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

Fear, Race, & Religion in SA

Written by: on June 22, 2017

Kaffir Boy is the sometimes heart-wrenching, sometimes hopeful, autobiography of Mark Mathabane who grew up in the horrendous environment of apartheid in South Africa.

One theme throughout the story is religion. At first Mark’s mother becomes a Christian for the material perks being a Christian offers to blacks in South Africa. This part reminded me of a young man who left the Hub in hopes to find more clients for his new business. When we met for coffee and he announced that he was leaving the Hub, he said that his father, who is a successful business person, told him he would be more blessed if he attended a larger church and volunteered there. The thinking was that people would see him serving and want to buy what he was selling. The interesting thing about Mark’s mom though is that she actually becomes a kinder, gentler, and helpful person. We call these the Fruit of the Spirit. What I like about this is that Mark recognizes these changes in his mom’s life and starts to attend church, pray, and even believe in God a bit. In a sense, religion entered Mark’s home for material reasons but God used it to transform them spiritually.

It isn’t good how Christianity was used to keep apartheid alive. The way people interpreted the Bible and the “Curse of Ham” legitimized slavery in the United States and apartheid in South Africa. It is unfortunate that a certain biblical interpretation is currently being used in 2017 to keep apartheid alive and well in Palestine today. The segregation, the walls, the requirement of carrying passes, and the creating of ghettos along the West Bank is no different from the environment in which Mark Mathabane lived and it is terrible that a form of evangelical christianity is supporting it. How many “Kaffir Boy” stories are happening right now in the very area where Jesus once walked?

Another theme in Kaffir Boy is identity. One’s identity is very important and seems to have even taken an elevated significance in current American culture. The South African government created Mark’s identity. Because Mark is black he had to carry a pass everywhere he went. This pass means everything. The pass states Mark’s tribal affiliation. One’s tribe is a large layer of identity. The pass also states where Mark can work and live. One’s occupation and location are also significant parts of identity. My research on bivocational pastors in my tribe, the Vineyard, is full of identity issues. The very definition of bivocational means that a pastor has two paying jobs. I am learning that Vineyard pastors who are bivocational struggle with some of the same identity issues found in Kaffir Boy. Vineyard bivocational pastors carry the second-class label  bivocational like Mark was required to carry that shameful pass with him everywhere he went.

Fear is another major theme in Mark’s story. Mark grows up fearing the police and whites. The police regularly raid his neighborhood. Blacks were beaten, molested and taken sometimes just for not having their passes in proper order or for being unemployed. Mark’s own parents were arrested for these reasons. Pain and fear are dominant emotions in Mark’s childhood. So many people I know, in church and out, live with a similar fear. All one has to do is watch the nightly news on television and you can have a reason to go to bed fearing the worst. Mark was able to overcome his fear by living in a new social imaginary. In my opinion, playing tennis and reading books like Treasure Island, allowed Mark to imagine a reality different from the one in which he was living. It was tennis that even allowed Mark to attend college and move to the United States. Sports have the potential to be true re-creation for people. It sure was for Mark.

Finally, the issue of race is THE theme of Kaffir Boy. In apartheid South Africa race is the number one identity factor. Who you married, where you lived, school opportunities and occupation were all based on race. Blacks were oppressed on every level of life in South Africa by the privileged white elite. The government of South Africa approved of apartheid and worked to keep it alive and working. This made it virtually impossible for blacks to escape poverty and ignorance and strive for equality with whites. The government exploited and encouraged black oppression that lead ethnic identities to be fractured and divided. The theme of race shows how powerful evil can be with religion, society, and government policies are aligned together to keep an exclusive group in power.

The Soweto school riots in 1976 demonstrate a turning point when blacks started to united and fight their common oppressor. However, as important as race was here, it was difficult to navigate what to do sometimes when one’s self interest came into conflict with the best interests of the group. Many black athletes became angry at Mark when Mark decided to act on his own self interest. This reminded me how important peoples group identity is, but, at least when it comes to most of 21st century American evangelical church issues, individuals tend to do what they believe will benefit themselves most. This is both a tragedy and a reality of leading in a church today. Kaffir Boy not only tells the great story of Mark Mathabane, but its’ themes also act as several metaphors for today’s global leader.

About the Author

Aaron Peterson

I am a working priest which means that I am a husband(to Lisa), dad(to four wonderful children), senior pastor and church planter(The Hub Vineyard Church), and high school social studies teacher(Verdugo Hills High School LAUSD). I am currently working towards a DMIN in Leadership & Global Perspectives @George Fox Seminary.

9 responses to “Fear, Race, & Religion in SA”

  1. Rose Anding says:

    Thanks Aaron P.
    It was great reading your blog, as you mention how, “Mark recognizes these changes in his mom’s life and starts to attend church, pray, and even believe in God a bit”. and how religion entered Mark’s home for material reasons but God used it to transform them spiritually.” Since , most of us are religious leaders, then why do we have such challenge with injustice?
    It is the end of semester, I thank you for sharing with me, for the last two years. You certainly have added different world views to our cohorts and we have learned from each other.
    Blessings as you continue the research on bivocational pastors, and on to writing your dissertation. Thank for being on the journey! Rose Maria

  2. Phil Goldsberry says:

    Mathabane presents a systemic issue that has plagued humanity since the fall of man through today. It’s manifestations are shown in different forms. Does Mathabane’s rawness insult us or embarrass us because of its repulsive nature?

    The disgust that arose in me, as I read the book, reminded me that this spirit can manifest itself in many ways, even among Americans in 2017. We massage our own atrocities because they may not seem as “wrong” as others. Do you agree with that statement?


    • Hi Phil. I think my and other’s ignorance to stories like this as they were happening is embarrassing to me. It makes me wonder what are the atrocities taking place around the world right now that I just don’t know about? Not that I want to be an ambulance chaser and seek tragedies out, but I want to see God’s justice take place where there is currently injustice.

  3. Pablo Morales says:

    I always enjoy reading your blogs. I had not thought about the situation in Israel from the perspective that you described. That gave me some food for thought. Also, I did not realize that being a bi-vocational pastor is perceived as a second-class type of pastor. It saddens me to realize that you carry that load, because I see having two jobs as a bigger sacrifice. My father was a bi-vocational pastor for many years before we became full-time missionaries. I never thought of his ministry as inferior compared to a full-time pastor. I encourage you for the sacrifice you are making. The Lord will use you greatly and honor your effort.

    I look forward to seeing you again and reconnecting in South Africa!

  4. Marc Andresen says:

    Aaron P,

    You raised the issue of acting out of self interest. Are you able to compare/contrast the self-interest of Mathabane to the young man who left the Hub for better business prospects? Is self-interest always the same, either good or bad? Can self-interest be ok or good in one instance but not in the other?

    Did Mathabane had “better reasons” to act out of self-interest than your Hub guy? Mathabane expressed self-doubt acting out of self interest, but what about your young friend?

  5. Claire Appiah says:

    I like the way you always seem to be able to contextualize the readings with respect to the Hub. In your opinion, what do you think kept Mathabane from fully embracing Christianity? Do you think it is the matter of theodicy due to the horrors of his life, even more than the conception of white demagogues leading Christian ministries?

    Thanks for your creative and inspiring blogs over the last two years. I continue to applaud your sacrificial endeavors as a bi-vocational pastor even while pursuing a doctoral degree. I’m looking forward to seeing you in South Africa; I hope it will not be our last meeting, especially since we live in the same state.

  6. Kristy Newport says:

    I am enjoying reading your blog post from 2017 prior to your South Africa trip. Kaffir Boy was the assigned reading and I enjoyed learning the different themes that arose from this book. Thank you for noting how Christianity contributed to racism. I will continue to read your blogs as an example to learn from. I am looking forward to seeing you in SA 2022!
    I am curious what your thoughts are going to SA as a Faculty Advisor in 2022, four years after your Advance to SA as a doctoral student? If you are busy packing, do not feel obligated to respond to this now. I will will see you in Cape Town!

Leave a Reply