South African author: Embrace "shared humanity"

Mark Mathabane signs a student’s copy of his bestselling “Kaffir Boy” after speaking in Nebraska Union on Thursday.

Story and photo by Mitch Smith, NewsNetNebraska

Mark Mathabane came of age, as he tells it, in a beautiful hell.

Surrounded by landscapes tourists pay thousands to see and poverty people would give anything to avoid, the South African author grew up during some of the darkest days of apartheid rule.

He watched his mother brutalized during raids on their all-black Alexandra township, an orb of violence and poverty nestled among Johannesburg’s ritziest and whitest suburbs.

He attempted suicide at age 10, and said he would have killed his fair-skinned tormentors if he’d only had a weapon.

But his mother’s Christian faith curbed his hatred and allowed him to see the white policemen who terrorized his hometown as “potential friends rather than enemies,” a message the 51-year-old author shared with the approximately 100 people who attended his speech Thursday evening at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln student union.

Mathabane, speaking as part of the 40th anniversary celebration of UNL’s Department of African and African American Studies, charged his audience to learn from the mistakes of his homeland and urged people to look past skin color and embrace shared humanity.

But a younger Mathabane would have been skeptical of the message he espoused Thursday.

“Who turned South Africa into hell for children of a different hue?” he would ask.

He once quizzed his mother, a woman who was beaten by her husband and marginalized by her government, about why she didn’t “loathe white people.”

“My God is a God of love,” she told her son.

While Mathabane is agnostic, he said his mother’s spirit of love inspired him to move past the intense hatred he felt for South Africa’s whites and recognize that they were simply people looking out for their own selfish desires.

It was that spirit that led Dawne Curry, a UNL history and ethnic studies professor, to invite Mathabane to campus.

“Mathabane epitomizes reconciliation,” she said, and that message is apparent in his writing, including his bestselling book “Kaffir Boy.”

Mathabane wrote “Kaffir Boy” while playing college tennis in the United States. The book was published in 1989 with Nelson Mandela still in prison and the apartheid government still in power, and Mathabane hoped the raw accounts of his terror in Alexandra would resonate with Americans.

In 1990, racist rule started to crumble in places like Cape Town and Pretoria. Mandela was freed from prison, and the man black South Africans affectionately call Madiba became his nation’s first democratically elected leader.

At Nebraska, Mathabane suggested Americans should learn from apartheid when dealing with Muslims, Hispanics and gays, groups he said can be objectified in the some of the same damaging ways he was as a child.

After his tennis career ended, the author earned a doctorate and became a college professor. He now lives in Portland, Ore., and says he hopes his mother’s love and the story of his childhood help uproot prejudices today.

“Hatred,” he said, “is not innate in people.”

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