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K*ff*r Boy by Mark Mathabane

Filed under: — adrian @ 12:00 am

Today I finished Kaffir Boy by Mark Mathabane. I blanked out part of the name above because K- is an offensive racial slur equivalent to the N-word in America (when said by non-blacks at least). Basically it’s best to only say it in context of the title of this book.

This is the latest in my series of South African books (Cry the Beloved Country, Country of My Skull, Tsotsi and Karoo Boy were among the SA books I read in the last year), this was possibly the hardest to get through, though Country of My Skull is up there too. As with Country of My Skull, it’s not hard to get through because it’s poorly written—both are well-written, in fact— but this is just some heavy heavy shit here. I picked it up in early April, read the first bit and then put it down for a few weeks before I could pick it up again.

This books is a memoir of Johannes’ (aka Mark’s) youth in the Alexandra township (“ghetto”) outside of Johannesburg. There are graphic descriptions of things he saw and went through in everyday life: violence, disease, malnutrition, and prostitution. I would be reading this during lunch at work and find myself nauseated by it and have to stop reading so that I wouldn’t lose my stomach; or I’d have to close my eyes for a few minutes.

The book is divided into three parts: Road to Alexandra, Road to Knowledge and Road to Freedom. The first part is the heaviest and the one that brings about this feeling of dispair. The second and third parts are more optomistic. The book, in the end, is, in part, a story about overcoming adversity, but it’s also about the system that lead to this adversity and the anger and frustration and hatred bred by it.

As I said, it’s well-written, though I actually found it a bit on the overly descriptive and heavy handed side of things at a few points. A lot of questions are raised in the book, many of them thought-provoking. The book is written, of course from one perspective and it has its biases, biases that history (the book, incidentally was completed and published years before apartheid was abolished) has shown to be on the right side of things. However, as with some other books on apartheid, whites are painted in one of two clear camps: revolutionaries/ those that actively help blacks and racist biggots who fear blacks and want to hold them down. As much as Mark defends himself in the book for having friendships with sympathetic whites and for not being a revolutionary himself, so too are there whites that would defend themselves for not being revolutionaries and yet would still put themselves in oppisition to apartheid.

It’s a worthwhile read, though. Like many things, even after the main conflict is over, the ideas are still true and for many years yet, no doubt, there will be other peoples in human rights struggles and in similar situations.

As much as I’ve been enjoying this literay tour through South Africa, I need a break for a while. I think I’m going to read Chronicles, Vol 1, Bob Dylan’s autobiography, which will go along well with my recent Bob Dylan kick.

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