Book review: ‘Kaffir Boy in America’

KAFFIR BOY IN AMERICA by Mark Mathabane; Macmillan Publishing Co., 1989; 292 pages; US$19.95.

Is the United States, with racial equality guaranteed in its constitution, really that much different than South Africa’s apartheid system of legalized discrimination? The answer is no, according to
Mark Mathabane, a black South African exile, in his latest autobiographical book Kaffir Boy in America.

Mathabane [pronounced ma-ta-
BAH-neh] eloquently illustrates how racial attitudes in the United States and South Africa are not as far apart as we in the “civilized” world would like to believe. And Mathabane ought to know. He grew up in Alexandra, one of the most filthy, poverty-stricken, crime-ridden townships created by apartheid. Mathabane escaped from that environment in 1978 to later become a bestselling author in exile. In this reviewer’s opinion, Mathabane, now age 29, is the most promising contemporary South African writer on the literary scene today.

Kaffir Boy in America picks up right where Mathabane’s 1986 bestseller, Kaffir Boy, left off: He is leaving his squalid surroundings to attend college in America; the youth looks back one last time to see his family sadly waving goodbye in the smoky haze typical of South African townships. Should he turn back? Or should he go ahead, leaving them behind in this living hell? Mathabane decides to “follow destiny” and head for America, the Promised Land.

What he finds there when he arrives contradicts everything he had been led to believe about the American Dream. Racial hatred between whites and blacks is just as strong as in apartheid territory. His outspoken political views at university eventually bring him death threats by white students who do not tolerate “sassy n----rs”.

Mathabane’s association with other more liberal whites also ostracizes him among his black peers, who label him an “Uncle Tom”. He has to face the painful reality that despite all the 1960s black civil rights gains, American whites and blacks are just as apprehensive about sharing the same lunch tables and social gatherings as those in South Africa.

The story ends more or less on a positive note, but Mathabane paints no rosy picture of African-American life in the United States. His comparisons between South Africa and the U.S. are at the same time intriguing and depressing — all the more because it is all horribly true. Moreover, Mathabane effectively relates his life under both racist societies in ways that established white South African authors like Nadine Gordimer, Athol Fugard or André Brink can only imagine.

Thus, it is Mathabane’s intent in both of his literary endeavors — modeled after American author Richard Wright’s 1945 autobiography
Black Boy — to spotlight the suffering apartheid causes specifically in human terms. This, of course, is the most overriding factor in all the political and economic arguments regarding apartheid. And few say it better than Mathabane. Kaffir Boy in America, like its predecessor, is highly recommended for those seeking to comprehend apartheid’s greatest crime: desecration of the human spirit.

—Brian Covert