Mark Mathabane Interview by Grover Gardner
GROVER GARDNER: Welcome to Downpour.com’s interview series. I’m Grover Gardner, and today it’s my pleasure to be speaking with Mark Mathabane. Mark is a renowned lecturer at schools and colleges nationwide on race relations, education, and humanity. He is also the author of the New York Times and Washington Post bestselling memoir Kaffir Boy, which won the prestigious Christopher award. He has written several other books; appeared on the Oprah Winfrey Show and on CNN and NPR; and his writing has appeared in the New York Times, Newsday, and USA Today. He has been featured in several magazines, received a nomination for Speaker of the Year, and served as a White House fellow during the Clinton administration. Blackstone Audio published the audio version of Kaffir Boy on July 1, 2012. We’re so pleased to have you. How are you, Mark?
MARK MATHABANE: I’m doing well. And you?
GG: I’m fine, thank you. Thank you for joining us today. I’m going to jump right in with some questions here. You’ve just finished recording your book for Blackstone. Right now I’d like to talk about the current situation in South Africa. Have circumstances changed for blacks in South Africa since the time you write about in your book in the sixties and seventies, especially for black children? Have things changed and, if so, how have they changed?
MM: Politically, it’s a totally different world. I never dreamed that the day would come when apartheid would be no more and freedom and human rights would be something enjoyed by everybody. But my focus has been on the plight of children because my story is about my childhood and youth and the results are checkered. I believe that those children whose parents have education and political connections, their lot is immeasurably better. But unfortunately, for the vast number of children, particularly in my hometown of Alexandra—which is about one square mile, but the population is over eight hundred thousand [Alexandra is part of Johannesburg, which has a population of more than 10 million] and most of those people are children—for them, it’s as if time stood still. In many instances, hard as it is to imagine, conditions are worse.
GG: In what ways?
MM: Well, I dealt mostly with material deprivation, with the fact that apartheid had these rigid laws that prescribed my freedom and dehumanized me. For them, poverty persists. Then, there is something I never imagined—HIV/AIDS. Many of the young people there are orphans. In the school that I attended, close to a third of the students are orphans. Then there is the fact that when you are supposed to be free and you look about you and you see people who express freedom in various ways—they have nice homes, plenty to eat, flashy cars. They display freedom in conspicuous ways. And then you look at your lot and find that your basic needs are still unmet. I think that leads to the problems that plague Alexandra, which are high crime, violence, particularly violence against children, against women. But the other thing that’s so remarkable is that despite all that, the vibrancy and the resiliency and the faith that people have that tomorrow can be better is still there, and that is the inspiration many people feel they get from my memoir, Kaffir Boy.
GG: What can people in America do to help the situation for these kids?
MM: I’ve been astounded by how much people here care, even though apartheid is no longer—especially young people. I travel across the country, speaking to vast numbers of them because they have become devoted fans of the book and they tell me that they thought their lot was terrible but when they read Kaffir Boy they realized things can be relative. So they pledged not only to make better use of the opportunities and freedoms they have, but to do things like raise funds, gather books to send to Alexandra, and also support through donations to the scholarship fund that I established on behalf of my mom, and other scholarship funds. And in fact, if I may interject a little personal thing, I noticed in one of your bios—because I followed your narrations over the years—that you were at one point in a place called Sir Whitley in Pennsylvania.
GG: Yes, indeed.
MM: Sir Whitley Academy is one of the schools that has perennially raised funds for the children of Alexandra and Bovet, so I felt that was sort of interesting.
GG: Yes, I went to school there for many, many years and it was always a pretty active place, but it’s quite progressive now, so that’s wonderful to hear. How lovely. You talk in your book about education, about reading, about books—one of the things that enabled you to overcome the obstacles. How specifically can people help in terms of contributing to education there, to helping these kids take advantage of whatever they can?
MM: I continue to strongly believe that education is not only a powerful weapon of hope, but a great emancipator and that books can play a big role. And if people can just imagine a child trapped not only in poverty but also in the darkness of ignorance, not knowing that there are better ways of life, not knowing that others—not only in other lands but through the ages—have grappled with the challenges of living, of trying to explain why others feel pain and suffer, and what can they extract as meaning from their pain and suffering. And I found that even books as “innocent” as Treasure Island can fire the imagination as they did mine, and make me not only recognize that there is a life of the spirit that has to be nourished and that good books can more than do that. I began to dream of possibilities beyond the ghetto because I was the recipient of books from my grandmother’s employer, and I still believe passionately that the same applies today. It’s just that not only are those books needed, but we have technologies that can make it even more economical to provide the stories, because any book for me, whether it’s poetry or history or philosophy or memoir, must tell a story, and the story that resonates with people everywhere is that of the human odyssey. And I just feel that if we can connect children everywhere, particularly marginalized children around the world, in Africa, in Asia, across South America, even in places across Europe, and of course even within these great United States—because we still have ghettos, barrios, and reservations where innocents dies young and children can’t afford to be children and live because of the realities of their environment. Books not only bring the sustaining hope for them, but it also tells them that it is worth it to live. It is worth it to try your best. It’s worth it to have big dreams. And it’s worth it to believe, in spite of what is happening to you, that there is a reason for you to be on Earth.
GG: What do you think, when you travel around America and you go to the inner cities and you see black children, Latino children, disadvantaged children of any race or ethnicity? This seems to be something we struggle with here, certainly probably not to the extent of Alexandra, but still as you mentioned, there are kids here that don’t seem to be able to look outside of their situation. What advice would you have for Americans, for their own children, our own children here?
MM: I have met thousands upon thousands of such children, and sadly, many of them I’ve met in the jails of America and that has deeply, deeply saddened me, because I never thought that in this great land that inspired me so much when I read the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution and works by great writers, from Steinbeck to Richard Wright to James Baldwin, that there would be a failure to recognize that the future of any country is embodied in its children. And that the best way to measure the civilization of any country is to look at its prisons. And unfortunately, there is a disconnect. There is sometimes even a denial that this could be happening in America. But believe me, it is. I have been to those places and I have found it hard to imagine that these are American children, because of their destitution not only materially but also spiritually, which is something that back in Africa we recognize the primacy of. Parents nourished our spirits through stories and through reminding us that though we couldn’t celebrate birthdays, we had no shoes, we wore rags, that we still had value. But unfortunately, there is a viciousness to poverty in America that sometimes even assails the spirit. And I just feel that we have to humanize ourselves. We have to enlarge our empathy. We have to recognize that our survival is collective and we have to recognize that there is one strength that America has above many nations, and it’s the richness of the diversity. And if we provided everybody with an opportunity—and I still believe that the great equalizer is education. Most people know that there is a cost, a tremendous cost, to learning, and it’s not only the kids who are marginalized. I talk to students at universities, and they tell me that if you are very poor, than you do get some help. If you are quite wealthy, you don’t need it. But if you’re right in the middle, then you are burdened with tremendous debt in the quest for the liberating power of knowledge. Because I love the humanities, I tell them, work on becoming a better human being and then your career will take care of itself. Then even if you become a doctor, CEO, or even a politician, you’ll have the qualities that will make you better in the profession. But unfortunately, they tell me they can’t afford to pursue the liberal arts simply because they have to pay back student loans. And what does that tell me? I think it tells me that we have to rearrange our priorities. We’ve got to recognize that a greater security lies in providing for human needs because the greatest threats facing America, and by extension humanity, I profoundly feel are ignorance, disease, poverty, the environmental degradation. These are the real threats. And they kill and maim without regard to color, to race, to religion, to creed, to nationality, to gender, to sexual orientation. They kill and maim human beings. And ultimately, I feel that there is one race that has to endure if the human story is to mean something at the end of time, and that’s the human race and we all belong to it.
GG: What was it like to read your own book?
MM: It was an exhilarating, painful, inspiring, humbling, and deeply, deeply connecting experience. I wrote the book many years ago—I think it’s about twenty-five—and I never went back to it. That happens with many writers. You write and you move on, but in this particular case—it’s because of what my soul had poured out—I just felt that I had to let it be there. Revisiting it provided me with such an understanding of what life can mean if you have the courage to live it, because even though I was a child, there were certain things that my instincts said and which found affirmation through my mother and through the few whites who had the courage to bridge the divide and embrace me as a human being. There were certain things that I learned about myself that I said, “You wouldn’t want to relive that, but you should be proud that you had the courage at a young age to choose love over hate, to recognize that hatred is not innate in people, that it is taught, and that most importantly, what we have to do is give people the benefit of the doubt and see them as potential friends rather than certain enemies.”
GG: Were you prepared for the emotional impact rereading the book had on you?
MM: No, I wasn’t. I keep telling people that when I grew up we had no access to books, so nightly I was entertained by stories from my mother and grandmother. So I thought it was going to be that exercise, and I’m a great lover of poetry, so I thought that I could just be dispassionate about things. But no. You can’t when you are reading through the eyes of the heart. I just found myself having that world be so alive that there were moments that I had to remind myself that time has passed and those emotions have occurred, and that I no longer have to anguish over them as much as I did during the reading.
GG: You mentioned audiobooks. You listen to them quite a bit?
MM: Oh, I’m a devoted fan. That’s how I came to know of you. And in fact, Blackstone, they were my first place to go for audiobooks because they were before Audible and Amazon and everybody. I mean, there was Blackstone and the reason why I enjoyed them tremendously, was because of the way I comprehend. I just cannot read and get as much from reading as others do, simply because it’s a habit that you have to acquire and often it’s better to do so when you’re young. But my knowledge, my comprehension, came through the ear, so when audiobooks came I said, “wonderful.” And so I could take them—I’m a runner, I’m a distance runner—and I could enjoy them on long trips, which I take a lot when I go give lectures, and I can also enjoy them at the gym. And in fact sometimes people wonder, “You always have your MP3 player. You must have a great collection of songs.” I said, “Oh, yes I do.” He says, “Oh, can you share them with us?” I say, “Yeah, one of them is called War and Peace and then the other one’s called The Story of Philosophy. I think you’ll recognize that one.” They say, “Hmm, what band is that?” But I get a kick because there’s nothing more wonderful for me than to really commune and I say so—the best of readers allow you to commune with those great lives and those wonderful stories, and I think it is a testament to the power of the human voice, which I believe was probably where we all began. When the voice found entrance, I think possibilities occurred and miracles happened.
GG: We’re doing this interview remotely and I’m sorry I didn’t get a chance to meet you, but when are you leaving?
MM: We’re leaving in mid-July to go to Alexandra to film Kaffir Boy, and I look forward to the experience. I’m so glad that it’s concurrent with Blackstone producing the audio version, because I’m quite sure that not only will the audiobook be important, but I’m also told that soon there’s going to be the kind of hybrid I have longed to see become a reality, which is the marrying of audio with text. I think for a lot of children, at least in Alexandra and places where I’ve been, it is very important for them to be able to hear the voice as they read.
GG: Are you prepared for Hollywood? Are you ready for the movie version?
MM: With some trepidation, (laughs) but in this case, I was intimately involved and the beauty of it is that it’s going to be filmed on location and that the main cast is going to be South African. So to that degree, but one thing I know is that it’s going to be highly entertaining. But we all know that even when we read War and Peace or Crime and Punishment or even poetry, there is some erudition, some learning, but over and above all, it’s entertaining. I really find great audio entertaining and hopefully this movie will be too.
GG: I’m sure it will. Thank you. And it’s wonderful that you’re working on it with them. Well, thank you so much for coming to Ashland to record your book. When do you head back up to—
MM: To Portland?
MM: Tomorrow, but I plan to come back to Ashland because I’m a huge Shakespeare buff. In fact, there’s a section in Kaffir Boy devoted to my encounter with the bard—and I just couldn’t believe that there is this town that’s very much like Brigadoon. So I’m hoping that I can come back and enjoy all of that.
GG: I hope you can and I hope to see you when you do. Thanks so much for the interview today. I really appreciate it and everything you’ve done while you’ve been here, and hope we’ll see you again.
MM: Thank you, Grover.
GG: Thank you for joining us for this exclusive interview with Mark Mathabane. You can find Kaffir Boy and all of Blackstone Audio’s titles at Downpour.com.
This interview was recorded in May 2012.
Disclaimer: This audio and transcript have been edited slightly from the original recording for quality and readability.
The classic story of life in apartheid South Africa
Mark Mathabane was weaned on devastating poverty and schooled in the cruel streets of South Africa’s most desperate ghetto, where bloody gang wars and midnight police raids were his rites of passage. Like every other child born in the hopelessness of apartheid, he learned to measure his life in days, not years. Yet Mark Mathabane, armed only with the courage of his family and a hard-won education, raised himself up from the squalor and humiliation to win a scholarship to an American university.
This extraordinary memoir of life under apartheid is a triumph of the human spirit over hatred and unspeakable degradation, for Mark Mathabane did what no physically and psychologically battered “Kaffir” from the rat-infested alleys of Alexandra was supposed to do—he escaped to tell about it.