In 2000, I invited a young South African, Brendon, to live with us and work for our church. Together, we worked from New York and he from Johannesburg, to get a “religious workers visa”. I had met this young man through Youth for Christ. He was traveling with a South African YFC group that was visiting schools during the week and churches on Sunday talking about apartheid and the power of racial reconciliation. Little did I know this young man would become my son-n-law, marrying my oldest daughter.
My knowledge of South Africa was greatly enhanced from a personal level. He, being white, living in and near some of the neighborhoods that Mark Mathabane describes in his book, Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa. When you read Mathabane, you want to believe that there was a great deal of poetic license…the truth can sting!
Kaffir Boy, is the journey of a young man from the shanties of Alexandra to attending a university in the United States. The book stems the tide from extreme poverty to racism to the redemptive power of Christ. The challenge, for those of us detached from ap artheid, is the violence, rancor, and hostility that ruled South Africa.
You want to question how could it have gotten to the degradation that it did. Degradation of extreme poverty, hatred, the lack of respect for human life, and systems that promoted it, seem to be expected and even embraced. The difference of your outcome was the distinction of what “tribe” you came from. The word “tribe” began to jump out at me throughout the book.
Mathabane’s mother offers insight, “Your father grew up in tribes, as you know. He didn’t come to the city until he was quite old. It’s hard to stop doing things when you’re old. I, too, do rituals because I was raised in the tribes. Their meaning, will become clear as you grow up. Have patience.” For Mark Mathabane, it never did make sense even though his father attempted to force feed it to him.
God was not divorced from the South African mindset. God just happened to be you’re your individual interpretation made Him out to be. Mathabane’s mother said it best, “Christianity is essentially the religion of white people, therefore it makes sense that the Christian God should be thought of as a white person. Just like we, in our religions, have our black God.”
The “tribe” analogy was daunting and haunting at the same time. I, as well as the other seven billion residences of the planet Earth, come from and are influenced by a “tribe”. That “tribe” can manifest itself in a multitude of facets from socio-economic to the “flavor” of the year spiritually. Why is it that we think our “tribe” is the best and only one on the planet?
Over the years, when I have mentioned to others that my son-n-law is from South Africa, you sense people wanting to ask “the question”. Would it make a difference in their interpretation of my family if he did not meet their “tribe” criteria? Where did our “lenses” originate and what perpetuates this ongoing division?
I don’t mean to spiritualize the book too much, but there is a strong message to be gleaned about our personal interaction, respectability, and understanding of our transcendent God that needs to be brought in to the conversation of how we interact and treat others. There also needs to be a rekindling of a love for the impact and power of Scripture. Mathabane, when speaking of his mother said, “Because she could not read, my mother always requested that I read her several verses every night before she went to sleep. I gladly obliged; that was the least I could do at the moment to show appreciation for all she had done and was doing for me.” Eventually, his mother’s conversion and compassion caused Mathabane to reassess his view of God.
I encourage all of us to check our “tribe” and to know why we belong and how we should treat others around us. Who knows, our “tribes” may come into conflict.
 Mark Mathabane, Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa, (New York: Free Press, 1986), 33.
 Ibid., 61.
 Ibid., 217.