A single page in Mark Mathabane’s 1986 autobiographical novel “Kaffir Boy” led the usage of the book in a San Luis Obispo High School tenth grade honors class to be challenged — unsuccessfully.
Ironically, amidst the question of whether or not to ban his unabridged book at San Luis Obispo High School (SLOHS), Mathabane agreed come to San Luis Obispo to speak about his life, the novel and censorship.
Mathabane spoke to a packed Spanos Theatre about his struggles growing up in apartheid in South Africa and why these same struggles should not be censored from the public on Oct. 21.
His lecture was preceded by a discussion by event sponsor and professor John Hampsey of the English department about the paradox of “free” American society in the face of certain ideas, such as the page from “Kaffir Boy” depicting child prostitution simply for food.
“We are a country of paradox,” Hampsey said. “We praise the myth of so-called rugged individual and at the same time, we’re one of the most conformist countries.”
Hampsey related the local dilemma surrounding the content in “Kaffir Boy” to a want for censorship.
“We like to talk of freedom, of expression, and at the same time we have a long history of censorship,” Hampsey said.
After Hampsey opened the lecture, the San Luis Obispo high school student who first reported on the anonymous complaints about “Kaffir Boy” introduced Mathabane.
Mathabane greeted Derek Chestnut with a hug and took the hat he wore off while bowing, telling the audience it was a tradition.
Mathabane first spoke about his coming-of-age in a society plagued with apartheid — starvation, police raids, vermin biting at his feet out of their own starvation and other events that left the audience in complete silence.
Mathabane said he used to ask himself, “Why was I born to live such a life?”
However, he said he was one of the lucky ones under apartheid. He had the support of his mother; a woman who did whatever she could to make sure her children were fed and well. Although she was illiterate, his mother urged him to pursue an education even in the midst of living in a dangerous ghetto filled with poverty and crime.
Mathabane also had the gift of tennis, a gift that eventually led him to the United States. Mathabane said he was inspired when he saw African American tennis player Arthur Ashe on television after a match.
“What had me mesmerized, riveted, was the way he looked in the eyes of white men when he spoke to them,” Mathabane said. “I had never seen such a display of freedom.”
He then set his sights on becoming a tennis player in America.
Mathabane did not spend his lecture praising America, though.
“America is endangered by fellow humans,” Mathabane said. Many Americans lack empathy for others and “Kaffir Boy” is a true depiction of suffering, hatred, hopelessness and bitterness, Mathabane said.
“My book was a window into that world,” Mathabane said. A “mirror into our own lives.”
Mathabane wrote “Kaffir Boy” to try to understand his own life and American reality.
Mathabane linked lack of empathy to the increasing terrorism threat in America. Mathabane said some Americans may see Muslim people as anything but human because of the terrorist attacks on Sept. 11, 2001.
He said people should see terrorists as human beings and understand they are not born as terrorists.
“Life is a journey and along the journey, things happen,” Mathabane said. “Along the journey of some children in this world, terrible things happen and those terrible things can take a child and turn him or her into a committer of the most heinous crimes.”
“Terrorists are not born — they are made,” Mathabane said. Mathabane then questioned the motive of some people who claim they believe in God.
How can someone claim they worship a loving God when, at the same time, they “spew venom” about homosexuals, Muslims, et cetera, Mathabane said.
Mathabane said he considers himself spiritual instead of religious, he imagines if God truly does exist, he must be one of pure love.
“You cannot love something you cannot see when you fail to love something right before your eyes (like other people),” Mathabane said.
Biomedical engineering junior Aaron Rowley said Mathabane was reasonable in his discussion about terrorists and Americans.
“Forgetting everyone is human is easy to do,” Rowley said. “You may disagree with someone, but we’re all human.”
Computer engineering junior Joseph White thought Mathabane was also reasonable with his political outlooks.
“He sounded intensely educated,” White said. White said he liked how much discussion could be spawned from the topics Mathabane covered.
Mathabane’s lecture did spawn a discussion with random applause. During the question and answer session, someone asked if he considered releasing an abridged version of his book censorship.
Mathabane said no, “it was important that I have (those who couldn’t read the unabridged version) read the book.”
Those who can’t read the book because of various reasons are in the minority and “the strength of a democracy is measured by how it treats its minorities,” Mathabane said.
After the question and answer session, Mathabane autographed books in the lobby of the Spanos Theater.