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Yearning for a Better Life

November 27, 2017

Another Way for week of November 10, 2017

Yearning for a Better Life

Several weeks I wrote about how South Africa became one of the countries about which my ears perk up. All three of my daughters (but not us as parents) have been there—they each spent three weeks on church “mission” trips. I use air quotes because they were the ones ministered too, as is the case with most mission trips, but the experience helped form them and their outlook while they were teens.

We owe that to a South African pastor Maake Masango and our own pastor at the time, Ann Reed Held, who although she gulped at the audacity of what the youth had inspired the rest of our church to take on, she was also down deep, moved and amazed. This in turn nudged me—years later—to begin reading more books about South Africa, including the autobiography Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth’s Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa by Mark Mathabane.

Mark does a superb job in the opening of his autobiography describing his life from the perspective of a five year old boy, keeping his words and language mostly simple and straightforward. We feel the terror with him when the Peri-Urban or (black Alexandra Police Squad) conduct their frequent raids into homes of sleeping citizens to examine whether residents have their passes or other paperwork in order. They seek to exert their control, can be bought off with bribes, and make life in a rat infested, crawling-with-lice shack which often reeks of urine or worse, that much more miserable.

The “pass laws” which required them to carry at all times their “papers” were what controlled all of life for the blacks and “colored” in South Africa. Little Johannes was born shortly before an incident known as the Sharpeville massacre, when 69 unarmed protestors were killed by the South African police during a peaceful demonstration against the pass laws.

Many days little Johannes (he changed his name to Mark later in life) has nothing to eat all day other than a little pap (porridge) for breakfast. The child copes with hunger and lightheadedness as he helps his mother clean their hovel, watch over his younger siblings, and run around with friends who seem destined for an early street life. That any child survived that kind of existence is made more horrifying by the realization that children today also must struggle with malnutrition, rats, and the endless paperwork of refugees holding out for a better life somewhere, anywhere. This awfulness has not gone away with the end of apartheid or war in so many places around the globe.

Johannes’ mother, Magdalene, desperately wants her son to go to school, even though they barely have enough money for food, let alone school fees. Much paperwork needs to be completed. The task is complicated by Magdalene being from one tribe, Tsonga, and the father another, Venda. She finally wins the paperwork battle (after trying over a year in endless lines) to get Johannes registered. She then has the equally trying test of convincing young Johannes he needs to go to school, rather than become a gang or street kid.

His father scorns education and drinks most of his earnings, but at one point takes Johannes to the tribal reserve for a visit. The boy is terrified he will be left there. As Johannes grows into his adolescent and teen years, their relationship is extremely tense so they mostly don’t talk or interact, to keep the peace. Not unlike other fathers and sons around the world.

Johannes’s father believed in tribal witch doctors and their powers. His mother also believes in some folk ways and tells stories from those traditions, but there are quack Christian evangelists who come to the “yard” (neighborhood) by whom Johannes is completely turned off from an early age. Eventually, his mother begins going to a Christian church that seems to have solid teachings and joins that group. She prays faithfully, adding some prayers to ancestors for good measure.

Johannes turns out to be an excellent student, and even though children at his school are commonly beaten for not paying fees or having a clean uniform, he studies hard, learns English, Afrikaans, and other tribal languages. Although he fears and hates whites because of his early experiences with the brutality of apartheid, through his granny he meets whites (her employers) and his world begins to open. He learns that not all whites are evil and they give him precious books—and comic books—which he loves. They also give him what becomes his eventual ticket out of South Africa—a tennis racket.

The book is spellbinding at turns and horrifically graphic at others. While I have not yet read Mathabane’s other books, including one about his mother Magdalene’s own life and her eventual move to the U.S., the truths that she manages to impart to him even in the squalor and hopelessness of a Soweto ghetto are soul-stirring. Mark and Magdalene somehow give me hope that we in the U.S. can strive to overcome the racism that has so long infected our shores and our being.

In 2008, Elizabeth Makoto Moleko and Mary Motau from Tembisa, South Africa, came on a group mission trip to our church; we were happy to have them stay in our home. As is the custom, they gave us these beautiful handcarved gifts from their country.


Comments or questions? Your own insights of life there from reading, your experience, or from friends? I’d love to hear from you. Comment here or email me at

Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. Another Way columns are posted at a week after newspaper publication. 







  1. I have a blog friend from South Africa, British and white, who hints at the upheavals in their government from time to time. Also, I’ve learned more of “man’s inhumanity to man” through other books and documentaries. That any of these “lost boys” survive and even thrive is a triumph of grace. Thaks for introducing me to Mark Mathabane: What an ordeal – and what a story!

    • I think you would enjoy the writing as well as the history. I thought I knew a lot about South Africa from various studies we had done at our church and our daughters’ travels, but this went way beneath that surface. The artwork of a woman from South Africa casting her first vote (from previous blog post on this topic) now inspires me as I work in my home office. Thanks for responding here! (I’m a bit behind from Thanksgiving!)

  2. Beverly Silver permalink

    Hi, Melodie. Thanks for the blog. I am forwarding it on to Themba by email . I read Kaffir Boy several years ago. Thanks for reviewing and summarizing it. Beverly

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