass without Mathabane’s father returning home. His mother’s personality darkens, and she starts drinking heavily. Mathabane himself grows irritable and angry, picking fights with other kids and “abus[ing]” his siblings. To calm his restlessness, his mother starts making him help with the housework. Mathabane notices that, though he grows skinnier by the day, his mother’s stomach is expanding. He believes she is stealing food, and asks her about it one day, but she reveals that she’s just pregnant.
Although Mathabane’s mother later becomes a sweet and loving mentor, her struggles in this period turns her dark and sullen, suggesting that long suffering can have a drastic impact on one’s personality. Mathabane’s misunderstanding of his mother’s pregnancy reiterates how young and naïve he is, in spite of having already faced such heavy and prolonged suffering himself.