Doctor of Leadership in Global Perspectives: Crafting Ministry in an Interconnected World

Beauty for Ashes . . .

Written by: on June 20, 2017

Mark Mathabane—Kaffir Boy an Autobiography: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa


In this raw and captivating autobiography, Mark Mathabane, utilizes the imaginative creativity of his journalistic skills to depict the poignancy and triumphs of his first eighteen years of life under South Africa’s apartheid system.  He writes, “I have sought to paint a portrait of my childhood and youth in Alexandra, a black ghetto of Johannesburg, where I was born and lived for eighteen years, with the hope that the rest of the world will finally understand why apartheid cannot be reformed. It has to be abolished.” [1] As author, lecturer, and professor, Mathabane inspires audiences all over the United States. He remarks, “When I lecture to privileged students, I try to make them aware of the responsibility that attends privilege and to make them realize they have a bigger purpose in life beyond material things, and also, that privilege gives them the responsibility to make a difference in our world as leaders.” [2]


The author introduces the reader to the politics of apartheid that forced black communities to be removed from their ancestral homelands. Race was the dominant identifying factor for all South Africans under apartheid.  It determined who one married, and the kind of education, job, and housing one could obtain. As the privileged class, whites had the best education, housing, and jobs. Most of the socio-political, educational, and religious machinery worked in consort with one another to sustain apartheid by systematically keeping blacks poor, ignorant, and oppressed.  Mathabane indicates that the government strategically exploited blacks by dividing them ethnically and linguistically which generated “hate, bitterness, hunger, pain, terror, violence, fear, dashed hopes and dreams. It means being trapped in the ghettos of South Africa, in a lingering nightmare of a racial system that in many respects resembles Nazism. In the ghettos black children fight for survival from the moment they are born. They take to hating the police, soldiers and authorities as a baby takes to its mother’s breast.” [3] He goes on to explain, “in my childhood these enforcers of white prerogatives and whims represented a sinister force capable of crushing me at will; of making my parents flee in the dead of night to escape arrest under the Pass laws; of marching them naked out of bed because they did not have the permit allowing them to live as husband and wife under the same roof. They turned my father—by repeatedly arresting him and denying him the right to earn a living in a way that gave him dignity—into such a bitter man that, as he fiercely but in vain resisted the emasculation, he hurt those he loved the most.” [4]

Having endured a lifetime of relentless suffering, at age ten, Mathabane felt that he could bear no more.  He was “weary of being hungry all the time, weary of being beaten all the time at school, at home, and in the streets; he was frustrated, embittered, and disillusioned by a world that seemed to offer him nothing but hunger, pain, violence, and death.” [5] He contemplated suicide with a knife, but his mother dissuaded him. Mathabane experienced violence and victimization through state-authorized violence, often administered by black policemen, superintendents, and educators; through domestic violence; violence perpetrated by his former gang when he severed ties; and through his participation in the Soweto riots of 1976.  He reports an improvement in life at age eleven, when a white family provided him with classics to read, “which revealed a different reality and marked the beginning of my revolt against Bantu education’s attempts to proscribe the limits of my aspirations and determine my place in South African life.” [6] When he was introduced to tennis at age thirteen, he came to the realization that not all South African whites were racists and his hatred toward them increasingly abated.


I don’t believe that I will ever become immune to learning about the heinous atrocities and suffering experienced by children, families, and communities living in extreme, difficult circumstances i.e. vulnerable/at risk conditions. The major common threads in this type of abuse are: exploitation, intimidation, manipulation, hatred, oppression, anxiety, and depression. In situations akin to these, global ministry leadership imperatives then, would not only need to include emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence, and spiritual intelligence, but must also be concerned with engagement at the level of one’s existential realities; that is what ultimately shapes the contours of one’s worldview, cultural traditions, religious belief systems (implicit or explicit), and ideologies.

Mathabane’s biographical narrative underscores my contention with Matthew Michael’s thesis in Christian Theology and African Traditions. The fallacy with Michael’s thesis is that he encompasses the whole African continent in a singular worldview. He speaks of “the African,” as if Africa consists of one homogeneous people group with one overarching worldview. Despite Africa’s apparent diversity in nationalities, ethnicities, cultures, political systems, religious systems, worldviews, traditions, histories, economics, linguistics, tribal orientations and geographies.  Neither do all Africans  spontaneously resonate with or adhere to  African cultural norms/traditions without discretion, nor do they necessarily embrace the worldview/traditions of the particular African context into which they are included.

Mathabane intuitively realized, “In order to escape from the clutches of apartheid, I had to reject the tribal traditions of my ancestors . . .  apartheid had long adulterated my heritage and traditions, twisted them into tools of oppression and indoctrination. I saw at a young age that apartheid was using tribalism to deny me equal rights, to separate me from my black brothers and sisters, to justify segregation and perpetuate white power and privilege, to render me subservient, docile and, and therefore exploitable.  I instinctively understood that in order to forge my own identity, to achieve according to my aspirations and dreams, to see myself the equal of any man, black or white, I had to reject this brand of tribalism.” [7] This was the catalyst that gave him the faith and fortitude to pursue a path that led to freedom from apartheid and to success as a scholar and professional in the United States.


  1. Mark Mathabane, Kaffir Boy an Autobiography: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa (New York: Free Press, 1986), ix.
  2. Mark Mathabane, “Dr. Mark Mathabane Author of Kaffir Boy Speaks at Schools,” April 3, 2008, accessed June 14, 2017, https://youtu.be/gh6grpxYOqQ.
  3. Mathabane, Kaffir Boy, x.
  4. Ibid.
  5. Ibid., 167.
  6. Ibid., x-xi.
  7. Ibid., xi.






































About the Author

Claire Appiah

7 responses to “Beauty for Ashes . . .”

  1. Marc Andresen says:


    “Raw and captivating…” Indeed this book is, one of the most that I have ever read.

    “In situations akin to these, global ministry leadership imperatives then, would not only need to include emotional intelligence, cultural intelligence, and spiritual intelligence, but must also be concerned with engagement at the level of one’s existential realities; that is what ultimately shapes the contours of one’s worldview, cultural traditions, religious belief systems (implicit or explicit), and ideologies.”

    You mention “one’s existential realities.” My question, which I barely dare to ask, begging your good graces, desiring to understand…is, as an African American person what has been your life experience (this could be your own book) that has affected your racial feelings and attitudes? Maybe just one example.

    If that is too cheeky or presumptuous a question, please forgive me.

    • Claire Appiah says:

      My Dear Marc,
      No worries! Thanks for being sensitive to my personal feelings and recap of my life experiences. I had do so some serious introspection to answer your question honestly.

      I was born in a multi-national, multi-lingual community in Ohio, comprised mostly of European immigrants. The era of my upbringing was characterized by a post-WW II sociopolitical climate in which solidarity as Americans was key in our community. I grew up isolated and insulated from the knowledge and practices of Jim Crow laws and for many years knew nothing of the African Slave Trade. These things were not taught in our schools, discussed in my family or community, and had no media attention or coverage. In fact, racial origins, race relations, and racial differences were taboo subjects in the 1940s and early 1950s. I don’t think I personally developed a racial consciousness as an African-American until the advent of the Civil Rights Movement, when I came to realize that I have an identity, history and heritage distinct from being an American. Currently, with the ongoing racial tensions and violence in America, I cannot forget that my identity is first and foremost as an African-American. How has this affected my racial feelings and attitudes? Since my youth, my orientation has not been to evaluate individuals along racial lines or racial group inclusion, having been exposed to hostile and benevolent relationships with individuals of all races.

      Looking forward to seeing you in Africa.

  2. Pablo Morales says:

    Claire, as I read Mathabane’s biography I kept thinking of it as a good companion to Michael’s book. I see your point about how Kaffir Boy actually shows how not every African shares the same worldview, and some even reject tribal traditions. In that way it may contradict Michael’s thesis. However, when I see the mom’s religious identity, I can see the issues that Michael denounces. She consistently prays to God and to the ancestors. She takes the son to the witch doctor even though she goes to church on Sunday. They get baptized as Christians because of the apparent benefit that it could bring. They struggle with reconciling the Christian God with the existence of suffering. They read the Bible yet they do not take it as God’s authority for life. In all of these issues, Michael denounces how Christian theology in the average Christian experience is highly shaped by African traditions. That kind of Christian religious practice is in direct dissonance with biblical theology. So, in that sense, I see Kaffir Boy as a book that proves, rather than disproves, Michael’s thesis.

    It was really a good experience reading the book as we prepare to study in South Africa. I really enjoyed reading your blog. I look forward to seeing you again!

  3. Claire Appiah says:

    Thanks for replying to my blog. I agree with Michael’s thesis in what you recounted. In fact, I have firsthand knowledge of those occurrences. This was not new to me; I have known about those things for a very long time. In my blog, I applauded Michael’s work in “Christian Theology . . .” But, I am still not comfortable with the classic social scientist short sightedness in depicting one part of a cultural reality as representative of the whole. I have a challenge for you. After you have engaged the African continent in every direction, we will resume this conversation. OK!

  4. Thank you for this powerful writing. Wow. You quote, “tools of oppression.” Yes! Kaffir Boy reads like a cautionary tale at some parts for us today. It has been so great to read your blogs and interact with you. SA is going to be so great with you!

  5. Claire Appiah says:

    I’m looking forward to a face to face interaction with you, especially on African soil. I want to get your takeaway on some of the readings we’ve been assigned pertaining to the African continent, since you have ministerial experience there.

    Safe travels to S.A.

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