2005-05-04 Grand Rapids Press "Author shares pain of apartheid with teens"

Author shares pain of apartheid with teens
South African native speaking at local high schools this week

ALLENDALE - Mark Mathabane learned to hate white people. The white people he knew taught him how.

Mathabane - author and the keynote speaker Tuesday at the Lakeshore Ethnic Diversity Alliance's Calling All Colors Conference at Grand Valley State University - grew up under apartheid in a South African ghetto.

He slept on the ground on a bed of cardboard and newspaper in his family's shack, which had no electricity, heat or running water. Armed white policemen with attack dogs staged a nighttime raid and arrested Mathabane's father for living with his family, a crime for black men. Soon all the family's ports were empty and Mathabane has to scavenge Soweto's city dump for food.

Ghetto rats were starving, too. As Methabane slept, rats ate off the soles of his feet, and the bleeding wounds left him at high risk for infection. Too poor to buy medicine, Mathabane's illiterate mother saved his life by ripping her only dress into strips, soaking the fabric in saltwater, then using them to bandage his feet.

"Black people were thought not to be human enough to have rights that you cannot imagine living without," Mathabane told a spellbound group of 170 Ottawa and Muskegon county middle school students. "... Ignorance leads to stereotyping, stereotyping leads to prejudice and prejudice leads to dehumanizing others."

It took the breakdown of apartheid, and the opportunity to get to know white people as individuals, before Mathabane said he realized not all Caucasians are killers.

Mathabane also became painfully aware of stereotypes and prejudices whites held about blacks.

He told students about meeting a boy his same age named Clyde, who lived in astonishing "comfort, convenience
and cleanliness" in a white neighborhood.

Clyde called Mathabane "retarded" because, at age 11, he could not read a work of Shakespeare in English. Mathabane
knew five other languages, having been educated in a school run like a penal colony.

Tennis was Mathabane's passport to freedom. Wimbledon champion Stan Smith provided a scholarship so Mathabane, an expert tennis player, could attend a college in the United States, where he graduated with a degree in economics and was editor of the student newspaper.

Mathabane has written six books, including the bestselling autobiographies "Kaffir Boy" and "Kaffir Boy in America."

"Be aware that we live in a world filled with differences," Mathabane said. "What would a walk in the woods be like if
there was only one type of tree, flower or bird? Be open to all this planet offers. Be dazzled and enriched by all the sights and songs."

Lisa Ochoa, 13, a student at Grand Haven's Lakeshore Middle School said Mathabane's story is amazing because he
had every right to seek revenge, yet he's promoting racial harmony through friendships and understanding.

"I can't believe he survived a childhood like that," said Justin Reyes, 13, a student at Holland's East Middle School.

"Hearing him makes me very grateful for what I have and where I live."

Mathabane also will speak this week at middle schools in Holland and Grand Haven.