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.