Memories of a Native Son

“For me to deny my anger and bitterness would be to deny the reality of apartheid,” says Mark Mathabane, 25, author of Kaffir Boy (Macmillan, $19.95), a memoir of his childhood in South Africa. Raised in Alexandra, a black shanty-town 10 miles from Johannesburg, Mathabane struggled to rise above ghetto life and, through work and luck, was able to escape to America in 1978 on a tennis scholarship. Certain that he would be imprisoned for denouncing apartheid if he returned to his homeland, Mathabane now works as a freelance writer in New York, where he reminisced about growing up in a world of stark poverty and casual brutality.

Sometime after midnight, I heard dogs barking and children screaming. At first I thought it was a nightmare; barely 5 years old, I was frequently haunted by violent dreams. Then I realized someone was pounding at the door of our two-room shack.


My bladder gave way, soaking my bed of cardboard under the kitchen table. I wanted to scream but my voice was paralyzed.


I crawled to the bedroom door and heard my mother and father whispering in frantic tones. “Mama,” I said. “The police are here.”

Moments later two tall black policemen in stiff brown uniforms rushed in and blinded me with the glare from their flashlights. One of them kicked me savagely on the side, sending me crashing into a crate in the corner. As I tried to get up, another kick sent me back to the floor flat on my face. Blood began oozing from my nose and lips.

The policemen broke down the bedroom door and dragged my father out from his hiding place under the bed. While bombarding him with questions about his passbook, they prodded his penis with a truncheon. What a pitiful sight my father was, naked and begging for mercy.

That morning I began to learn the meaning of hate. Following the police as they carried my father away, I watched as dozens of people were herded into police vans because their passbooks, which blacks over 16 were required to carry at all times, were not in order. My parents were regarded as “undesirables” because they did not have the necessary permit to live together as husband and wife. My father was arrested for that and for the crime of being unemployed, because he had recently lost his $10-a-week job as a menial laborer. My mother narrowly escaped arrest by hiding herself in our wardrobe.

Arrested frequently, my father was carted away sometimes for months on end to do chain-gang work on a white man’s potato farm. Since we had no savings, and my mother could not find work, we faced starvation. So we would get up early and head for the garbage dump on the outskirts of the ghetto. There, by mid-morning, trucks would come from the white world and dump white people’s leftovers. We would dig through the huge mounds of ash and paper looking for half-eaten sandwiches or other scraps of food.

If I lingered very long in our small compound, where more than 100 people in makeshift shacks shared one outhouse and one communal water tap, I found it impossible to forget my hunger. So most days I wandered the unpaved streets of the ghetto searching for soccer games. But because the gnawing at the pit of my stomach always returned, I started hanging out with gangs of kids my age who had discovered ingenious ways of finding food and money.

Promised a free meal by a gang leader one day, I followed a group of boys to a workers’ compound where the men offered us liver and porridge. I was suspicious at first and refused to take any food, though my resolve weakened when I saw the men handing out coins. “They must be good men,” I thought. Then they told everyone to take off their clothes. The boys bent over in front of the bunks, while the men started stripping too. Terrified, I backed toward the door, only to trip and fall as they came after me. I got up quickly and bolted out of the place, running all the way home. I never joined this gang again, but every day I would see the boys lounging around eating fish and chips.

One morning, when I was 7, my mother shook me awake before dawn and ordered me to take a bath. Armed with a scrub brush, she purged me of months of dirt and grime until I ached and bled. Then she dressed me in a ridiculously large shirt and loose pants. When I discovered she intended to take me to school, I ran for the door. But my mother tied me up with a rope and dragged me off to register as a primary student.

Heading home after a soccer game that evening, I ran into a neighbor who warned me there had been a bloody fight at my home and that my father was armed with a meat cleaver. I went to the broken window of the shack and dared my father to come out, hoping I could pelt him with a brick. But he stayed inside, drunkenly calling me a “black swine” and my mother a “whore.” I found my mother at Granny’s house. My father had beaten her badly for sending me to school, which he thought was “unmanly” and would only teach me how to be a slave. Though I had grown accustomed to being abused by my father, who seemed to grow more angry and cruel as a result of his many trips to prison, I could not bear to see my mother so badly bruised. To spite my father, I promised her I would go to school as long as she wanted.

My teachers constantly whipped me because I didn’t have money for fees or books. Meanwhile, my mother went begging in the streets until she finally found a job as a washerwoman for an Indian family with 15 children. Even though they worked her unmercifully, she never complained. But as soon as my mother started bringing home wages, my father, who already squandered most of his menial pay drinking and gambling, refused to give her any money for food.

Coming home one Friday night, I saw two migrant workers walking gaily down the street in the moonlight. Then I noticed six gangsters jump out of dark corners carrying knives and machetes. I quickly dove into a patch of tall grass. But as one of the men was being chased, he ran into the same yard. Stupefied with terror, I watched as the gangsters stabbed him numerous times. “Please don’t kill me. Don’t kill me. I have 10 children,” he cried. They slit his throat. After stripping him, they ran away laughing.

In Alexandra it was considered a quiet weekend when 10 or 15 people were murdered, and I had seen many corpses on the streets before. But this time something snapped. I could not sleep or eat for days. Rather than going out to play, I just sank deeper into depression. Then one morning I took a knife from the house and was debating where I might go to be alone. As I stood out on the stoop, I saw my mother coming and tried to hide the knife behind my back. She immediately sensed I was planning suicide. “I will die if you die,” she said. “You are my only hope.” She took me into her arms and I could not hold back the tears.

I made my first trip to the white world at age 11. Granny, who worked as a gardener for a white family, insisted I accompany her to their house one day. It was like taking a leap into another galaxy. The Smiths’ home was a beautiful villa with a long driveway and lush green lawns. Master Clyde, who was a year older than me, had a playroom papered with rock posters and packed with toys. Clyde said his teachers told him Kaffirs—”niggers”—were an inferior breed. Then he noticed me looking greedily at his many books and challenged me to read from a volume of Shakespeare he pulled off the shelf. With my servant’s English, I couldn’t make any sense of the words. But when Clyde laughed at me for my brutish ignorance, I made a solemn vow to myself to master the language. Clyde’s mother was more kind. She sent me packing that evening with a copy of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. I read the book many times and will never forget the chant: “Fifteen men on the dead man’s chest, Yo-ho-ho, and a bottle of rum.”

Soon I began working Saturdays for the Smiths myself, shining half a dozen of Mr. Smith’s shoes, washing the cars and polishing the brass and silver. During my free moments, I leafed through English-language newspapers they left lying around the house. Then one day Mrs. Smith gave me a cast-off wooden tennis racket and some old balls. Proudly carting them home, I spent hours practicing in the back alleys of the ghetto, even though my father denounced me for taking up a sissy sport. When Arthur Ashe played in a 1973 South African tournament, having publicly called for an end to apartheid, I adopted him as my hero.

In high school I had the chance to join a tennis team for the first time and soon was named captain. Meanwhile, I surreptitiously played at a white tennis club frequented by foreign workers, most of whom did not believe in apartheid. Meeting whites who treated me without condescension shattered some of my stereotypes. It also caused me to be viewed with suspicion in the ghetto as an Uncle Tom. One night, after playing at the club, I was surrounded on my way home by a black gang who took out their knives and chains and threatened to teach me a lesson about associating with whites. Luckily I saw an opening to escape when a truck barreled down the street with blinding headlights. But as I turned to go, pain suddenly engulfed my face. Someone had hit me with a brick, knocking out one of my front teeth. Fearing for my life, I staggered to regain my balance and outran the gang members.

Following the 1976 Soweto riots, which left some 600 dead after police opened fire on a peaceful demonstration of 10,000 students, violence swept through Alexandra and other black ghettos. One day, when a mob looted a Chinese grocery store near our home, I watched as a schoolgirl I had grown up with was shot and dragged off the street by police. Her parents had to pay to retrieve the corpse. Hundreds of angry people gathered for the funeral, despite laws which banned a public gathering of more than three people. Another day, I heard the local library had been set on fire. I rushed over and had to sprinkle water on the floor to walk on my bare feet into the smoldering building. Grabbing armloads of books, I jumped into a ditch when I heard police approaching. If they had noticed me, I would have been shot on sight.

When I graduated from high school in 1977, some white tennis friends encouraged me to play in the South African Brewery tournament, opened to blacks as a token response to international anti-apartheid pressures. I hesitated, because it meant defying a boycott by the Black Tennis Association. On the other hand, I reasoned it was a rare opportunity to meet American players. As the only black South African entered, I was ashamed when I lost my first-round match to Abe Segal, a former British hard court doubles champion. Later in the tournament, however, I was standing on the sidelines watching some of the top seeds practice, and Stan Smith asked me to hit a few balls with him. I played like a man possessed. After taking me to lunch with his wife, Margie, Smith offered to help me realize my seemingly impossible dream of obtaining a tennis scholarship to the U.S.

Several months later, letters from college tennis coaches miraculously began appearing in the mail, along with lavish brochures describing the schools. When a firm offer of a $6,000-a-year scholarship came from Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C., my head spun.

Before dawn the day of my departure, my mother stood in the arc of a flickering candle with tears running down her cheeks. “Don’t waste this opportunity God has given you, child,” she said. I kissed my brother, George, and each of my five sisters. My father emerged from the bedroom and stood by the wall watching everyone. When I embraced his emaciated body, a twinkle came to his eye and tears began rolling down his cheeks. In my 18 years, it was the first time I had seen him cry. He revealed he was human after all; he loved me. All those years, I wanted so desperately for him to show some tenderness. But as I stood there trying to hold back my own tears, I began to realize how much of a victim he was of this barbaric system—apartheid—which had robbed him of much of his manhood and his humanity.

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