Johannes Mark Mathabane was not dealt the best of cards in the beginning of life. Born to illiterate parents in a ghetto of Apartheid South Africa, he was during his childhood surrounded by crime and poverty.
His homelife was turbulent and his often violent father, like many other men in the ghetto, took to alcohol and gambling to attempt and escape the oppression poured on him daily. There was also the many surprise raids carried out by the authorities and where black South Africans could be arrested for such “crimes” as being unemployed or not having their passports in order.
But in the midst of all misery, Johannes’ mother saw one hope: education. If he learned how to read and write, she believed her son could one day have a shot at a better life.
The boy was opposed to it at first but did go through school, which his mother struggled hard to be able to afford. Having learned to read, he developed a passion for books and in them found hope and inspiration.
He learned to play tennis and realised he was a gifted player. It was through his involvement in this sport that he eventually got his ticket out of poverty, through a sport scholarship at an American college.
What shocked me the most reading Mathabane’s autobiography Kaffir Boy was how awful the quality of life was for blacks during Apartheid. Of course, I knew it wasn’t good. But I was surprised by the depth of the oppression and the abject poverty most of them had to suffer through. There was also the bureaucratic hurdles put in their way to make sure even something like getting a permit to seek a job was as long and humiliating a process as possible. The whole system was designed to put black people down and have them stay there.
Kaffir Boy is one man’s story of growing up under an oppressive regime which despised him simply because of the colour of his skin. But it’s also about the resilience of the human spirit and about finding hope in the midst of despair. It’s one of the most moving books I’ve read and one I highly recommend.