Mark Mathabane’s autobiography, Kaffir Boy, is an account of Mathabane’s childhood growing up as a black person under apartheid, South Africa’s set of segregation laws installed in 1948 by white Afrikaners (Dutch, German, and French Europeans who settled in South Africa). He describes how every aspect of apartheid is designed to maintain a strict racial hierarchy, with the minority of white Europeans at the very top and black Africans at the very bottom. The government grants each person different rights and freedoms depending on their race. For Mathabane, overcoming the many disadvantages he experiences as a black person under apartheid is the greatest struggle of his childhood. Kaffir Boy’s description of apartheid demonstrates how its deliberately racist hierarchy and structural inequalities dehumanize black people and hold them back from fulfilling their potential, ultimately arguing that it is a baseless and oppressive system.
Mathabane describes how apartheid is built on an “arbitrary racial classification,” arguing that such an arbitrary system has no basis in reality. Apartheid dictates that each race fits within a legal hierarchy which determines their rights in society: white people are at the top, allowed to own property, and marry or not marry as they so choose, and speak against the government. Black people are at the bottom, not allowed to own property, often not allowed to marry or live with their spouse, or speak against the government. Although a person’s position in the racial hierarchy governs what they can and can’t do, Mathabane argues that the racial hierarchy itself is pointedly “arbitrary”: for no particular reason, Chinese people are considered “black” and Japanese people are “white.” Wealthy black people from America are considered “honorary white.” Indians and “Coloureds,” a category that denotes mixed black and white ancestry, and are considered below white people but marginally above black people. Mathabane remarks that black people’s position at the bottom of the racial hierarchy casts them as “the dregs of society, aliens in the land of their birth.” In other words, although black people are the country’s original inhabitants, apartheid grants them the least opportunity to live and thrive. Thus, as Mathabane and many black people recognize, the nonsensical organization of races within the hierarchy lacks any true logic, suggesting that the fundamental principle of apartheid has no basis in reality.
Mathabane and his family’s constant struggle against apartheid’s laws and regulations suggests that its systems are designed to repress black people and hold them back from their full potential. The white ruling class in South Africa uses numerous schemes to arrest and punish black people. For example, the government requires every black adult to carry a “passbook” containing their government ID, proof that they’ve paid all of the various taxes, proof of employment, and the permits to live in a given area, to live with their spouse, so on. If a police officer finds any issue with a black person’s passbook—which they always do—the person is either extorted for a bribe or arrested on the spot. Throughout Mathabane’s childhood, police officers frequently conduct night raids on “the black ghetto” to check passbooks, and his parents are always at risk of being arrested for not having the right permits in their books, demonstrating one way that apartheid’s laws plague black people’s daily lives with the constant threat of arrest and punishment. The apartheid government also uses bureaucracy to disadvantage black people. When Mathabane applies for his passbook as a young adult, a government official refuses to give him one because he is unemployed, even though he cannot look for work without a passbook. Mathabane explains this contradiction, but the official simply tells him, “That’s your own problem,” and refuses to help. Mathabane’s struggle to even abide by apartheid’s unjust laws suggests that the entire system intentionally disadvantages black people, setting them up for unavoidable failure.
Such disadvantages predictably result in widespread poverty among South Africa’s black population, which in turn limits the potential of many exceptional young black people. Mathabane’s cousins and many of his peers cannot afford school fees and drop out to take menial factory jobs to survive. However, they would be capable of far more if they had the means to continue their education, which could result in better work and greater earning potential. Similarly, as a competitive junior tennis player, Mathabane recognizes that although there are many exceptional black athletes in South Africa, the black tennis community lacks the resources to push such players to their full potential. One of Mathabane’s tennis coaches tells him, “You know, my boy, if we blacks had half the money and coaches as white people, we would long ago have produced several Arthur Ashes, Althea Gibsons and Evonne Goolagongs [legendary tennis players].” This suggests that the lack of resources that apartheid inflicts on the black community holds exceptional black people back from realizing their true potential as intellectuals, athletes, or professionals.
Although apartheid’s defenders claim that such segregation is “God-ordained” and necessary, the absurdity of its hierarchy and its repression of the black population clearly indicate that it is only a tool for maintaining white people’s dominance. After experiencing apartheid’s oppression throughout his childhood, Mathabane states, “Apartheid was purely and simply a scheme to perpetuate white dominance, greed and privilege,” suggesting that the system serves no purpose beyond enriching white people and exploiting black people. As a teenager, Mathabane meets Helmut, a white German man who hates apartheid and compares it to Hitler and Nazism for its ideology of racial superiority and brutal oppression. Helmut surmises that just as Hitler left Germany with a “feeling of guilt and shame that can never go away,” so too will apartheid be a permanent scar on South Africa’s history. Mathabane published his autobiography in 1986 and dedicated it to those still suffering under apartheid’s oppression. Apartheid fell less than a decade later, but Mathabane’s story remains an important insight into an oppressive and absurd era that remains one of modern history’s greatest injustices.
Apartheid’s Structural Oppression ThemeTracker
Apartheid’s Structural Oppression Quotes in Kaffir Boy
In South Africa there’s a saying that to be black is to be at the end of the line when anything of significance is to be had. So these people were considered and treated as the dregs of society, aliens in the land of their birth. Such labelling and treatment made them an angry and embittered lot.
My father existed under the illusion, formed as much by a strange innate pride as by a blindness to everything but his own will, that someday all white people would disappear from South Africa, and black people would revert tot their old ways of living.
From my experiences with white policemen, I had come to develop a deep-seated fear of white people; and seeing the bloody murders and savage beatings and indiscriminate shootings in the movies, that fear was fueled to phobic proportions. I vowed that never would I enter such a world, and I thanked the law for making sure I could not do so without a permit.
My conception of the world, of life, was wholly in racial terms; and that conception was not mine alone. It was echoed by all black people I had come across. There were two worlds as far as we were concerned, separated in absolutely every sense. But somehow […] they had everything to do with each other; […] one could not be without the other, and their dependency was that of master and slave.
But all of this I passively accepted as a way of life, for I knew no other. The house, the yard, the neighborhood and Alexandra were at the hub of my existence. They constituted the only world I knew, the only reality.
[Uncle Piet] had been released—without being charged—and given a warning that he better get himself a pass soon, for he was getting too tall and was beginning to wear long pants, factors which alone made him adult enough to carry a pass.
They, like myself, had grown up in an environment where the value of an education was never emphasized, where the first thing a child learned was not how to read and write and spell, but how to fight and steal and rebel; where the money to send children to school was grossly lacking, for survival was first priority.
And oh, how I yearned for the day when armies of black peasants would invade the white world and butcher, guillotine, hang, machine-gun, bury alive and drown in hot lead every bad white man alive.
It struck me that [Granny] could not read, like millions of other blacks who worked for whites? How did they function normally in a world totally ruled by signs?
Thus my consciousness was awakened to the pervasiveness of “petty partied,” and everywhere I went in the white world, I was met by invisible guards of racial segregation.
To me, and many blacks, whites were a race peculiarly obsessed with creating contradictions that they, and they alone, could understand—if indeed they really could understand them in the strict sense of the word.
The thick veil of tribalism which so covered [my father’s] eyes and mind and heart was of absolutely no use to me, for I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that black life would never revert to the past, that the clock would never turn back to a time centuries ago when black people had lived in peace and contentment before the white man.
The government generally treated Coloureds slightly better by giving them better jobs, better housing and better education than blacks. As a result most of the Coloureds were ashamed of their black blood, and often their prejudice against blacks was fiercer than the white man’s. But a new generation of young Coloureds, which saw itself as more black than white, was emerging, and it embraced the entire range of black aspirations.
Worst of all, I found among members of some churches a readiness to accept their lot as God’s will, a willingness to disparage their own blackness and heritage as inferior to the white man’s Christianity, a readiness to give up fighting to make things just in this world, in the hope that God’s justice would prevail in the hereafter.
While student leaders argued about what to do to diffuse the situation, the police suddenly opened fire. Momentarily the crowd stood dazed, thinking that the bullets were plastic and had been fired into the air. But when several small children began dropping down like swatted flies, their white uniforms soaked in red blood, pandemonium broke out.
For an instant I became aware of the senselessness of what we were doing. But those misgivings gave way to euphoria as I saw black peasants making off with plundered goods. I joined in.
Out of touch with sane whites, I began to hate all whites. Why weren’t liberal whites doing something to stop the slaughter of innocent black children? Why weren’t they demanding investigations into the brutal and indiscriminate use of force by police? […] The loud silence of the white electorate turned many black moderates into radicals and radicals into revolutionaries.
“You know […] this whole thing reminds me of what Hitler did to my country. His madness left us Germans with a feeling of guilt and shame that can never go away. The very same forces of racial superiority of that idiot and madman I see at work right here. There could yet be another Holocaust in the world.”
Many blacks believed that such arbitrary racial classification was blatant proof that the government had created apartheid not because God so ordained, or that the races were so radically different they could not coexist as one nation, as white supporters of racial segregation claimed. Apartheid was purely and simply a scheme to perpetuate white dominance, greed, and privilege.
How would he deal with the fear, the frustration, the hate, the anger that were the lot of every black child? Would he stay out of trouble long enough to become a man, to realize his dreams, whatever they might be?