Doing The Right Thing Essay Using Kaffir Boy

Mark Mathabane

Character Analysis

Mark's journey from childhood to the beginning of college is a journey from fear and suffering to self-confidence and determination. When Kaffir Boy begins, Mark is three or four years old and lives a life dominated by fear of the police, who constantly raid their house searching for his parents.

Mark's parents aren't criminals on the run from the cops. They are ordinary, working-class blacks in apartheid South Africa, and their only crime an inability to keep their passes in order. The pass was a document issued by the South African government that classified blacks according to name, age, and tribal affiliation. It had to be constantly updated with respect to place of employment and living situation. If it wasn't in order, it was an arrestable offence, with sentences ranging from jail time to hard labor on a white farmer's land. The cops that beat down Mark's door were violent, and he was terrified.

Mark's life is changed forever when his mother forces him to start school. He doesn't want to go, and it's hard to blame him since the teachers use violence to keep kids in order. But his mother coaxes him to promise that he go to school, for her sake. Despite his parents' inability to pay his school fees on time and the harsh punishment meted out by teachers and principals, Mark manages to stay in the top 1% of his class throughout primary school, and he earns a scholarship to pay for three years of secondary school (high school).

Mark experiences many moments of despair when, tired and hungry and feeling the effects of the violence that surrounds him, he wants to give up. At age ten, he almost commits suicide, but his mother's loving concern prevents him from going through with it.

At one point, one of Mark's grandmother's employers gives Mark a used tennis racket. Mark hacks around with it in the tennis courts in Alexandra, and meets a mixed-race tennis player (Scaramouche) who becomes Mark's unofficial mentor and tennis coach. Throughout high school, Mark works on becoming the best tennis player and the best student that he can be. He wants desperately to escape South Africa by going to college in the United States. In order to pay for an American university, Mark dreams of getting a tennis scholarship. He's aided in his dreams when another tennis student introduces him to Wilfred Horn, who runs an elite Tennis Ranch. Like Scaramouche, his unofficial tennis coach, Wilfred becomes one of Mark's many mentors.

Mark makes it successfully through secondary school. However, because he fails his native tongue, Venda, he only passes with a second-grade pass, making him ineligible to go to one of the black colleges in South Africa. He gets a job in a bank instead, and starts helping his family out financially. Meanwhile, he's been banned from playing black tennis in the country after he broke the boycott of the South African Breweries' Open.

Mark makes the decision to continue to play tennis out of a sense that he needs to save himself before he can help his countrymen. He believes that his only salvation will come through playing tennis. Though other black tennis players and activists criticize his decision, he downplays both the importance of the decision and how he felt about being criticized. He does consider withdrawing from tournaments when he receives death threats, but with the encouragement of those around him, he stays in the Open. He mentions that he feels lonely, but doesn't spend a lot of time trying to persuade the reader that his decision was correct. Rather, he glosses over his loneliness as he discusses his ongoing attempts to liberate himself from the stranglehold of official racism.

Mark continues to seek out the approval of whites that are in positions to help him. For example, he meets professional tennis player Stan Smith, who pays for his entrance fees to play in the Sugar Circuit. After meeting Stan Smith, Mark is certain his luck will change. Stan agrees to talk to his (Stan's) former college coach at the University of Southern California on Mark's behalf. Stan's former coach writes to Mark, letting him know that USC doesn't have a scholarship for him, but that he has personally contacted other colleges who do. Soon, Mark receives an offer of a tennis scholarship at Limestone College in South Carolina, which he accepts. Though he does have a moment or two of sorrow that he's leaving his family, his need to escape the oppressive twin forces of poverty and apartheid propel him to America.

Mark's early childhood terror melts in the face of his perseverance. Once he starts school, it's obvious that Mark has a great intellect and willpower to overcome even the worst obstacles. Though he continues to suffer, he persists. It is Mark's singular desire to live a free life in a free country that causes him to take a new path.

Mark Mathabane Timeline

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Kaffir Boy Literary Essay, Second Draft - With A Free Essay Review




In Kaffir Boy, by Mark Mathabane, Mark Mathabane is born into a poverty-stricken family in South Africa during the apartheid years. Throughout his childhood, he suffers hunger, witnesses violence, and learns to fear and hate whites. Mark is one of seven children with a supportive mother but a stubborn father. His life begins to brighten up once his mother registers him for public school. He eventually becomes one of the intelligent students in the community school. What made him successful towards the end of the novel was learning the game of tennis and becoming acquaintances with generous white people. His long-term dream was to win a scholarship to play tennis at an American college and become successful. But along the journey to achieving his dream, he faces many obstacles with Peri-urban police raids and survival itself. Mark leaves South Africa to go live in the United States where he would continue to play tennis. Surprisingly, the white men guided him the way to accomplishing his dream by generously supplying money, tennis gear, and respect. But, even though he struggled during childhood, endured societal pressures, and scarring experiences in the ghetto, what didn’t kill Johannes made him stronger as a human being.

Childhood for Johannes was overall the worst part of his life. Beginning at the age of five, Johannes had to take care of his siblings while his parents were hiding from the police for breaking the law and barely having enough food to survive the day was unbelievably difficult. What caused these heinous conditions was simply because they were a poor family and the whole black society faces poverty. Once the apartheid was established, the black people were forced to move into their “homelands”, which were ghetto conditions and shacks for their houses. Mark’s father, Jackson, worked hard labor for more than twelve hours a day, earning enough money for the necessities during the week. But when Jackson was arrested for being unemployed, his family does not have the money for food and are not able to pay the rent for their home.

Jackson does eventually return from his long-term imprisonment and has a change in his personality. Instead of using the money to pay for the family necessities, he spends his weekly salary on drinking and gambling. “One evening he (Jackson) came staggering home, drunk as a sot.” (94). He begins to be a stubborn and an easily frustrated man. Mark’s mother enters him into a public school so he gets an education and has a bright future ahead of him. With the mother paying for his education, there are moments where she could not pay and Johannes earns daily whippings until they receive the payment. At first, Mark didn’t enjoy school until he started meeting friends and learning. Since entering school for the first time, he becomes an amazing student. Later, he finds out about tennis and eventually becomes a superstar. There are times where Mark has had suicidal thoughts and about dropping out of school but his mother reminds him that there are people who love him and he is throwing away lots of opportunities for the future. Mark had a difficult life.

Society made a huge impact on Johannes’ life; especially his mother and Mrs. Smith. What really jump-started his childhood was entering the world of education and tennis. His mother was willing to sacrifice anything for her children in order for them to earn well-paid jobs and not end up like his father. Johannes finds out that he is the top one percent of his class and that ends up earning him scholarships for secondary school and his school supplies funded by the government. When Granny brought Johannes over to the Smith’s house to help her landscape, Mrs. Smith brings over an old racket for him so he can try playing tennis. Tennis brings a whole new life to him where he enters tournaments, meets new people, and becomes a winner. He also meets white people at a tennis ranch that treat him with full respect and are very giving unlike any other white men. They treated Mark with so much respect because they had no idea of the terrible living conditions and issues he was facing like poverty and hunger. As Mark was telling them about his life he says, “The white man of South Africa certainly does not know me. He certainly does not know the conditions under which I was born and had to live for eighteen years” (300). He receives tennis gear and money to help his family survive and in the end, Stan Smith and other men help him to receive a scholarship from an American college to play for their tennis team. When he came to school, no one believed him when he said there were nice white people and their reactions were, “The teacher chuckled. He clasped the lapels of his faded, tight-fitting jacket and said, "Did I just hear you say that they give them to her? White people, my boy? As if I (Mark) had just uttered the joke of the century, the teacher burst into peals of maniacal laughter” (265). Once the black society found out Mark had begun hanging around whites, they began to call him an “Uncle Tom” for being a traitor and hanging around the whites. Now he is being hated by many blacks, including his father.

Johannes has experienced many unforgettable moments throughout his life and those moments will be in his mind forever. These moments include the Peri-urban police raids at night where he would be woken up at five in the morning to take care of his children while his parents went hiding from the police. Usually, he had wet his pants from the fear at night and would always smell disgusting. On a specific raid, the police had busted through the door and began yelling and aggressively beating Johannes until he bled. Another instance was watching his friends being shot in the back of the head while running from the whites; “a few months before sixty-nine unarmed black protesters were massacred – many shot in the back as they fled for safety – by South African policemen during a peaceful demonstration against the pass laws in Sharpeville on March 21, 1960” (11). There was a time where Mark noticed a dead corpse on the street and that made him have suicidal thoughts. He brought out a knife and was close to executing himself until his mother confronted him and resisted him from doing it by saying, “"They'll miss you very much," They'll have no big brother to help them and to protect them. They'll have no big brother to look up to. They'll have no big brother to help them go to school when they grow up. They'll miss you very much.” (212). Hunger and exiguity were the main part of his struggles in life and for Mark; it’s something you cannot forget. Lastly, after all those years of a rollercoaster childhood, Mark finally exits South Africa to begin the American life but without his family. With all the support and caring from his family for eighteen years, he leaves them for the first time, a tough thing for a young man to handle; “As I kissed him (Jackson) again, and embraced his emaciated body, a tear and a twinkle came to his eyes: he understood that despite my fanatical opposition to his way of life, despite all the shocks of childhood he had subjected me to, I still loved him, dearly (354).”

In Kaffir Boy, Johannes showed that nothing can stop you from achieving your dreams until you aren’t able to breathe no more. Throughout this novel, Johannes has encountered a struggling childhood life, pressure from society, and horrific experiences he will never forget. But, with the supporting factor from his mother and the generosity from multiple white men, Johannes accomplished what no other black human would have thought would be possible back in his time.

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ESSAY REVIEW

Thank you for sharing your revision with us. The revised version clarifies the picture of the life recounted in Kaffir Boy, but the essay still remains focussed on summarizing the book rather than supporting an interpretive claim about the significance of the book. You claim that Mark's struggles make him stronger, but the essay only demonstrates the nature of the difficulties Mark endures, it doesn't explain how his suffering and survival make him stronger. Your essay tells me what happens to Mark, but it doesn't give me any good, reasonably argued idea of what I should think about that. Perhaps it would help to write out some version of the following sentence and complete it: The obstacles Mark faces help to make him stronger by enabling him to ..., or by teaching him that ..., or by forcing him to ..., and so on.

In your conclusion you say "nothing can stop you from achieving your dreams until you aren’t able to breathe no more." It seems unlikely to me that the book demonstrates this, if only because it is obviously untrue. There are all kinds of things that can prevent someone from achieving their dreams. It just takes having some power and being willing to use the power violently. If the book is an honest account of life under apartheid, then presumably it shows that such regimes destroy many dreams and force innumerable people to endure a life in which only nightmares come true. It may well be that Kaffir Boy is a book about the triumph of hope and will and courage over violent, racist oppression, but surely it doesn't suggest that the answer to violent, racist oppression is merely hope and will and courage.

Kaffir Boy is the story of one person. The first sentence of your final paragraph suggests that the lesson of the book about achieving dreams is applicable to everyone: you say "nothing can stop you," and presumably mean "anyone" when you say "you." If you can answer the following questions, you would probably have a reasonable argument about the book's significance: How does the book make the story of one boy's success relevant to everyone? And what does the book make you think about the difference between Mark's story and that of all the other black boys in South Africa whose dreams were quashed by apartheid?

Best, EJ.

P.S. The verb tenses are a bit mixed up in the essay. Generally, use the present tense to refer to events in a book. (Since Kaffir Boy is non-fiction, you could get away with using the past tense, but only do that if you think of your essay as telling us about the historical person Mark, and not Mark as the subject of the book.)

Submitted by: cvraider24

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