Mathabane, Mark 1960–
Mathabane, Mark 1960–
Mark Mathabane 1960–
Mark Mathabane escaped a life of poverty and terror in South Africa and, recalling that life in print, has become a bestselling author in the United States. Mathabane’s 1986 memoir, Kaffir Boy, “catapulted him to celebrity and respect as a voice for oppressed blacks,” according to Lisa Anderson in the Chicago Tribune. In Kaffir Boy, the author recounts his childhood in the squalid black township of Alexandra and his determination not to accept the boundaries set for him by the white minority government of South Africa. In subsequent books, Kaffir Boy in America and Love in Black and White, Mathabane offers his perspective on race relations—personal and social—in modern America. Los Angeles Times correspondent Itabari Njeri called Mathabane a writer with “an intellect constantly refining itself; a man turning himself into a more astute receptor and generator of ideas.”
As a child, Mathabane saw his parents victimized repeatedly by the barbaric South African system of apartheid. He witnessed violence, suffered malnutrition, and endured humiliation, emerging from a ruinous environment only because he dedicated himself to receiving an education. “There was a time when I thought that if life meant unending suffering and pain, there was no use living,” Mathabane told Time magazine. “At 10 years old, I contemplated suicide. What kept me going was my discovery of books. In the world of books I could travel around the world, go to the moon, do great things. That made it worthwhile to live another day.”
Having resided in the United States since 1978, Mathabane has become a spokesperson not only for the oppressed people in his homeland but also for the plight of black Americans. “What was really shocking was discovering that the black world in America resembled the world I had left, the townships of South Africa—the poor buildings, the bad roads, the hopelessness, the rage, the frustration on the faces of the black boys and girls I met,” he told Time. “These were the same emotions I felt when I was fighting for my life under apartheid. Everyone in this country is an accomplice to what is happening in the black ghettos of America.” Mathabane feels that conditions could improve in the United States if a climate of racial communications could be nurtured. “My mother and grandmother, though illiterate, taught me what I have come to regard as the most important lessons in race relations,” Mathabane commented in the Los Angeles Times. “There are good white people and bad white people, just as there are good black people and bad black people. Black racism is as reprehensible and corroding to the soul as white racism.”
Surname pronounced “Mot-ta-bon-ee”; born Johannes Mathabane in 1960 in Alexandra, South Africa; changed name to Mark, 1976; immigrated to the United States, 1978; son of Jackson (a laborer) and Magdelene (a washerwoman; maiden name, Mabaso) Mathabane; married Gail Ernsberger (a writer), 1987; children: Bianca, Nathan. Education: Attended Limestone College, 1978, St. Louis University, 1979, and Quincy College, 1981; Dowling College, B.A., 1983; graduate studies at Columbia University, 1984.
Writer and lecturer, 1985—. Contributor to the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and other newspapers and magazines.
Selected awards: Christopher Award, 1986.
Addresses: Home —341 Barrington Park Ln., Kernersville, NC 27284. Publisher —HarperCollins, 10 East 53rd St., New York, NY 10022-5299.
Mark Mathabane was born in 1960 in Alexandra township, a one-square-mile ghetto just outside Johannesburg, South Africa. Like 150,000 other black South Africans, the Mathabanes were forced to live in the township. Their only alternative was a desolate tribal reserve created for blacks in the countryside, a “homeland” from which Mathabane’s father had emigrated in search of work. The author described the conditions in Alexandra in a piece for Writer’s Digest: “The eldest of seven children—two boys and five girls—I lived with my parents and siblings in a shack made of crumbling bricks and rusted sheets of metal zinks. The shack measured roughly 15 by 15 feet. Till I was 10, my siblings and I slept on pieces of cardboard under the kitchen table.”
Mathabane’s father, a laborer, was a target of near constant harassment by the police. Once, when Mathabane was five, officers broke into the family shack in the middle of the night. Kicking young Mathabane aside savagely, they grabbed his father and interrogated him about his passbook, a document all blacks were forced to carry. “What a pitiful sight my father was, naked and begging for mercy,” the author remembered in People. “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… 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.”
Frequently arrested and detained for months at a time, Mathabane’s father left the family to fend for itself in the bleak confines of Alexandra. Mathabane told Writer’s Digest that he and his siblings “scavenged for half-eaten sandwiches thrown away by whites at the garbage dump.… There were many days when nothing was available to eat, and we would simply stare at each other, at the empty pots, and at the sun going down.”
His mother worked to restore family spirits by telling stories she had learned from her own mother. “Her stories about black culture, traditions, magic, and heroes and heroines were the only books we had,” the author recalled in Writer’s Digest. “By sharpening my sensibilities and firing my curiosity and imagination, these stories, almost Homeric in their vividness, drama, and invention, became the seeds of my own creativity.”
When Mathabane was seven, his mother took a job as a washerwoman for a large Indian family in order to earn the money to send her oldest son to school. Education was not compulsory for South African blacks—in fact, those who wished to attend school had to pay fees and purchase slates and books. The whole process of schooling was met with cynicism in the township because, as Mathabane noted in Writer’s Digest, the program “was meant to reconcile us black children to our subjection and the status quo, to keep us ignorant of our fundamental rights as human beings, and to make us better servants of whites.”
Mathabane was literally dragged to school on the first day, and when he returned home, he discovered that his mother and father had fought over the matter. “My father had beaten her badly for sending me to school, which he though was ‘unmanly’ and would only teach me how to be a slave,” Mathabane told People. “To spite my father, I promised [my mother] I would go to school as long as she wanted.”
One day when Mathabane was eleven, his grandmother took him to the home of the white family she worked for. “It was like taking a leap into another galaxy,” the author explained in People. Taunted by the white son of the family for his poor English, Mathabane became determined to master the language. He taught himself from discarded comic books and newspapers his grandmother brought him from her job. At thirteen he began to work on Saturdays for the white family and soon impressed them with his hunger for knowledge. They were the first in a string of white people who helped Mathabane escape from the township life that had nearly driven him to suicide at the tender age of ten.
“Granny’s employer began giving me books that were only read in white schools,” Mathabane remembered in Writer’s Digest. “These ‘revolutionary’ books—Treasure Island, David Copperfield and other classics—changed my life. They convinced me that there was a world beyond that of the violence, poverty and suffering in which I was steeped. They helped emancipate me from mental slavery and taught me to believe in my own worth and abilities, despite apartheid’s attempts to limit my aspirations and prescribe my place in life.” The same employer also gave Mathabane another valuable gift—a used tennis racket and some tennis balls. Mathabane began to teach himself to play tennis, inspired by the example of American star Arthur Ashe.
In 1977 Mathabane defied a black boycott to play in an important tennis tournament in South Africa. Several Americans participated in the event, and although Mathabane lost his match in the first round, he did get to meet former Wimbledon champion Stan Smith. Smith took a personal interest in Mathabane, contacting American colleges on the young student’s behalf. Within weeks of the tournament, Mathabane began to receive letters and scholarship offers from colleges in America. Mathabane left South Africa in the autumn of 1978, clutching copies of the United States Constitution and the Declaration of Independence as he boarded the plane for Limestone College in South Carolina. “Tennis became my passport to freedom in America,” Mathabane wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “I continued to encounter white racists, but their bigotry failed to eradicate in me the reality that there were other whites who were different.”
Mathabane quickly discovered that life in America could pose its own problems. A dedicated student, he was shocked by the drug and alcohol use among his classmates. Their lackadaisical attitude toward schoolwork ran counter to his own ambitious plan of study, and soon he found himself at odds with the college’s tennis coach over the amount of time he spent with his books. Worse, he found that he had left apartheid behind only to find a subtler form of segregation at work in the United States. White and black students did not socialize or sit together at his college. They pursued different agendas and seemed to distrust one another. Mathabane challenged this system by talking to white and black students and by defending the liberal arts curriculum that leaned heavily toward white male authors.
“My attitude rankled some black students,” Mathabane wrote in the Los Angeles Times. “Some felt that any black student who sat with whites in the cafeteria, worked with them on projects, shared with them black culture and socialized with them was a traitor. In their militant rage at white racism, these students apparently forgot that communicating with each other is one effective way of combatting the cancer of racism. Some white students felt uncomfortable with me because I did not fit their prejudiced view of what a black person is: those whites felt comfortable only around blacks who acted unintelligent and happy-go-lucky.”
With Stan Smith’s financial support, Mathabane eventually attended four colleges as an undergraduate. While at Quincy College in Illinois, he read Black Boy, the autobiography of Richard Wright. The work was a revelation to Mathabane, who immediately went to the library and checked out a dozen books by black American authors. Mathabane was elated to discover the sentiments of Eldridge Cleaver, James Baldwin, Richard Wright, and Maya Angelou, among others. Even better, the student felt he might contribute to this literary tradition by writing about his own childhood.
Mathabane graduated from Dowling College in 1983 and began work on his first book, a memoir about his childhood in South Africa. He called the story Kaffir Boy, using the slang equivalent of “nigger” from his native country. While writing the manuscript, he gave talks occasionally about conditions in South Africa, and one of these was attended by novelist Phyllis Whitney. She encouraged Mathabane to send the unfinished work to her agent. In the few weeks that followed, Mathabane met with a number of agents in New York City, finally choosing the same one who represented Arthur Ashe. The manuscript was received with great excitement by several major publishers, and Macmillan eventually won rights to publish it in hardcover.
Kaffir Boy, published in 1986, won the Christopher Award. For Mathabane, the book “gave me a feeling of being purged,” he told Writer’s Digest. “I was finally able to fully accept who I was and where I came from. In short, I wrote to heal myself as well as inform others.”
Television talk show host Oprah Winfrey bought a paperback copy of Kaffir Boy and was so moved by the story that she invited Mathabane to appear on her show. She also flew Mathabane’s mother and siblings to the United States for a reunion—he had not seen his family in nearly a decade and faced possible arrest if he dared enter South Africa. The television show provided further publicity for Mathabane’s book, and soon it was on the bestseller lists. Encouraged by its reception, Mathabane moved on to other projects.
Kaffir Boy in America details Mathabane’s culture shock in the American college system and his reaction to the dual experiences of freedom and racism in America. Atlanta Constitution reviewer Fredrick Robinson called the work “a perceptive, revealing and accurate comparison between the sharply drawn contradictions in American society and those of [Mathabane’s] homeland. His ideas don’t give way to simplicity and quick solutions—he recognizes the complexities of life—and the opinions expressed in his book clearly reflect this. What resonates so vividly in the book is his honesty, his love for knowledge and, above all, his tireless commitment to social justice.”
Mathabane will not allow himself to be pigeonholed as a “voice of the oppressed.” His third book, Love in Black and White, explores his marriage to a white woman and the hostility they have faced together from both blacks and whites. In his speeches and writings, Mathabane exhorts people to see past skin color to the character of the individual. He also makes a plea for genuine interaction between races, something he feels is sorely lacking in America. “It’s amazing what happens when you finally free your mind of those mental shackles,” he told the Los Angeles Times. “When you realize that the most important thing I have to fight as a black person in an oppressive, racist society is what I think about myself. It is so easy to fall into the state of saying, ‘I am a victim.’ It is formidable, but [African Americans] have to succeed in America despite racism. You have to, this is your fate. This is your lot. You belong here.”
Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa, Macmillan, 1986.
Kaffir Boy in America, Scribner, 1989.
(With wife, Gail Mathabane) Love in Black and White, HarperCollins, 1992.
Black Writers, Gale, 1989.
Mathabane, Mark, Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa, Macmillan, 1986.
Atlanta Constitution, June 15, 1989; February 23, 1992.
Chicago Tribune, June 21, 1989; March 15, 1992.
Los Angeles Times, April 29, 1989; July 7, 1989; February 10, 1992.
Newsweek, March 9, 1992, p. 62.
People, July 7, 1986, p. 67.
Time, November 12, 1990, pp. 16-19.
Washington Post, May 28, 1989; February 16, 1992.
Writer’s Digest, November 1989.
—Anne Janette Johnson