Kaffir Boy

Kaffir Boy

by

Mark Mathabane

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Themes and Colors
Apartheid’s Structural Oppression Theme Icon
Personal Prejudice Theme Icon
Tribal Identity vs. Modern Education Theme Icon
Anger, Hatred, and Violence Theme Icon
Christianity Theme Icon
Suffering, Survival, and Trauma Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Kaffir Boy, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Christianity Theme Icon

While Mark Mathabane’s father remains committed to his tribal beliefs and traditions, Mathabane’s mother begins to explore Christianity, going to evangelism meetings, church groups, and baptizing her children against her husband’s will. In the same way that Mathabane is skeptical of his father’s tribal beliefs, he is equally skeptical of Christianity’s place in South Africa. As he grows up and interacts with his mother’s new religion, Mathabane suggests that Christianity in South Africa occupies a complex position: though it is most often used to support the ruling class and racial segregation, Christianity can also be a source of compassion and goodwill, supporting the value of all people and promoting black liberation.

Mathabane and his father’s initial antipathy toward Christianity demonstrates how many black South Africans see it as the white man’s religion, used to justify racial segregation and violence and pacify black protest. Mathabane and his mother first encounter Christianity at a meeting put on by black evangelists. Although the singing and spectacle initially intrigue Mathabane, that intrigue vanishes when the leader declares that black people should thank white people for bringing them the Christian Gospel. The leader goes on to declare that tribal beliefs are “sheer nonsense and hogwash” and must be abandoned for the sake of the white God. Although Mathabane himself does not care for tribal traditions, the evangelist’s argument suggests to him that the Christian religion is yet another way that white people try to force their authority and their lifestyle upon the black population. At Christian friends’ homes, Mathabane sees paintings of God as a majestic white man and Satan as an ugly black man, which suggests to him that Christianity teaches that to be black is to be evil. This belief is further confirmed when Mathabane learns that many Christians teach that black skin is the curse God placed on one of Noah’s wayward sons as a shameful mark of evil behavior. The white government even claims that “God had given whites the divine right to rule over blacks, that our subservience was the most natural and heavenly condition to be in.” Such pictures and teachings suggest that Christianity is an oppressive tool white people use to justify and reinforce their own ideas of racial superiority. In spite of such manipulative and racist teachings, what Mathabane views as Christianity’s worst effect is that it makes many of its black followers ready “to accept their lot as God’s will, [with] a willingness to disparage their own blackness and heritage as inferior to the white man’s Christianity.” That is, Christianity creates a defeatism in many black people, reducing their will to fight for freedom and independence and equal treatment, and instead making them content to suffer and “hope that faith in Christ would miraculously make everything turn out right.”

However, Mathabane meets some people who find in Christianity the motivation to stand up, love others, and denounce hatred, suggesting that there is something valuable at its core when it’s not being used as a tool of oppression. As Mathabane’s mother becomes more involved with Christianity, she begins asserting her own will and standing up to her abusive and domineering husband. When she defies Mathabane’s father by declaring that she and her children will become part of a local church, Mathabane realizes that “a change had come over my mother […] she seemed no longer prepared to be ruled by my father.” This suggests that Christianity—especially in contrast to tribal laws, which declare that a wife is her husband’s property—encourages his mother to assert more control over her own life. Additionally, according to the Christian interpretation of Mathabane’s Granny and her white employer Mrs. Smith, the religion does not teach that black people should be dominated, but rather liberated. When Granny asks Mrs. Smith if the Bible says that all people are “God’s children” regardless of race, Mrs. Smith agrees. She states, “I do believe in the Bible. That’s why I cannot accept the laws of this country. We white people are hypocrites. We call ourselves Christians, yet our deeds make the Devil look like a saint.” Mrs. Smith’s words suggest that although Christianity is used to uphold apartheid, this is actually an abuse of the religion rather than a faithful expression of it.

Despite his skepticism, in the aftermath of the Soweto Uprising, Mathabane begins to take comfort from Christian practice and prayer, suggesting that although it is historically a tool of oppression in South Africa, Christianity can be repurposed to support the fight for liberation. Mathabane cannot understand why God, if he exists, would not protect the students killed by police in the Soweto Uprising, nor the ones the police still constantly arrest. Even so, he is touched by the strength his mother’s faith gives her and finds himself attending church because he “felt somewhat safe there.” As he does, Mathabane gradually begins to read the Bible to bolster his “strength and courage,” suggesting that Christian practice can at least offer a sense of safety and stability during a chaotic time. Mathabane roams from church to church and hears many preachers begin using the Bible to fiercely call for liberation. When the apartheid government calls students killed in protests “terrorists,” the preachers counter by calling them “heroes” and “martyrs.” The preachers’ use of Christianity’s language and platform to venerate the students who died for freedom suggests that the religion cannot only offer hope, but can also provide tools to encourage the fight for liberation. While Christianity’s prominent role in apartheid is undeniable, Mathabane’s depiction of Christianity suggests that it can also be used to fight for liberation, thus making it a complex and powerful tool, both for good and for evil.

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Christianity Quotes in Kaffir Boy

Below you will find the important quotes in Kaffir Boy related to the theme of Christianity.
Chapter 30 Quotes

“Yes, I do believe in the Bible. That’s why I cannot accept the laws of this country. We white people are hypocrites. We call ourselves Christians, yet our deeds make the Devil look like a saint. I sometimes wish I hadn’t left England.”

Related Characters: Mrs. Smith (speaker), Johannes Mark Mathabane, Granny (Ellen)
Page Number: 190
Explanation and Analysis:
Chapter 51 Quotes

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.

Related Characters: Johannes Mark Mathabane (speaker)
Page Number: 314
Explanation and Analysis: