Mark Mathabane’s father is a member of the Venda tribe—some of whom still live on a tribal reserve—who grew up on tribal lands before poverty forced him to emigrate to Johannesburg. As his eldest son, Mathabane’s life is framed by two opposing influences. On one side, his father demands the family live by tribal law and beliefs, submitting themselves to their ancestral heritage. On the other, Mathabane recognizes that society is changing, and modern education is the key to success in the quickly developing world. The two are at odds, as the tribal beliefs and rules do not fit with what Mathabane learns from his progressive education. Mathabane ultimately decides to eschew his father’s tribal identity for the sake of a modern education, suggesting that to succeed in the modern world, one may have to let go of familial tradition and history.
Mathabane’s father raises him to strictly respect tribal laws and wisdom, suggesting that a child’s early understanding of the world is shaped by their father’s sense of identity. Mathabane’s father believes that “tribal traditions were a way of life” and that “someday all white people would disappear from South Africa, and black people would revert to their old ways of living.” His father thus raises their family under strict tribal rules and beliefs, hoping to “mould [Mathabane] in his image” and raises his son to share his tribal identity. When Mathabane is a young child, his father raises him to believe in witch doctors, witches who ride baboons across their roof, and voodoo magic. Mathabane believes that illness or misfortune are the result of curses, demonstrating his early understanding of reality is framed by his father’s tribal beliefs. Mathabane’s father bases his ideas of manliness—which he passes onto his son—on what it meant for his tribe before they lived in Johannesburg. According to Mathabane’s father, men must never cry or show emotions other than anger; they must never admit weakness to their wives. Even as a five-year-old child, Mathabane feels pressured to emulate his father’s rigid stoicism. This suggests that not only is Mathabane’s early view of the world shaped by his father’s identity and beliefs, but even his view of how he ought to behave as a man.
However, as Mathabane grows he realizes that tribal traditions do not help him succeed in the modern world, but rather hold him back, suggesting that a tribal identity may be as much a hindrance as a help. By the age of seven, Mathabane begins to recognize that his father’s tribal beliefs seem dubious at best, and often counter-productive to succeeding in the modern world. Mathabane cannot find any “concrete” evidence of voodoo magic, and he despises many aspects of tribal law, such as the fact that his father outright owns his mother and their children—when Mathabane’s mother angers him, he spitefully refers to her as “the woman he bought” and freely beats her. What’s more, Mathabane’s father teaches him that Mathabane has “no free will, no control over [his] own destiny” and his fate is entirely controlled by ancestral spirits, indicating that he is trapped by fate and cannot take steps to succeed in the world. Additionally, despite Mathabane’s father’s insistence on manhood and tribal values, his father is constantly unemployed and drinks and gambles away their family’s money, which suggests that all of the tribal values do not actually make him more responsible or capable. Mathabane’s father hates the idea of modern education, since it challenges his tribal beliefs. However, Mathabane’s mother encourages Mathabane to study hard in school, telling him, “Contrary to what your father says, school is the only means to a future. I don’t want you growing up to be like your father.” She encourages him, “Education will open doors where none seem to exist […] it’ll make you somebody in this world.” In contrast to the poverty and helplessness that Mathabane’s father’s tribal values seem to offer, his mother suggests that modern education offers the hope of escaping such hardships.
Mathabane ultimately decides to leave his father’s tribal traditions behind so he can succeed and rise from poverty, suggesting that one may need to leave tradition behind to adapt to a changing world. However, this tragically suggests that tradition-bound people like his father have no place to thrive in modern society. As a teenager, Mathabane realizes that “tribal indoctrination” holds black people back from rising in the modern world, dissuading them from higher education and trapping them in a low socioeconomic bracket, which ultimately keeps them subservient to white people. Mathabane pities his father, seeing that he is caught between a fading world, which gave him his identity, and the future, which has no place for him. He reflects, “The thick veil of tribalism which so covered his 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.” He adds, “Everything [my father] wholeheartedly embraced, I rejected with every fibre of my being,” suggesting that he is letting go of any tribal identity to become an active participant in the modern world. However, Mathabane recognizes that in rejecting his father’s tribal identity, he threatens his own sense of self as well. In his Preface, Mathabane recounts, “I instinctively understood that in order […] to achieve according to my aspirations and dreams […] I had to reject this brand of tribalism, and that in the rejection I ran the risk of losing my heritage. I took the plunge.” This ultimately suggests that, although Mathabane risks losing his sense of personal identity, succeeding in the modern world is worth the risk.
Tribal Identity vs. Modern Education ThemeTracker
Tribal Identity vs. Modern Education Quotes in Kaffir Boy
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.
My father was now a completely changed man; so changed that he now began drinking and gambling excessively, and from time to time quarreling with my mother over money matters and over what he called my mother’s streak of insubordination not befitting “the woman he bought.” But he still tried, in his own way, to be a father and a husband.
As we had no nursery rhymes nor storybooks, and, besides, as no one in the house knew how to read, my mother’s stories served as a kind of library, a golden fountain of knowledge where we children learned about right and wrong, about good and evil.
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.
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.
“Education will open doors where none seem to exist. It’ll make people talk to you, listen to you and help you; people who otherwise wouldn’t bother. It will make you soar, like a bird lifting up into the endless blue sky, and leave poverty, hunger, and suffering behind. […] Above all, it’ll make you a somebody in this world.”
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.
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?