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

The Triumph of the Will Over Prejudice

Written by: on June 21, 2017

I had to believe in myself and not allow apartheid to define my humanity.[1]

Mark Mathabane

The delusion lies in the fact that no matter how well we think we know the Other, we still judge from within the imprisoning framework of our own limited cultural criteria, we still speak within the cliché of the stereotype.[2] 

John Howard Griffin

When Christians love political power more than people, they obstruct justice instead of pursue it, and selfishly strive to achieve goals that will benefit themselves instead of others — contradicting Jesus in nearly every way.[3]

Stephen Mattson

In preparation for our Fall Advance we have focused on the culture of Africa. Thomas Oden taught us that we owe a great debt to African theologians.[4] Matthew Michael explained his view that the African mind and its traditions can be transformed to be consistent with the classical teachings of theology in light of the Scriptures.[5] David Welsh gave us a detailed and thorough analysis of the history of apartheid in South Africa.[6] These books were very enlightening but very cerebral.

Mark Mathabane gives us the heartfelt picture of day to day life in South Africa under apartheid. Mathabane lived through some of the worst days of apartheid, the sixties and seventies. (Context: when the book was published in 1986 Nelson Mandela was still in prison.) With his wonderful storytelling ability, Mark helps us personally identify with the horrors of apartheid.

Mark doesn’t shy from giving the graphic details; comfortable Americans need to see the cruelty of apartheid. The following excerpts from the book relate a picture of the helplessness and hopelessness of apartheid. They also show how Johannes (he changed his name to Mark later) rose above his circumstances to make a better life for himself.

– As a young boy (age 5) living in Alexandra:

“My assailant let go of me, and I slumped to the floor, spent with fear. …I coughed and spit, and the spittle was all red with blood. My body was wet and slippery with sweat, urine and blood, as if I had been soaked in grease.” (p 19)

“Each day we spent without food drove us closer and closer to starvation.” (p 37)

– Here in our clean, sanitary country we cannot imagine:

“As I wandered about the kitchen I suddenly smelled feces and urine. The stench came from outside. I closed the door but the insufferable stench persisted.” (p 83)

– Johannes’ parents risked living illegally in order to stay together as a family. The government required the blacks to have a pass, which they could not get without a job and they could not get a job without the pass. For many black families that made life seem hopeless:

“Phineas was one of thousands of black migrant workers in Alexandra forced to live hundreds of miles from their families because of Influx Control laws, which discouraged black family life in what the government called ‘white South Africa.’ In the township, no other group lived as unnaturally as the migrant workers. Housed mostly in sterile single-sex barracks, they were prey to prostitution, Matanyula, alcoholism, robbery and senseless violence; they existed under such stress and absorbed so much emotional pain that tears, grief, fear, hope and sadness had become alien to most of them. They were the walking dead. … There is a death far worse than physical death, and that is the death of the mind and soul, when, despite toiling night and day, under sweltering heat, torrential rain, blistering winds, you still cannot make enough to clothe, shelter and feed your loved ones, suffering miles away, forcibly separated from you.” (p 181)

– Along the way Johannes occasionally got a glimpse of sympathetic white people such as the Smiths who helped him by giving him books to read and learn from:

“’I’m afraid you’re right, Ellen (Johannes’ Granny),’ Mrs. Smith said, somewhat touched. ‘Yes, I do believe in the Bible. That’s why I cannot accept the laws of this country. We white people are hypocrites. We call ourselves Christian, yet our deeds make the Devil look like a saint. I sometimes wish I hadn’t left England.’” (p 190)

– Contrast this with the proclamation of Dr. Verwoerd, prime minister of South Africa and the architect of Bantu education:

“’the native child must be taught subjects which will enable him to work with and among his own people; therefore there is no use misleading him by showing him the green pastures of European society, in which he is not allowed to graze.’” (p 193)

– One day the government decreed that all black schools had to teach courses in Afrikaans instead of English. In Soweto, students peacefully protested but on June 16, 1976, police fired into the crowd killing even some small children. Mark decided that he wanted to join the freedom fighters. “’Freedom will come to South Africa, Ntate,’ I vowed. ‘Azania will be born, and we, the young ones, will do it. To die fighting for one’s freedom is no sacrifice, for life without freedom isn’t worth living. We’ve been under the white man’s yoke for too long, Ntate; it’s time we tore the chains.’” (p 266)

Many people helped Mark (who had changed his name from Johannes by this time) realize that he could fight better by using his own gifts; he was not really a violent man. He could help by encouraging young people to strive for a better life.

Mark had learned to play tennis and began to see it as a passport into freedom. He admired Arthur Ashe greatly. Arthur Ashe had been banned from South Africa for speaking out against apartheid, but the government finally allowed him to visit in November of 1973.

Struggling against all the roadblocks put in front of blacks, Mark began to prove himself talented enough to pursue going to college on a tennis scholarship. He dreamed about going to the United States. Eventually he received a scholarship to attend Limestone College in Gaffney, South Carolina.

On September 16, 1978 “after eighteen years of living life as a fourth-class citizen, a slave, in the land of apartheid, (he) was at last leaving for another world, a different way of life, a better existence, away from bondage.” (p 345)

Mark lives in the United States now. In 1993 he wrote Love in Black and White: The Triumph of Love over Prejudice and Taboo where he recounts his courtship and marriage to a white woman (Gail) and their decision to have a family despite the typical challenges for interracial marriage. Kaffir Boy is being adapted into a feature film, which will be shot on location, and is scheduled for release in the fall of 2018.












[1] Mark Mathabane. Kaffir Boy: An Autobiography (New York: Free Press, 1986). 238.

[2] John Howard Griffin. Black Like Me (New York: The Penguin Group, 1962)

[3] Mattson, Stephen. “When Christians Love Political Power More Than People.” Sojourners, June 20, 2017, https://sojo.net/articles/when-christians-love-political-power-more-people


[4] Thomas C. Oden. How Africa Shaped the Christian Mind: Rediscovering the African Seedbed of Western Christianity (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2007).

[5] Matthew Michael. Christian Theology & African Traditions (Eugene, OR: Resource Publications, 2013).

[6] David Welsh. The Rise and Fall of Apartheid (Johannesburg & Cape Town: Jonathan Ball Publishers, 2010.

About the Author

Mary Walker

6 responses to “The Triumph of the Will Over Prejudice”

  1. Jennifer Dean-Hill says:

    Beautiful summary Mary. Those quotes from the book impacted me as well. It read like a scary thriller that I was mesmerized with, struggling to look away from but horrified by. He just speaks to the power of compassion and the strong, resilient spirit. I was shocked a human could endure all that and still become a successful contributor of society. Very inspiring story.

  2. Lynda Gittens says:

    Thanks Mary
    Your statement ‘Struggling against all the roadblocks put in front of blacks, Mark began to prove himself talented enough to pursue going to college on a tennis scholarship.’
    My struggles make me strong. Has always been one of he comments Preachers say to encourage the people to keep the faith.
    His meeting Scaramouche was a great turning point for him.
    As we struggle sometimes during this course process, we need to remember that it will make us stronger.

  3. Christal Jenkins Tanks says:

    Mary you selected very powerful quotes for your post. I was saying Amen out loud when I read this one “When Christians love political power more than people, they obstruct justice instead of pursue it, and selfishly strive to achieve goals that will benefit themselves instead of others — contradicting Jesus in nearly every way.[3]” This is so true even in America. We should pursue justice for everyone just like Jesus Christ did and advocated for us to do. He led by example and example that if we claim to know him we should follow.

  4. Kristin Hamilton says:

    What a great summary of the book, Mary. I too was taken by the graphic descriptions of life for Mathabane as a young child. It makes me wonder what we could learn from children all over the world if they were to frankly recount scenes from their childhood. Would we have a better understanding of the Serbian war, the Vietnam conflict, the favelas of Brazil, or the pain of Appalachia?

  5. Katy Drage Lines says:

    Nice summary, Mary. You note that “comfortable Americans need to see the cruelty of apartheid.” Yes, I believe reading about the history of South Africa has been eye-opening for all of us. I feel the same way when I see or read about how minorities are still treated as second-class citizens in America. Movies like 13th, books like The Cross & the Lynching Tree, and news reports even this week about condoned murders of black people in America all make me realize that it’s sometimes easier to learn about (though hard to stomach) places far removed from us (either via distance or time), rather than implicate ourselves and the structures of our society in the sins perpetuated in our own context.

Leave a Reply