Mathabane gives insight into S. Africa's past, future
"Kaffir" is what racist South Africans call a black person. Equivalent to the term "nigger" in the United States, this derogatory name has become synonymous with apartheid. Derived from the Arabic form meaning infidel, it was originally used by Dutch settlers in South Africa to describe the "heathen" black natives.
It is very appropriate that Mark Mathabane chose the title Kaffir Boy for his first book. With candor, and sometimes painful honesty, and yet -- amazingly -- without bitterness, Mathabane tells the story of
his growing up in the squalor of a one-square-mile ghetto called Alexandra, one of South Africa's black townships. Born of illiterate parents who could not afford to pay the rent for their shack or put food on their table, he describes a childhood of devastating poverty, terrifying and brutal police raids and relentless humiliation that drove him to attempt suicide at the age
Mathabane's autobiography left such a deep impression on me, especially as a naive white South African trying to face up to the realities of apartheid, that for the past three years I have been looking for a way to meet him and bring him to MIT. This desire was finally realized when, thanks to a grant from the Delta Psi Educational Foundation, Mathabane spoke in Kresge Auditorium on Wednesday, Feb. 13.
I looked around at the audience of no more than 200 -- mostly black -- people that speckled the front seating area of Kresge, despite extensive advertising for the lecture. I thought about how ignorance and indifference had formed the very mortar that held apartheid together.
As if he had finally unloaded a heavy backpack that he had carried into the hall with him, he turned to reflections of his childhood experiences. Memories of how his father had been dragged naked from his bed and humiliated in front of his family by the police, and then arrested for the "crime" of being unemployed, because he therefore did not have a valid "pass" that allowed him to live near white neighborhoods. Memories of how, without their father to support them, he had accompanied his mother and sister to the garbage dump each morning to search for half-eaten sandwiches and other scraps of food thrown away by white families. How the debilitating hunger had forced him to "ask questions that no child should have to ask . . . questions of life and death."
He understood the unacknowledged, yet vital importance, of the extended family
as a "sanctuary" from the injustices of apartheid.
Estranged from his father, who grew embittered by his repeated jail sentences, he gravitated toward his mother. "It is strange that from the tragedy of apartheid could have been born this spirit as embodied by my mother. . . . Because she believed, as I believe, that hope is synonymous with life." It is these words, and above all the word "hope," that helped me understand my earlier conversation with Mathabane about the latest developments in South Africa, in particular President F. W. De Klerk's recent speech at the opening of parliament in Cape Town in which he promised to repeal the remaining statutes of apartheid this year and work towards a new constitution, beginning with a multi-party conference.
Mathabane amazed me by expressing his conviction that credence should be given to the latest developments in South Africa, and that legitimate steps had been taken on the road toward a free South Africa. We agreed that our skepticism had been significantly reduced following the release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, and the unbanning of various political organizations, including the African National Congress.
Mathabane warned that the time had come where people who are really concerned for the future of South Africa, and for the rise of freedom and democracy for all its people, will have to keep pace with the rapid changes occurring there. "People who still walk around yelling nothing but `Divest now!' are still living in 1986," Mathabane said. Although the ANC and other groups are still calling for sanctions, the time is quickly approaching where we will need to reevaluate this policy and look for alternative ways of supporting the move towards freedom in South Africa.
Sanctions, by design, weaken the already battered South African economy, where about 12 percent of blacks are unemployed. Up until now many blacks have indicated their willingness to suffer for the sake of change. Yet what of the near future? Mathabane asks. What will happen when the masses, who are gaining their freedom and are being extended the franchise, ask for a share of the wealth of the country, and are told that there remains little to be had? A process of change as revolutionary and historical as the one that is beginning in South Africa will need the support of a strong economy to avoid the rise of anarchy and subsequently further violence and bloodshed.
There are many forces that, even at this time of great hope, threaten to tear the fabric of South Africa apart and perhaps pitch it into bloody civil war. Has not enough blood already been shed to come this far? Yet black-on-black violence, mainly between the ANC and the Zulu Inkatha, continues. The Conservative Party and the small, but dangerous, neo-Nazi Afrikaner Resistance Movement are continually looking for ways to disrupt the progress towards freedom for all races. Those calling for sanctions today must be aware that they may be contributing to instability in the country and thereby encouraging black-on-black violence, and helping ultra-right wing radicals like the AWB win converts.
I am not suggesting that sanctions be suddenly and completely dropped. A level of pressure needs to be maintained on the South African government. But I believe that the progress that is being made should be encouraged by a lessening of economic pressure that keeps pace with developments. In addition, the time is coming to end South Africa's isolation. Restraints on culture and sports should also be gradually loosened.
I implore you to help continue the struggle for freedom in South Africa, but I ask you to look for ways that will encourage positive developments in South Africa. One means I would suggest is to support the Fund for a Free South Africa, located in Boston, which supports programs that include education, women's and youth movements, health care, media, labor groups, and cultural and community development.
Grant Schaffner '89 lived at Delta Psi (Number Six Club) as an undergraduate and graduated with a degree from
the Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics.
Although the ANC and other groups are still calling for sanctions, the time is quickly approaching where we will need to reevaluate this policy and look for alternative ways of supporting the move towards freedom in South Africa.
Mathabane amazed me by expressing his conviction that credence should be given to the latest developments in South Africa, and that legitimate steps had been taken on the road toward a free South Africa.