THE LITERARY WORK
A novel set in Johannesburg, South Africa, during the 1940s; published in English in 1946.
A young black man, fresh from the country, becomes a mine worker in Johannesburg, adjusts to his harsh new environment, and learns to combat racial injustice.
Born in Vrededorp—a suburban slum of Johannesburg—in 1919, Peter Abrahams was the son of James Henry Abrahams, an immigrant descended from the Ethiopian imperial dynasty, and Angelina DuPlessis, a “Cape Coloured” widow (of mixed descent). They could not afford to send their son to school until he was 11. Abrahams worked his way through school, taking jobs as a porter, a clerk, and a dishwasher. In his adolescence, he studied at two elite secondary schools for blacks, the Diocesan Training College at Grace Dieu and St. Peter’s Rosettenville in Johannesburg. While at Diocesan, he published poetry in Bantu World, a white-owned newspaper catering to black readers; later during his time at St. Peter’s, he became involved in left-wing politics. He left South Africa to become a crew member on a freighter during World War II. After two years at sea, Abrahams settled in England, joining the staff of the Communist newspaper, The Daily Worker, and continuing his career as a writer. Abrahams’s first literary work was a collection of short stories, Dark Testament (1942), followed by the novels Song of the City (1945) and Mine Boy (1946). Mine Boy distinguished itself as a work that depicted, for the first time in South African literature, the black perspective on urban life, and challenged white stereotypes of African workers.
The South African mining industry
Although diamond mining was a thriving industry in the nineteenth century, gold mining soon outstripped it in importance. After the 1886 discovery of huge deposits of gold in Witwatersrand (commonly known as “the Rand”), a feverish rush for gold descended on the region. The rush gave rise to a settlement of crude shacks and canvas tents—called “Johannesburg” in honor of the president of the Transvaal and the director of mines, both named Johannes. The settlement seemed to spring up overnight around these early mining operations. Ten years later, Johannesburg had grown into a bustling city, complete with gardens, parks, clubs, and even a stock exchange. At the time of the novel, Johannesburg is a sprawling metropolis, characterized by extremes of great affluence and grinding poverty. Shanty-towns and slums, like the novel’s Malay Camp, existed on the outskirts of the city.
During the 1930s and 1940s, the gold-mining industry was the backbone of the South African economy. In 1939 the mines employed 364,000 workers: 43,000 whites and 321,000 blacks; the proportion of white to black workers in the mines was approximately 1 to 7.5 (Thompson, p. 168). Skilled labor positions—and the higher salaries such positions merited—had been legally reserved for whites since the Mines and Works Act (1911), which formalized what had long been customary practice. Around 1920 white miners were earning at least 11 times more than blacks. By 1939 they were also receiving paid leave and pensions, privileges denied to black miners.
The mines themselves were organized along military lines; women were not permitted in the mines or in the housing compounds where the laborers lived. “The officers—the shift bosses and compound managers—were white; the non commissioned officers—the underground ’boss-boys’ and compound ’indunas’ (mine policemen)—as well as the mass of laborers, were black” (Thompson, p. 168). Even the living arrangements recalled a military barracks: most black miners were housed in compounds that averaged between 3,000 and 6,000 inhabitants. Beds were not provided; African workers had to sleep on short concrete bunks or make or buy wooden beds of their own. Only one percent of black mine workers were deemed legally eligible for family housing. In the novel, Johannes and Xuma are considered fortunate because they land positions as “boss-boys” and do not have to live in the compounds.
Working conditions in the mines were dangerous and exhausting; workers labored in extreme heat and spent most of their time crouching. In the novel, Xuma, the protagonist, is overwhelmed by the apparent lack of progress that he and his fellow miners have made on his first day at the job: “And for all their sweating and hard breathing and for the redness of their eyes and the emptiness of their stare there would be nothing to show. In the morning the pile had been so big. Now it was the same. And the minedump did not seem to grow either” (Abrahams, Mine Boy, p. 42). Accidents and illness also took their toll on black miners. From 1933 to 1966, 19,000 gold miners, most of them Africans, died in mining accidents. In 1931 the Miners’ Pthisis Medical Bureau documented 1,370 African miners as “suffering from tuberculosis or lung diseases, or both, caused by mining” (Thompson, p. 168). Both tragedies are chillingly depicted in Mine Boy: one of the miners on Xuma’s crew contracts a lung malady and is sent home to die, and, towards the end of the novel, Xuma’s friend, Johannes, is killed when a mine tunnel collapses.
Slums and shantytowns
Close on the heels of the 1910 formation of the Union of South Africa came legislation restricting the rights of black South Africans. The Natives Land Act (1913) set aside small portions of land exclusively for Africans and prohibited them from purchasing land outside these colonial reserves. During the 1930s and 1940s the increasing difficulty of making a living through subsistence farming on reserve lands damaged by drought and soil erosion drove many Africans to seek employment in large cities such as Johannesburg and Cape Town. This mass migration to the cities prompted a large-scale housing crisis. While Africans were permitted to settle in black suburbs, like Sophiatown, Alexandra, and Pimville near Johannesburg, those who could not find rooms or afford houses were forced to build squatters’ camps and shantytowns. Black migrant workers constructed crude shacks of corrugated tin, cardboard boxes, newspaper, and wood. During the latter half of the 1940s, between 60,000 and 90,000 Africans inhabited such dwellings just outside Johannesburg: from 1944 on, large squatter camps sprang up on the outskirts of Johannesburg, and, to a lesser degree, outside other major cities. Despite the attempts of local authorities to do away with them, these camps, “well organized and ably led, persisted until the 1950s when their inhabitants received municipal housing and eventually housing by the central government” (Cameron, p. 265).
Living conditions in camps and shantytowns were frequently abysmal and unsanitary; municipal officials often argued that such environments produced criminals. Some settlements, however, were well-maintained and experienced no more crime than in non-squatter areas. It was not unusual for inhabitants of camps and shantytowns to establish their own form of government, in an
THE AFRICAN MINE WORKERS’ UNION
During World War II black miners became more outspoken about the low pay and dangerous working conditions in the mines, in 1941 two important organizations were formed—the Council of Non-European Trade Unions (CNETU) and the African Mine Workers’ Union (AMWU), the latter of which was led by Gaur Radebe, Secretary for Mines in the Transvaal African Congress and a member of the Communist Party. By 1946, the year in which Mine Boy was written, CNETU claimed 158,000 members organized in 119 unions. Meanwhile, AMWU, which claimed a membership of 25,000 by 1944, persuaded the government to establish the Lansdown Commission to investigate conditions in the mines. The commission’s 1944 report acknowledged that the reserves no longer supplemented the wages of landless miners (white mine owners had argued that black workers needed less income because they had family farms in the reserves to meet some of their needs). Among the reforms recommended by the report were higher wages for Africans. The AMWU found the recommendations inadequate but refrained from striking. After the war, however, the AMWU demanded a wage of 10 shillings per day, family housing, paid leave, gratuities, and repeal of War Measure 145, which made strikes by Africans illegal. These demands led to a major strike in 1946, during which 73,000 mine workers—most of them black—stopped work for four days, shutting down production completely in ten mines. Police intervention brought the strike to a rapid end, leaving 12 dead and more than 1,200 injured. The AMWU was seriously crippled by the debacle—none of its aims were achieved—but the strike had nonetheless “demonstrated the potential strength of organized black workers in challenging the cheap labor system” (Byrnes, p. 53). In the novel, Xuma rallies his fellow mine boys to protest the hazardous working conditions in the mine, which have just claimed two lives. The white engineers panic, summoning the police to try to quash what they perceive as an incipient strike.
attempt to create a sense of order and community. Outside Johannesburg, one well-known camp leader, James Mpanza, declared himself king of his Orlando squatter encampment, setting up his own system of local government and taxation. In the novel, Malay Camp—a “slum area of Johannesburg once populated by Africans, Coloureds and Indians”—has its share of leaders, including the saloon-owner, Leah (Wade, Peter Abrahams, p. 27). (“African” refers to black South Africans; “coloured” to descendants of mixed unions; and “Indians” to immigrants from India). Tall and powerfully built, Leah can physically defeat an armed man, break up a brawl between two drunken women, and subdue an unruly crowd with her forceful presence alone. The residents of Malay Camp both respect and fear her.
Shebeens and liquor peddling
The liquor trade in the Transvaal—the South African province in which Johannesburg is located—can be traced back to “a distillery called Volkshoop (’People’s Hope’) that opened in 1883 on a charter granting it a monopoly within the borders of the Boer republic” (Lelyveld, p. 267). The Boers (early white settlers, primarily of Dutch descent), or, as they are presently called, Afrikaners, found a profitable way to use their surplus grain and fruit when they entered the liquor trade. Bars and distilleries soon found a steady clientele among black migrant workers, many of whom had come to labor in the new gold mines.
Up to a point black drunkenness served the interests of the mine owners, who calculated that blacks returned to their tribal areas once they had accumulated a little cash. The more they spent on drink, the longer they stayed, limiting the turnover in the work force. But by 1895 at least 15 percent and possibly 25 percent of the black work force was disabled by drink on any given day. The mine-owners then became converted to the righteous cause of total prohibition—for blacks only.
(Lelyveld, p. 268)
Thus from 1912 to 1962, it was a criminal offense in South Africa for Europeans to sell alcoholic beverages to Africans, who were prohibited entirely from selling or purchasing alcohol. “As a result, the practice of illicit liquor selling flourished, especially in the towns, where it became institutionalized in various forms” (Wade, p. 28). One such form was the shebeen, an unlicensed saloon bar. In the novel, Leah runs a thriving shebeen, frequented by many residents of Malay Camp. Because of the laws forbidding Africans to sell or buy liquor, however, Leah must be constantly on guard against visits from police hoping to catch her in the act. Leah eludes arrest for a long time by bribing a policeman to inform her when raids on the camp are expected, but she is ultimately caught and sentenced to nine months in prison when her informant inadvertently passes along the wrong information.
As more black Africans traveled to the cities in search of work, the government tried to limit the urban population of black migrant workers by implementing pass laws. The origin of such laws dates from the eighteenth century, when slaves were required to carry documents signed by their masters when they were absent from their masters’ property. Some modern pass laws were designed to ensure that white farmers would not lose their black laborers, while other pass laws were intended to prevent blacks from living in towns, except as laborers for whites. In the Transvaal during the 1930s, a black person entering a proclaimed urban area had to report to an official within 24 hours and obtain a permit to seek work. The official would issue a permit—valid for six days—but only if the black person’s other passes were in order. These government-issued permits, which stated the bearer’s identity, racial classification, and the reasons for his or her presence in the city or town, had to be produced on demand. Africans who failed to show their passes when questioned by an official could be jailed or expelled from the town. Attempts to enforce pass laws created a vast number of rebellious lawbreakers—in 1930, 42,000 Africans were convicted of violating their pass laws in the Transvaal. Despite the increasing stringency of pass laws, however, African populations in the cities continued to grow. In 1944 an anti-pass campaign, boasting 20,000 supporters, began in Johannesburg but failed to achieve the goal of a million signatures on a petition against the pass laws. In the novel, pass laws are part of the daily routine for Xuma and other Africans. Before Xuma begins his new job at the mine, he is inspected by a mine official and issued a pass stating his name, race, and occupation. Although Xuma becomes a “boss boy” who can afford his own room in Malay Camp, policemen still stop him on the streets and demand to see his pass. Even the miner who contracts lung sickness and is sent home to die has to receive “a pass to show that he was not escaping from the mines” (Mine Boy, p. 109).
Xuma, a young black man from the country, arrives early one morning in Malay Camp, hoping to find lodging. One of the camp residents, a woman named Leah, inspects him carefully, decides he poses no threat, and agrees to let him stay in her house. Once inside, Xuma meets the other inhabitants: an old woman, Ma Plank; a drunken old man known as Daddy; and two younger men, named Joseph and Dladla. Dladla and Xuma size each other up, but Leah averts a brawl between them by taking away Dladla’s knife. Once they are alone, Leah explains to Xuma that Joseph is the brother of her own man, who is in prison for killing someone who tried to kiss her. Meanwhile, Leah is sleeping with the bad-tempered Dladla out of loneliness. Xuma, in turn, explains that he has come to the city to look for work in the mines. Leah, who disapproves of this plan because so many men sicken and die after working in the mines, offers to make Xuma her “head-man” instead. She reveals that she sells liquor illegally in a shebeen—a kind of saloon—and needs someone to help her run her business. Xuma remains determined to work in the mines; reluctantly Leah accepts his decision and shows him to a small bedroom where he can sleep.
Xuma awakens much later in the day and finds the residents of Malay Camp watching a brawl between two women, which Leah quickly breaks up. When Joseph arrives at the house, Leah tells him to take Xuma into town. It is Saturday, and therefore a half-holiday for the black people of Johannesburg. Xuma sees various people, dressed in their brightest clothes, shopping, talking, and flirting. In another area, men are playing dice and, some distance up the road, two men are in the middle of yet another brawl. Xuma and Joseph are watching all the goings-on when a van suddenly swerves around the corner. The people scatter as policemen emerge from the van. Joseph tells Xuma to run but the young man refuses, saying he has done nothing. A policeman strikes the astonished Xuma with his stick; Xuma knocks his adversary unconscious, then runs. He receives some help from a coloured man who hides him in his own house until the search dies down.
Later, Xuma returns to Malay Camp. Joseph and Leah greet him with relief, cautioning him to avoid the police whenever possible. Xuma sees Leah give a hefty bribe to a black policeman in exchange for a warning about when the cops will raid her place for liquor. Leah takes Xuma back to the house and introduces him to Eliza, a young teacher, who feeds him and tends to his bruises from the police attack. Struck by Eliza’s beauty, Xuma is surprised to learn that the soft-spoken girl is the forceful Leah’s niece. Later, Xuma and Eliza go for a walk and she takes him to a grassy area where they can see the city from the east and the tall mine dumps from the west. Eliza explains, “They are made of the sand that’s dug out of the earth when the miners seek for gold…. It took many years to make them all. And more are being made every day” (Mine Boy, p. 26). As they sit together, Xuma senses Eliza is attracted to him and tries to kiss her, but she rebuffs him, leaving him confused and angry.
Back at Malay Camp, Dladla and two henchmen attack Xuma, supposedly for stealing Dladla’s woman, Leah. Xuma overcomes one henchman; the other is subdued by another camp resident, Johannes. Leah, meanwhile, tackles and defeats Dladla herself. After the brawl, Xuma, his bleeding face stitched up by a doctor, meets Johannes, a mine-worker who offers to help Xuma find employment like his own.
The next morning the two men walk to the mine. Xuma asks what it is like in the mines; Johannes is evasive, saying only that the work is “not hard to learn” (Mine Boy, p. 33). Pointing out a line of approaching workers, Johannes explains that most mine workers live in compounds, but he, as a boss boy for one of the white men, does not have to abide by this rule. After introducing Xuma to his white boss, Chris, Johannes suggests Xuma for the position of boss boy for another white man, known as the Red One because of his red hair. The Red One has not yet arrived at the mine, however, so Xuma is assigned to another boss, a hostile white man who takes an instant dislike to him. The boss demands that Xuma push a truck full of sand, a job for two men, and gloatingly watches as he struggles with his task. But Xuma exerts himself and manages to move the truck into position, despite cutting his leg in the process. The other men, white and black, are impressed, including the Red One, who has now arrived and who reprimands the boss for his mistreatment of Xuma.
Work resumes and Xuma grows discouraged at the grueling labor, hectic pace, and apparent lack of progress, as the mine dumps appear not to grow any taller. A co-worker reassures him that he will soon grow accustomed to all these things. After work Johannes takes Xuma to be examined by the mine doctor and to meet the Red One—an Irishman named Paddy O’Shea.
The doctor gives Xuma a clean bill of health, while Paddy tells Xuma he must be a hard worker and a strong leader to work for him. Xuma decides the Red One is tough but fair and agrees.
Back at Malay Camp, Xuma learns that several women have been arrested for bootlegging and becomes upset with Leah for not having warned them. Leah reminds him that life in the city is a daily struggle and one must look out for oneself. She introduces Xuma to more people in the camp, including Maisy, a lively young black woman who takes an instant fancy to him. Maisy entices Xuma out of the house for dancing in the streets. Despite himself, Xuma has a good time but his happy mood is spoiled when he returns to Leah’s house and finds Eliza there with another man, a sickly-looking teacher in a fine suit. For her part, Eliza is not happy to see Xuma with Maisy. Later, Eliza visits Xuma alone in his room. They kiss, but Eliza again rejects Xuma, tearfully explaining, “I want to be like the white people and go where they go and do the things that they do and I am black. I cannot help it. Inside I am not black and I do not want to be a black person…. And it is that that makes me hurt you” (Mine Boy, p. 60). More hurt and confused than ever, Xuma does not understand.
Winter arrives—Xuma has been in the city for three months and now has a room of his own in Malay Camp. While walking around Johannesburg one Saturday night, he meets Paddy O’Shea and Paddy’s girlfriend, Di, who invite him back to their place for dinner. Xuma, who, because of their racial difference, has in the past deflected friendly overtures from Paddy, reluctantly accepts. The comfort and fine possessions he sees in Paddy’s apartment amaze him; in an unguarded moment, he confides in Di about Eliza. Di tries to explain how she and Eliza, despite their different skin colors, are alike because they want the same things, but Xuma refuses to recognize a resemblance. After Xuma leaves, Paddy tells Di that he believes the young man will grow into a strong leader who will fight back against racial oppression. Di, however, disagrees, arguing, “A man’s a man to the extent that he asserts himself. There’s no assertion in your mine boy. There is confusion and bewilderment and acceptance. Nothing more” (Mine Boy, p. 68). Unconvinced, Paddy argues that Xuma will eventually wake up and realize his potential as a leader.
Xuma continues to wander around the city, then finds his way towards Leah’s place, where he makes love with Eliza. Xuma is ecstatic, believing that love will solve all their problems, but his hopes are dashed the next morning when Eliza tells him the previous night was a mistake. Hurt, Xuma turns to Maisy for comfort, accompanying her to Hoopvlei, a township on the outskirts of Johannesburg. They enjoy a pleasant Sunday excursion, visiting Maisy’s friends and returning late at night after dancing and drinks. Maisy takes a tipsy Xuma to her rooms in the city—where she works as a maid for a white family—and lets him sleep it off alone in her bed. Touched by her kindness, Xuma wishes it were Maisy, not Eliza, whom he loved.
Xuma’s next day at work is eventful. First, Johannes tells him that Dladla, Leah’s knife-wielding former lover, may be the police informant who snitches on residents like the liquor-peddling Leah. Then Paddy notifies him that their crew will be working the night shift for the next month. Next, during a backbreaking stint underground, Xuma and Paddy notice a weakness in the supports holding up the tunnels. One of the engineers gives the spot a cursory inspection, then tells the crew it is safe to resume working. Meanwhile, Xuma gets a firsthand look at the hazards of mining when it becomes clear that one of his men has lung sickness. The dying man explains that he was in debt to a white man and feared that he would lose the family farm unless he kept working. Horrified by the worker’s cadaverous appearance, Paddy arranges for him to receive severance pay—enough to settle the debt—and free passage home to spend his last days with his family.
After work Xuma and Maisy go to tell Leah about Dladla. At the camp, Xuma again encounters Eliza, but this time she confesses her love for him: “I am your woman. If I want it or not it is so. I cannot help it” (Mine Boy, p. 119). A delighted Xuma agrees to give their relationship a chance; the young couple breaks the happy news to the Malay Camp residents, including the lovelorn Maisy, who congratulate them.
Eliza moves into Xuma’s rooms and they establish a comfortable domestic routine, but their happiness is soon threatened by outside events. First, Dladla, the suspected informant, is found dead. Next, the old man, Daddy, suffers fatal injuries after being struck by a car. His death breaks Eliza’s resolve; the night after Daddy’s wake, she leaves Xuma for good. Leah tries to explain to the bewildered young man, “She has gone because she is sick of this place, sick of us, and because she wants things that we cannot give her. Things that she cannot get here” (Mine Boy, p. 154). Xuma suffers another blow when Leah, on whose strength he has often leaned, is arrested for selling liquor illegally and sentenced to nine months in prison.
Reeling from these losses, Xuma sinks into a deep depression. Sensing the young man’s distress, Paddy reaches out to him but an angry Xuma demands: “How can you understand, white man! … How can I be your friend when your people do this to me and my people?” (Mine Boy, p. 172). Paddy tries to explain that unhap-piness can be felt by both whites and blacks and that race should matter less than shared feelings: “[I]t is not good to think only as a black man or only as a white man. The white people in this country think only as white people and that is why they do this harm to your people” (Mine Boy, pp. 172-173). Alone, Xuma begins to imagine what a society without color might be like and, despite himself, he finds the idea very appealing: “Picture after picture slipped through his mind. He felt light and free and gay. People were people. Not white and black people. Just people” (Mine Boy, p. 174).
Xuma reports for work at the mine, only to learn that disaster has struck again. The weakened tunnel that Xuma and Paddy had noticed several days before has collapsed. Chris and Johannes held the roof up while their men escaped and now both are trapped. Xuma and Paddy go underground, returning with the dead bodies of their friends. When the manager of the mine and the engineers try to attribute the deaths to unnecessary panic and order the miners to go back underground, an outraged Xuma demands that repairs be made first. The other black mine boys side with him, and so does Paddy, recognizing that his own principles are being put to the test. The manager screams that this is a strike and the police immediately swarm to subdue and arrest the recalcitrant miners. Xuma’s first impulse is to flee, but after he calms down, he decides to stand up for his beliefs and turn himself in, even if it means going to jail. He pays a quick visit to Maisy to tell her what has happened and what he plans to do, explaining, “It is good that a black man should tell the white people how we feel. And also, a black man must tell the black people how they feel and what they want. These things I must do, then I will feel like a man” (Mine Boy, p. 183). Xuma also tells Maisy that he loves her and wants to make a life with her someday. Maisy promises to wait for him, then accompanies him to the police station.
A world without color
The African scholar Kolawole Ogungbesan writes, “Abrahams’ vision is, as he puts it in Mine Boy, of ’man without colour,’ a world in which every man will be judged as an individual and where colour will be irrelevant” (Ogungbesan, p. 2). In order for such a vision to be realized, however, blacks must have the courage to defy white expectations, especially regarding Africans in urban settings. The expectations of the time were that blacks flooded into cities because they practiced rudimentary, unproductive farming techniques.
Once in the towns the blacks are [believed to be] feckless, lazy, irresponsible, and unable to improve their miserable material conditions; this situation is largely because of their innate disabilities…. [It is thought that] the best way to deal with this self-generated problem is probably to encourage as many blacks as possible to return to the countryside and try to learn better farming techniques.
(Wade, “Peter Abrahams,” p. 6)
Mine Boy, Wade contends, challenges those very assumptions through its depiction of how one black man, Xuma, manages to adapt to city life without compromising his integrity or succumbing to criminal temptation. Xuma emerges from his urban experience stronger and more resolute than he initially was.
The process of Xuma’s maturation is set in motion early in the novel, when the naive young man receives a lecture from Leah on his first morning in Malay Camp. Although Xuma hails from the north and Leah from the south, she reminds him that such distinctions no longer matter in the city: “I come from my people, but I am no longer of my people. It is so in the city and I have been here many years. And the city makes you strange to the ways of your people” (Mine Boy, p. 10). All Africans, she implies, are bound together by the fight to survive in the urban jungle. Xuma takes the lesson to heart and determines to adapt to his new environment, soon landing the coveted position of “boss boy”—or gang leader—at the mine. He begins a gradual ascent up the social ladder, earning the respect of his white foreman, Paddy O’Shea, who is impressed by his strength and leadership. Paddy, a liberal thinker, believes that Xuma represents the future black South African: strong, dignified, and capable of great achievements in the modern world.
Xuma’s varied experiences in the city further shape his destiny—he experiences racial discrimination in the form of daily pass inspections, sees new friends killed or defeated by the law, and copes with abandonment by his first love, Eliza, who longs to live as white people do. At the novel’s climax, an embittered Xuma engages in a heated debate with Paddy over whether whites and blacks can ever reach a common understanding. Paddy contends, “You must be a man first and then a black man. And if it is so you will understand as a black man and as a white man… When you understand that you will be a man with freedom inside your breast” (Mine Boy, p. 173). Initially incredulous, Xuma ultimately embraces those ideas when an accident at the mine claims two lives (one black, one white), prompting him to protest against the hazardous working conditions. He achieves his apotheosis not by retreating to the country to lick his wounds, but by making a place for himself in the white man’s world and by standing up for the rights of his fellow workers, black and white.
Ironically, Xuma’s transformation takes place at a time in history when South African policies of racial segregation were on the ascent. After World War II, the National Party, comprised of Afrikaners, increased in popularity. The British-influenced United Party’s decision to enter the war on the Allied side had antagonized Afrikaners, many of whom sympathized with Nazi ideas about a white master race. In the 1948 general election, the National Party united rural and urban Afrikaners by appealing to their racial attitudes as well as their economic interests, and won. The new government, led by prime minister D. F. Malan, swiftly introduced apartheid (derived from the Afrikaner word for “apartness”), a policy that separated the races into distinct “homelands.” Whites and nonwhites were considered to have separate destinies, which could be fulfilled only by isolating the races. For many years, Abrahams’s ideal of “a world without colour” would remain an unattainable dream.
Sources and literary context
While the events and characters in Mine Boy are Abrahams’s own invention, the author nonetheless drew upon his experiences as a child of the slums when creating the atmosphere of Malay Camp. The daily routines of migrant workers, shebeen keepers, and prostitutes are meticulously rendered, as is the sense of community that manages to evolve in these settlements, despite adverse living conditions.
Abrahams’s Mine Boy, along with his other writings, occupies a significant position in South African literature. Scholar Martin Tucker describes South African novels as falling into three main categories: novels of geographic and racial isolation; novels of violence that deal with the explosion of racial and political tensions; and novels of forgiveness that advocate understanding and acceptance between black and white races (Tucker, p. 160). Along with Abrahams’s works, writings by Alan Paton and Nadine Gordimer (see Cry, the Beloved Country and Burger’s Daughter, also covered in African Literature and Its Times) belong in this third category. Tucker observes that these authors often depict “the problem of adjustment” by showing how a black person copes with the trials and temptations of life in the city “before he comes to that superior measure of understanding which obliterates his hate, resentment, and envy,“a description that sums up the gist of Mine Boy’s plot (Tucker, p. 218). Michael Wade contends that Mine Boy distinguishes itself, presenting “for the first time in a South African novel, a convincing account of the state of mind of urban blacks” and calls Abrahams’s novel “the first Marxist bildungsroman [’novel of growth’] in South African literature” (Wade, “Peter Abrahams,” p. 6).
Mine Boy was first published in England in 1946 but received little attention at the time. An anonymous review in the Times Literary Supplement merely noted that Mine Boy“marks an improvement” over Abrahams’ first novel, Song of the City, but observed that both works depicted “the same limited society” (Times Literary Supplement, p. 477). Otherwise, critics ignored Mine Boy until it was reprinted by Knopf in 1955. Overall, reviews tended to be mixed.
Some critics found the novel’s loose structure problematic. L. O. Coxe of The Yale Review complained: “Mr. Abrahams has not focused his lens. He does not decide, at any point, whether he is writing a picaresque novel, a tract, a love story, or a kind of bildungsroman” (Coxe in James and Brown, p. 2). John Hughes, writing for the Christian Science Monitor, also had reservations, feeling that “Mr. Abrahams has oversimplified the picture of South Africa which is not as clear-cut as he would have us believe” (Hughes in James and Brown, p. 2). Hughes recommended that the novel “should be taken for what it is—a good story of what happened to one African country boy who sought the City of Gold” (Hughes in James and Brown, p. 2).
Others found the novel’s simplicity effective. Sylvia Stallings, writing for the New York Herald Tribune Book Review, commended Abrahams for “not sacrific[ing] poetry to propaganda. His simple story, dealing with simple people, is dignified and moving” (Stallings in James and Brown, p. 2). Hollis Alport, writing for The Saturday Review, praised the author’s use of local color, so to speak, which he considered to be one of Mine Boy’s strongest attractions: “[W]hen Mr. Abrahams tells us about Xuma, a ’Skokiaan Queen’ called Leah, a pretty ’coloured’ schoolteacher called Eliza, and some of the other inhabitants of Malay Camp, the reader is both fascinated and moved” (Alport in James and Brown, p. 2).
—Pamela S. Loy
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