Mathabane’s maternal grandmother, Granny, helps pay some of their rent. Mathabane asks his mother why they don’t just move in with Granny until his father returns, but his mother explains that his father’s family will not allow it—by tribal law, his wife and children are his property, and thus not allowed to live under someone else’s roof. The family finds some hope when a shopkeeper agrees to pay their rent if Mathabane’s mother will clean for him on the weekends. Additionally, a new garbage dump opens in Alexandra where Mathabane’s family and many other desperate people can go to look for food scraps.
Tribal law’s restriction on Mathabane’s family seems to defy reason, especially when such a move might help them to survive. This suggests that, like apartheid, much of tribal law is pointedly arbitrary, creating artificial obstacles to survival that need not exist.
Mathabane, his mother, and his siblings leave early each morning to meet the garbage trucks at the dump, then dig until sundown collecting food scraps and useful items that white people threw away. One day, Mathabane finds something soft, which he imagines must be food, buried in a large package. His mother takes the package and begins to unwrap it but jumps back, shrieking. Inside lies a dead black baby girl, “beginning to rot.” As they go home that day, Mathabane’s mother explains how some black women, afraid they’ll lose their jobs for white families due to “accidental pregnancy,” smother their newborns and put them in garbage bins. Mathabane asks why they aren’t arrested for murder, but his mother tells him, “Police don’t arrest black people for killing black people.”
The image of Mathabane’s family surviving by digging through white people’s trash highlights the severe economic disparity between black and white people in South Africa. The episode of Mathabane’s mother finding a dead baby girl not only demonstrates the horror of living in such extreme poverty, but also the desperation it drives some people to, where they’ll murder their own children in order to survive. Mathabane’s mother’s comment that the police don’t care about black deaths again suggests that they do not protect or serve black people in any way, but merely oppress them.
After nearly a year of absence, when his family has essentially written him off as dead, Mathabane’s father returns. His demeanor is dark and cruel, like “that of a black man being changed into a brute.” He tells Mathabane’s mother about the slave-like labor he did on white farms, building white roads, and shares his “vindictive hatred for white people.” Mathabane hopes that his father’s return will mean food for the family once again, but this isn’t the case. His father needs a new passbook, and although he leaves before sunrise every day to get one from the administrative office, the officials keep refusing him, giving him “the runaround” and insisting that he needs this or that form.
Mathabane’s father’s transformation in prison suggests that extreme suffering and oppression can fill any person with hatred, hardening their prejudice toward others. Once again, Mathabane’s father’s inability to get a new passbook, despite trying to go through the official process, demonstrates how apartheid uses endless bureaucracy to hold black people back, rather than set them up for success, suggesting that it is a structurally oppressive system.
Mathabane grows so hungry that he begins to hate his newborn sister, Maria, for nursing at his mother’s breast, since she gets to eat while he does not. One day, he’s so hungry that he hallucinates that their shack is spinning around him and all of the furniture is laughing. He falls against the brazier and shrieks that he is on fire, even though his mother tells him he is fine. His mother swaddles him tightly in a blanket and sings to him until he falls asleep.
Mathabane’s hatred toward his nursing sister is obviously irrational, though it stems from Mathabane’s own desperation, rather than a lack of character. Like Mathabane’s father, such a transformation suggests that extreme suffering can cause hate and anger to fester inside a person, to the point that they hate not only their oppressor, but anyone who does not suffer as much as they do.
Mathabane’s father eventually gets his old job back, but even with the new income the family feels a “sense of insecurity and helplessness.” Mathabane’s father drinks and gambles much of their income away, and often fights with Mathabane’s mother, referring to her as “the woman he bought.” However, one evening his father stumbles home drunk with a bag of chicken parts for them to eat, and Mathabane remembers it as one of his family’s few happy moments together.
Mathabane’s family’s continued hunger on account of his father’s irresponsibility demonstrates how suffering tends to perpetuate itself and become multilayered. Not only must Mathabane face systemic racism and oppression, but also his father’s own interference, demonstrating how a person in Mathabane’s position can be faced with seemingly insurmountable disadvantages.