review of Kaffir Boy

Kaffir Boy was not particularly great. It was the kind of memoir one expects with already-famous people — the kind of memoir that celebrities write because they have a life-story and a brain/access to a ghost writer; why not get some extra cash out of it? Simple, straightforward, uncomplicated, this-is-what-happened-in-my-life. When I thought that Mark Mathabone was a tennis great who wanted to write about his experience growing up in apartheid South Africa, I understood the choice to write this kind of memoir. But a mediocre tennis player who is writing specifically to inform the Western world about how awful apartheid is via his own personal experience? I would have gone for a style with a little more complexity.

I did appreciate the viewpoint of a black South African, since the only other recent book I’ve read about South Africa focused exclusively on white people doing dickish things. White Supremacy (the comparative study I was reading earlier this fall) was good at analyzing white supremacy in South Africa and the southern United States, but wasn’t great at using sources other than white people.

The one element of his memoir that Mathabone dealt with in a complex manner was what he believed to be the role of the token. This book contained some criticism of the (tiny, tiny) bourgeois black middle class, but Mathabone’s own bourgeois aspirations are allowed to pass unexamined — are, in fact, portrayed as noble steps toward the eventual goal of integrated sports. Mathabone joins a tournament that the black tennis association have boycotted, and then justifies his entrance by saying, well, at least with him there he’ll be able to talk to the white people, and maybe change a few minds. Maybe he’ll win, and it’ll be a victory for all black people; or maybe he’ll meet someone who will sponsor him to go to America. He realizes that the whites only want to use him as a token, but going along with their status quo, fighting as far as they’ll allow him to fight within their rules, means that he’ll definitely be able to improve his own lot, and he might be able to improve the lot of his people. (Maybe.) By being the token black tennis player in this tournament, it opens up people’s minds to the possibility of more black tennis players in future tournaments.

I feel weird criticizing an autobiography, but I didn’t really like this that much. The cover bills this as a “coming of age story,” but there was no real transition between “Johannes the street hoodlum” and “Johannes the bourgeois-bound schoolboy.” It’s not bad, just sort of inexpertly-written. From a research perspective, in fact, this is a pretty good book. From a literary perspective, it isn’t.

I am, however, extremely glad that South African apartheid is over, because that shit was awful.

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