Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane

After quite a long break, what with one thing and another, I will be catching up on reviews of books read for Feed My Reads. My latest review is up on Amazon.

This was not an easy read. I did a lot of research into apartheid when I wrote African Me & Satellite TV, and just reading about some of the history of some of the things that were done to black people hurts badly. But even though you cringe in shame for the insanely barbaric doings of other whites, you can never feel the shame of millions of people for being classified as sub-human because of the colour of their skin. This book does a good job of getting you a little closer to that feeling than the any of the history books I’ve read.

I grew up smack bang in the middle of apartheid. Where even little white children expected “respect” from adult black people. I always found it weird how many people suddenly had stories about their black “friends” during the struggle after having seen very few real white activists when the abuse was actually happening. But even though I saw a lot of the torment, I have never had a clue how bad it really was in the townships until I read this book.

I found myself staring at some of the sentences in utter horror and disbelief. And shame. Lots and lots of shame. The fact that Mark managed to escape and share his life with the world highlights for me the many, many others who did not escape. As I read the last few pages of this book, I wanted there to be more pages with happy words about how all of his family and friends got to leave the hell that they existed in too. But that’s not how real life works.

Even though apartheid is officially over, its effects are still alive and well. Racism is alive and well. Poverty is alive and well. You don’t get to just push a button and cancel the pain inflicted for so long overnight. You don’t get to fix things by simply saying that you never personally abused anyone.


I’m adding some editorial commentary from others for this book.

“This is a rare look inside the festering adobe shanties of Alexandra, one of South Africa’s notorious black townships. Rare because it comes from the heart of a passionate young African who grew up there.” — Chicago Tribune

Mark Mathabane was weaned on devastating poverty and schooled in the cruel streets of South Africa’s most desperate ghetto, where bloody gang wars and midnight police raids were his rites of passage. Like every other child born in the hopelessness of apartheid, he learned to measure his life in days, not years. Yet Mark Mathabane, armed only with the courage of his family and a hard-won education, raised himself up from the squalor and humiliation to cross the line between black and white and win a scholarship to an American university.

This extraordinary memoir of life under apartheid is itself a triumph of the human spirit over hatred and unspeakable degradation. For Mark Mathabane did what no physically and psychologically battered “Kaffir” from the rat-infested alleys of Alexandra was supposed to do – he escaped to tell about it.
“Powerful, intense, inspiring.” — Publishers Weekly

“An eloquent cry from the land of silent people, where blacks are assigned by whites to a permanent role of inferiority.” –John Barkham Reviews

“Compelling, chilling, authentic…an emotionally charged explanation of how it felt to grow up under South Africa’s system of legalized racism known as apartheid.” –Milwaukee Sentinel

“Despite the South African government’s creation of a virtually impenetrable border between black and white lives, this searing autobiography breaches that boundary, drawing readers into the turmoil, terror, and sad stratagems for survival in a black township.” –Foreign Affairs
“Told with relentless honesty…the reader is given a rare glimpse behind the televised protests and boycotts, of the daily fear and hunger which is devastating to both body and soul.” –The Christian Science Monitor

“A chilling, gruesome, brave memoir…Mathabane provides a straightforward, harrowing account of apartheid as it is practiced.”

Kaffir Boy won a Christopher Award for being inspiring and is on the American Library Association’s List of Outstanding Books for the College-Bound and Lifelong Learners. It is the first widely published memoir written in English by a black South African. When it first appeared in 1986, the book stunned readers in much the same way the Frederick Douglass’ 1845 slave narrative had, forcing many to rethink American support of South Africa’s white political regime.

Kaffir Boy was written in the United States, where for the first time in his life Mathabane felt free to express his thoughts and feelings without fear of imprisonment. The author-narrator, Johannes, is trapped in a terrifying world that robbed him of his childhood and forced him into the role of protector and provider for his younger siblings at an early age.

What gives Kaffir Boy its unique place in world literature is its central message that we are all human beings, and that the suffering of one individual leads to the suffering of humanity as a whole. Without bitterness or anger, Mathabane presents the facts of his life in a way that celebrates the power of family bonds and the value of a strong community.

A sought-after lecturer, Mathabane was nominated for Speaker of the Year by the National Association for Campus Activities. He continues to write about mankind’s pressing need to abolish, once and for all, racial injustice, intolerance and prejudice of any kind. He currently lives in Portland, Oregon with his wife, Gail, and their three children.

Also by Mark Mathabane: Kaffir Boy in America, Love in Black and White: the Triumph of Love Over Prejudice and Taboo, African Women: Three Generations, Miriam’s Song, available at Amazon.


Mark Mathabane touched the hearts of millions with his sensational autobiography, Kaffir Boy. Telling the true story of his coming of age under apartheid in South Africa, the book won a prestigious Christopher Award, rose to No. 3 on The New York Times bestsellers list and to No. 1 on the Washington Post bestsellers list, and was translated into several languages. Today, the book is used in classrooms across the U.S. and is on the American Library Association’s List of “Outstanding Books for the College-Bound.”

Born of destitute parents whose $10-a-week wage could not pay the rent for their shack or put food on the table, Mathabane spent the first 18 years of his life as the eldest of seven children in a one-square-mile ghetto that was home to more than 200,000 blacks.

A childhood of devastating poverty, terrifying police raids and relentless humiliation drove him to the brink of suicide at age ten. A love of learning and books and his dreams of tennis stardom, inspired by Arthur Ashe, carried him from despair, hate and anger to possibility and hope. His illiterate mother believed that education was the only way out of the ghetto. Her courage and sacrifice turned Mathabane’s life around.

Mathabane did what no physically and psychologically battered “Kaffir” from the mean streets of Alexandra was supposed to do — he escaped to tell about it. Tennis was Mathabane’s passport to freedom. In 1978, with the help of 1972 Wimbledon champion Stan Smith, Mathabane left South Africa to attend an American university on scholarship. In 1983 Mathabane graduated cum laude with a degree in Economics from Dowling College in Oakdale, New York, where he was the first black editor of the college newspaper.

After studies at the Poynter Media Institute and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Mathabane completed the manuscript of Kaffir Boy and went on to write several more books. He has appeared on “The Oprah Winfrey Show,” “Today,” CNN, NPR, “The Charlie Rose Show,” “Larry King,” and numerous other TV and radio programs across the country. His provocative articles have appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today. He has been featured in Time, Newsweek and People magazines. A sought-after lecturer, he was nominated for Speaker of the Year by the National Association for Campus Activities.

In 1989, Kaffir Boy in America, which continues the story of Kaffir Boy, was published by Scribner’s and became a national bestseller following Mathabane’s second appearance on Oprah. In 1992, Love in Black and White, a non-fiction book about interracial relationships and race relations in America, co-authored by his wife, Gail, was published by HarperCollins. In 1994, Mathabane’s fourth book appeared — African Women: Three Generations, which describes the struggles, relationships and triumphs of three South African women who were heroines in Kaffir Boy — his grandmother, mother and sister Florah. In Miriam’s Song, published in 2000, Mathabane tells the true story of his sister Miriam’s coming of age during the turmoil and violence that preceded the end of apartheid and Nelson Mandela’s election. His first work of fiction, Ubuntu, is a thriller set against the politically and racially tense backdrop of post-apartheid South Africa. His second novel, It Can Happen Here, tells the story of how a political candidate’s daughter thwarts the deadly plans by white supremacists to elect Hitler’s son president of the United States so he can usher in the Forth Reich.

In September 1997, Mark completed a one-year assignment as a White House Fellow at the Department of Education in Washington, D.C., where he helped implement several education initiatives, and led a fellows mission to Southern Africa.

In his latest work of non-fiction, The Lessons of Ubuntu, published by Skyhorse Publishing in 2018, Mathabane draws on his experiences with racism and racial healing in both Africa and America, where he has lived for the past thirty-seven years, to provide a timely and provocative approach to using Ubuntu, our shared humanity, to find solutions to America’s biggest and most intractable social problem: the divide between the races.

The movie based on Kaffir Boy is set to begin filming in 2020 in Alexandra, South Africa. Mark continues to lecture and be involved with his charity, the Magdalene Scholarship Fund, which pays for books, school fees and uniforms for students at Bovet School in Alexandra, South Africa. His website is http://www.mathabane.com.


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2 thoughts on “Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane

  1. jorobinson176 August 13, 2020 at 12:33 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on Jo Robinson.


  2. Jane Fritz August 13, 2020 at 2:38 pm Reply

    Wow. Thank you for shining a light on this author and his work, Jo. I shall start reading. Hope all is well.


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