For many students at the College of William and Mary, apartheid-era South Africa is a historical concept. For Dr. Mark Mathabane, that history is his own.
Mathabane, the author of the 1986 bestselling memoir “Kaffir Boy,” came to the College Thursday night to discuss his experiences under the apartheid system and his life in the United States.
Africana studies professor Robert Vinson introduced Mathabane to a crowd in Andrews Hall 101.
“His first memoir spoke powerfully and profoundly about the day to day abuses under the apartheid system,” Vinson said.
Mathabane began his discussion by addressing the state of humanitarianism in modern society.
“I am convinced that our world stands at the edge of a precipice,” he said. “It is not because I think it ends tomorrow. It is because I think our collective humanity is in danger.”
He then spoke about his experiences in South Africa, including his birth in the township of Alexandra near Johannesburg and his childhood under apartheid. According to Mathabane, his escape from the oppressive racial system was due to sources of inspiration.
“There has always remained this question, ‘Why me?’” Mathabane said. “[Other children] were not as lucky. Lucky in what sense? Lucky in the sense of having someone who cared about the choices they made.”
For Mathabane, that person was his mother.
“[She] taught me how to survive, not just physically — that is easy — but survive with my soul intact,” he said.
While the system created institutional discrimination and hardship for black South Africans for more than four decades, Mathabane said that apartheid could not take his soul.
“It is not something that can be lost unless you give it,” he said. “It is the choices that you make, even when you are in hell, that will save your soul from the flames of hatred.”
Mathabane described one encounter with South African police forces that was particularly harrowing. During a midnight raid on the township, police entered Mathabane’s home and detained his parents, humiliating them by arresting them before they could get dressed.
“The problem became watching Dad trying to deal with his demasculinization,” he said. “When I saw Dad so helpless, so helpless that I had to run after him as he was led to a police truck to give him his pants, you just imagined how he felt. I wondered if at some point when I became him, if this would happen to me.”
Despite his experiences with racism and oppression, Mathabane said there was still hope for understanding between different peoples, but that failure to do so could be disastrous.
“[We must] make sure we are not made accomplices to the destruction of ourselves,” Mathabane said. “Once you start hating someone else, you are effectively hating yourself.”