Kaffir! Even now the word is loaded with associations planted deep in my childhood: a veiled sense of something shameful or dirty; a tinge of pity; the fascination of the different; the pungent, strange smell of black dwellings--the servants' backyard pondok (shanty), the Kafferkraal (Kaffir village), the Kafferlokasie (Kaffir township). Some of the closest friends of my youth were "Kaffirs"--but I would never, even in thought, have called them that. The term was more than an insult; it was an obscenity.
Mark Mathabane, who as a child bore an Afrikaans first name, Johannes, was born in 1960, the year of that sad watershed in modern South African history known as the Sharpeville Massacre. In 1978, Mathabane left his country for the United States on a tennis scholarship from a South Carolina college. "Kaffir Boy" is his memoir of the first 18 years of his life--years in which the consequences of the "peculiar institution" called apartheid were inexorably escalating. A writer's material can be overwhelming. The spur of South African circumstances, Ezekiel Mphahlele observes in his autobiography, "Down Second Avenue," is "a paralyzing spur . . . everything full of vitriol; hardly a moment to think of human beings as human beings and not as victims of political circumstances."
Yet Mphahlele, like Mathabane, and like another black South African autobiographer, Bloke Modisane (the very title of whose book "Blame Me on History" speaks of the problem), is always best precisely when depicting human beings as human beings.
Perhaps autobiography is an art properly essayed when we are old, when the fires of political passion have been banked, and we can look on our lives with a degree of dispassion. But we are naturally sometimes inclined to be premature: There are stories that should be told in their own time, and the lives of South Africa's victims are certainly among them.
Here are a few random glimpses of Mathabane's growing up in the strange place called Alexandra, a Kafferlokasie embedded amid Jo'burg's ritzy white suburbs: "My father . . . lowered his bony head and buried it in the palms of his gnarled hands; and at that moment he seemed to age a thousand years, a pitiful sight. The policeman playfully prodded my father's penis with a truncheon."
"George and Flora came down with a mysterious illness, which left them emaciated and lethargic, their stomachs were so distended that I thought they would burst. Their bodies were covered with sores, which punctured and oozed pus, and their hair turned a strange orange colour."
"We played 'witch doctor' with . . . bones extracted from the rotting carcasses of dogs, cats and rats. . . . We mischievously overturned the buckets of excrement reeking by the entrance gate. . . . We lurched about holding beer cartons in our hands, mimicking the many drunken men and women we saw stagger out of shebeens. We powdered ourselves with ash to imitate ghosts."
"Kaffir Boy" is a book full of a young man's clumsy pride and sorrow, full of rage at the hideousness of circumstances, the unending destruction of human beings, the systematic degradation of an entire society (and not only black South African society) in the name of a fantastic idea.
There are also, unfortunately, too many marks of the "paralyzing spur" here; too many cliches; too many conversations improbably reconstructed from memory; too much needless editorializing.
Twenty years from now, Mathabane will very likely want to take up his autobiography again. I, for one, hope he does.