Armed with wit and a crisp South African accent, author Mark Mathabane could be everyone’s favorite cultural studies professor, his speech peppered with references to liberation, oppression and resistance.
But don’t mistake Mathabane for an academic or a checkbook activist; he’s a grade-A agitator. This slight, quietly energetic man “called out” the South African regime even as his family remained under its thumb, quit the prestigious Columbia School of Journalism, wrote a book that makes banned lists nationwide and married a white woman to boot.
Mathabane will gladly keep on being contentious–if that’s what it takes to effect change. In 1986, his autobiographical first book, Kaffir Boy, informed Americans about the daily humiliations of apartheid and galvanized greater support for a free South Africa. Today, he lives in Kernersville with his wife, children and extended family.
The Independent recently interviewed Mathabane during a book-tour stop in Durham. Mathabane is promoting his latest work, Miriam’s Song, his younger sister’s oral history of survival during one of the most violent periods ever to befall South Africa.
The Independent: Can you tell us about Miriam’s Song?
Mark Mathabane: It arose from my concern for this generation to which Miriam belongs. Her generation is chiefly responsible for the destruction of apartheid. It wouldn’t have ended if those kids hadn’t taken to the streets and fought with incredible courage against the biggest army in Africa, armed only with their spirits and rocks. These kids sacrificed their education for liberation.
People are forgetting those young kids, who are now adults, expect something from the new South Africa–education and skills that they can use to take advantage of the opportunities now open for blacks. But sadly that hasn’t happened. Many of these young adults are into crime and are very violent in the expression of their rage, but this is the violence that they were taught by apartheid in the jails and torture chambers of the regime. What angers them now is that they see murderers and their former torturers walking free, and not only that, but prospering.
How does this connect to black America?
I have lived in this country for 20 years, and I’ve had a chance to study American society and many of its problems–chief of which is the racial problem, but next to that, is the problem of what is happening to young black people, particularly in the inner cities. Why are so many of them ending up feeling, because of racism and oppression, that their lives don’t mean anything?
The rebirth of the black community cannot come from the government. It has to come from the very people who are trapped in these conditions. How do you become your own liberator? You become your own liberator by focusing on [the question] “What weapons do I have in me to wage this war for survival?”
A lot of young black people don’t take this positive, active approach. Young people often underestimate the dangerous power of knowing something. When I talk to them about apartheid and how it attempted to destroy black people, many of them are shocked that such a system could exist. And I say that it did exist, even in this United States.
And it still does.
Exactly. So you must think how to protect [your] community’s interests. Every group seems to work for its best interests–the Cubans do, the Jewish community does, the Irish. Everybody but black people. You must take the initiative, acquire power and use it unapologetically. I don’t find Jewish people apologizing for using their power to benefit Israel. Somehow we as black people seem to expect other people to look out for us. That unfortunately has been taught to us, that somehow we must mistrust ourselves, not believe in our collective power.
For a long time, I thought Tommy Hilfiger was a black man. I thought surely these kids wearing this stuff, if they are buying it by the zillions, must know he is a black man, and he’s giving it back to the community. Imagine my horror when I found out these kids are spending 50, 200 bucks on clothes. And that’s power, just being given away. And when you don’t realize that you have economic power, you’re in trouble.
One criticism of your work is that you write mainly about your family. Now you’re branching out into fiction. I wondered about your response to the criticism and the publishing community’s response to your novels.
When I returned to South Africa after the liberation, I was stunned to find that most people, including blacks, felt that apartheid was history, that there was absolutely no reason to talk about it, let alone write books about it. When I write about my family, it’s because when I look about and realize that people describe events that happened only 10 or 20 years ago as history, then I feel even more the urgency to preserve those stories.
My novel [Ubuntu, a thriller set in South Africa] deals with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the tensions between forgiveness and justice. Always I fall on the side of justice, but that didn’t particularly please people who were all rah-rah-rah about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, because I was basically saying, “You better wake up.” Atrocities were committed; you cannot all of a sudden expect people to forget. It goes back to amnesia–that people want to forget the sufferings of their people. I am not allowed to do that because it is the remembrance of what my family went through that gives me the strength to keep fighting.
Your first novel and the upcoming one are self-published. This seems to be a trend with many black authors.
I’m not someone to shy away from controversy or the truth about race. When I took [the manuscript of] Ubuntu around, publishers were very uncomfortable with it because of just how blunt it was and also because they had pigeonholed me as a writer; they only saw me as a writer of nonfiction. So I told them, “Listen, if you are not going to publish this, I will. I will undertake the risk.”
Since Kaffir Boy was published 15 years ago, it’s been used in many classrooms, and yet some people say that it’s inappropriate, namely because of a scene in which young boys sell themselves for food. How has this censorship affected you since you talk about seeking the truth?
It infuriates me. One person in Charlotte said the book shouldn’t be taught because it’s racially explicit. So I said to myself, this is very interesting. These are people who don’t want to confront the truth about race, so they lump it together with the sexually explicit. They also don’t make the concession that though it may be graphic, this is part of his life.
Do you think that South is in deeper collective denial about race and history than other regions?
No, that’s the old cliché. The South is not in collective denial; it’s backwards. Not because the South is incapable of moving forward, but simply because the powers-that-be in the South are still very much in allegiance to the original conflict. The original conflict being, what did the North do to us for their [black people’s] sake. When you find leaders like Trent Lott, Newt Gingrich and Jesse Helms being active in Washington and making policy pronouncements, it’s in the back of their minds that we, the sons of the South, are going to make these Northerners and liberals know we have our own ways of doing things.
You’ve held a White House fellowship during the Clinton administration. Is that any different?
My next book, The Last Liberal, was written because I wanted people to understand what a “liberal” means so that they should be forewarned about having great expectations. Liberals are still white and deal with the same expediency that all politicians who are white deal with–that too much alignment with black people threatens their survival.
I can’t explain how white the White House is, and I don’t mean that facetiously. It’s literally white; [among] those around the president, that help him make the decisions, you’ll find a lot of blacks. But where the White House really functions, who whispers something in the president’s ear, that is so white that you really do believe that yes, it is the White House. It will never become a Black House, a Multicultural House.
I think that one reason the president is so hated, especially in the South, is the suspicion that he is a black man at heart. Really, that can account for the virulence, that when push comes to shove, this person cannot be counted on to be on our side.
If he was being advised by a black person during the scandal, that person would have said, “Listen to your momma, you tell the truth, you hear.” A black person knows that the truth, even when it is wrong, gets forgiven.