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Advantage, the American Way : After Fleeing Apartheid, Author Mark Mathabane Has His Own Special Spin on U.S. Race Relations

July 07, 1989|ITABARI NJERI | Times Staff Writer

At times he seems a combination of Martin Luther King Jr., whom he paraphrases often, and Gandhi, whose countenance he resembles, as he speaks in soft, earnest tones while sporting little, round spectacles like the ones the Mahatma wore.

Mark Mathabane, one muses, is a man in the process of self-creation.

The 29-year-old author of "Kaffir Boy in America" (Charles Scribner's Sons), the recently published sequel to his best-selling autobiography, "Kaffir Boy"--his story of the horrors of growing up black under South African apartheid--is explaining why he is not as angry as he says many African Americans would like him to be.

Knows Anger's Consequences

"Given my experiences with apartheid" (the white minority government's policy of racial separation in South Africa), Mathabane finds it difficult to carry the burden of so much hostility around with him daily, he says. "I know the consequences of that much anger." It is self-defeating.

"That is the most important lesson my mother taught me. I had to transcend the hatred and anger, despite the pain--and that's likely a daily battle because of the racist incidents I will encounter. But if I did not succumb to those negative emotions, I had a better chance of preserving my humanity."

Sweat streaks Mathabane's smooth face as he reaches for a cup of orange juice. He's sitting in the hot sun at the Tennis Place in Los Angeles after lobbing a few balls over the net for a photograph.

Tennis Helped Him Flee

Tennis is what allowed Mathabane to flee the circumscribed life ordained for him by whites in South Africa. Wimbledon tennis champion Stan Smith met the teen-age Mathabane while in South Africa. Smith saw the accomplished but largely self-taught player at a tournament and arranged a tennis scholarship for him at tiny Limestone College in Gaffney, S.C.

When Mathabane, who was more interested in grades than athletics (and never had the talent to play world-class tennis anyway, he writes) lost his scholarship, Smith continued to pay for his college education.

Smith and other whites have been very important to Mathabane's success in America; though, after 10 years here, the author and lecturer says he is fully aware of the racism that exists here.

Whatever bitterness he held toward whites because of the brutality he suffered at their hands in South Africa had to be weighed against the "important friendships I have formed with white people. I have accepted them for what the content of their characters revealed."

Black Americans he has met while attending schools in the United States, and those he has encountered while promoting the new book, often have difficulty accepting this view, he says.

But "I know the danger of lumping all whites in the same foul band as the racists and consigning them to perdition simply because of collective guilt. I know the danger of doing that because the corollary . . . is this: What do you do with those black people who inflict so much pain on their own people?"

Mathabane is leaning forward, his voice growing softer as his emotions intensify.

"In South Africa, we had the (black) police and the heads of the homelands," areas to which the white government has forcibly relocated blacks, "who were just as corrupt and brutal as the whites."

In the United States, "we have (black) drug dealers feeding poison to young minds. So, do you say, because of my blackness I am in solidarity with those people?" Unfortunately, he continues, "there are some who do, as is shown by the startling example of a drug kingpin in D.C., who was arrested. When he appeared in court, there was this vocal congregation of blacks there in support of him, because the police who made the arrest were white. That is dangerous. The reality is that there are good black people and bad black people, just as there are good white people and bad. If we are ever to have the moral consistency, which is the strongest weapon of our cause, we ought to have the courage and willingness to be able to transcend judgment of people based on their skin color."

When Mathabane speaks his voice is mellifluous, caressing and musical like so many black South African accents. But each word is issued with the precision of a needle entering a vein. So impressive is his manner of speech that one might forget that his comments--like his new book--cover previously explored social terrain, albeit it with uncommon poetic vigor and through the eyes of a South African immigrant.

In 1979, while at Quincy College in Illinois--it was his third school in one year, at each of the others he'd been viewed as a loner by blacks and whites, or too uppity, or too studious--he discovered black literature. Richard Wright's searing autobiography, "Black Boy," was the first. This classic, a depiction of Wright's youth in the South, mirrored Mathabane's harrowing childhood under apartheid.

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