Peter Abrahams’ Mine Boy illustrates in beautiful and haunting prose the oppression black citizens of South Africa faced in the years preceding apartheid. The country’s white minority imposed its power over black South Africans in several ways, the most significant of which are succinctly listed by Nelson Mandela in his book No Easy Walk to Freedom. According to Mandela, the most severe issues included “the grinding poverty of the people, the low wages, the acute shortage of land, the inhumane exploitation, and the whole policy of White domination” (Mandela 21). Indeed, the violence imposed by white police officers, the exploitation of black labor and the cultural narrative that defined ‘white’ as desirable all contributed to the injustice of the nation.
The first mode of oppression is also one of the most prominent in twentieth-century South Africa. The whites of Johannesburg, particularly those on the city’s police force, constantly abused their power by oppressing others with violence. In Mine Boy, one of Xuma’s first experiences upon arriving to the city is with an officer at the Malay Camp’s Saturday market. Without warning, a police van arrives and everyone at the market scatters as officers run into the crowd with their nightsticks raised. When an officer approaches Xuma, Xuma stands still, sure he has done nothing to warrant an attack. Still the officer “raised his stick and brought it down with force” (Abrahams 16). The city’s police do what is necessary to assert their power, and the most efficient way of doing so is through brute force. This novel is not the only work to illustrate this abuse of power – a scene in the 1987 film “Cry Freedom” describes the Soweto uprising in East London, South Africa, in which over 700 schoolchildren were killed by the police for demonstrating in protest of the educational system under apartheid. The police on the scene reacted with immediate violence, killing and wounding hundreds and razing the community (Briley). Here the film connects with Mine Boy – both represent instances in which South African police instilled terror in communities through oppression by violence.
The second type of oppression South Africa’s leaders impose on others in Mine Boy is an ideological one. It is the mentality that to be white is desirable, or a goal to be worked toward, and to be black is to be inferior. Steve Biko, while in court in “Cry Freedom,” describes the mentality as such: “You begin to feel like something is not right about you… something about your blackness” (Briley). There are many characters in Mine Boy who fall victim to this mentality. The “swankies,” for example, at the market in Malay Camp, dress like white people, wearing purple suits and black ties. These efforts to assimilate are in vain, though, since their façades are not enough to keep them from fleeing when the police arrive at the market (Abrahams 15).
Eliza, possibly the most complex and fascinating character in Mine Boy, makes herself mad with desire to be like the white people. “I want the things of the white people,” she tells Xuma. “I want to be like the white people and go where they go and do the things they do” (Abrahams 60). “It is the madness of the city that is in me,” she admits later (Abrahams 126) – a madness so great that it ultimately drives her out of the city. Eliza is not exceptional for having this mindset. In fact, colonization is designed so that the colonized will feel the inherent desire to assimilate to their oppressors. In his book The Colonizer and the Colonized, Albert Memmi writes about a colonized person, “Being a creature of oppression, he is bound to be a creature of want” (Memmi 119), and that these desires will become so overwhelming they will fill the oppressed person with self-hatred and shame. This is the exact situation Eliza faces. Her shame is so consuming that she will not allow herself to be with Xuma, the man she loves. Oppression does not have to be tangible to be real; the form of oppression most relevant to the plot of Mine Boy may be this ideological one.
Another form of oppression in Mine Boy is the exploitation of black physical labor. Xuma arrives to Johannesburg with the intention of working in the gold mines, the work available to black men in the city. Xuma is representative of the waves of people who flooded to South African cities in the twentieth century to find work. Like him, they came and worked arduous jobs, like those in the mines, under unsafe conditions. At the end of Mine Boy, despite the warning from Xuma and other miners, it is revealed that the managers of the mine neglected to maintain the mine correctly. Rotten beams collapse, crushing Johannes and Chris, who try to hold them up to rescue the other miners (Abrahams 180). Immediately following the accident, the managers try to insist the next shift of workers go into the mines to repair the beams. The white men in charge have no reverence for the lives lost or the danger the work environment poses to the employees.
Modern South Africa is built on the labor of men like the gold miners. In fact, the only reason South African officials permitted black immigrants to remain in cities was for their labor. “The history of South Africa’s modern economy began in the mining sector,” writes Wilmot G. James in his book The State of Apartheid (James 75). Africans were tolerated in cities because of the labor they provided the economy. Their populations were controlled by police, who routinely stopped black people on the streets, demanding to see their “passbooks,” or the government-sanctioned paperwork that proves a person has legal residence in the city (James 82). The passbook appears in Mine Boy, when a policeman demands to see Xuma’s pass while Xuma is trying to help Dr. Mimi with an injured man. Despite the chaos happening around them, the officer says to Xuma, “Where’s your pass? Let me see it” (Abrahams 73). He takes his time examining it before returning it to Xuma – everything about the interaction is arbitrary. Why is Xuma the only one checked? Why right now, when Xuma is clearly trying to help a hurt man? The South African government and police force worked in tangency to oppress the black population of the country, ensuring the only way black men could legally live in cities was if they were working the menial labor required to grow the country’s economy.
A direct result of the exploitation of black labor is the poverty that struck the communities of these laborers. According to South African History Online, in 1940s South Africa, 86.8% of “‘non-Europeans’ in the urban areas were living below the bread line” (“History of Women’s Struggle in South Africa”). Poverty was one of the greatest oppressions the black and colored people of the country faced. Malay Camp serves to exemplify the impoverished black communities of South African cities. “A row of streets crossing another row of streets,” Abrahams describes about Malay Camp. “Mostly narrow streets. Mostly dirty streets” (Abrahams 77). The community is tightly condensed, typical of the time – one of the oppressions Nelson Mandela lists is “the acute shortage of land.” Outwardly, it seems as though Malay Camp is the worst place one could live, a place where the quality of life of its inhabitants is ruined by the oppressive poverty under which they live.
Malay Camp is at the center of imagery in Mine Boy. It represents the oppression the government imposed on black South Africans: it is where the police attack innocent people, it is where people pine to assimilate to the whites, it harbors mine laborers and its shabby homes illustrate the poverty of the community. However, just as it represents the black community’s hardships, so too does it represent their survival.
Malay Camp embodies black solidarity and empowerment, two keys of survival. It is where Leah runs her brewing business, a venture that gives her power in a society that works tirelessly to ensure she, a black woman, has as little power as possible. She and the Stockvelt, the other women who sell beer, make a team: “’If one is arrested,’” Leah explains to Xuma, “’they all come together and collect money among themselves to bail out the arrested one’” (Abrahams 48). All the forms of oppression South Africa imposed on its black citizens served to dehumanize them, but Malay Camp represents black communities’ resistance. The camp breathes “the warmth of living bodies; of living, breathing, moving people… The warmth of life” (Abrahams 77). Malay Camp embodies life, or survival.
In the years preceding and during apartheid, the South African government did everything in its power to protect its own interests, even if that meant neglecting the wellbeing of others. The government physically abused people, exploited black labor and tried to convince non-whites that to be anything less than white was to be worthless. The oppression the black communities faced was very real, and often deadly, but through solidarity and camaraderie, the oppressed people were able to cope with them and ultimately – decades later – survive them.
Abrahams, Peter. Mine Boy. Heinemann, 1992.
Briley, John., et al. Cry Freedom. Widescreen. ed., Universal Home Video, 1999.
“History of Women’s Struggle in South Africa.” South African History Online, 21 Mar. 2011, www.sahistory.org.za/article/history-womens-struggle-south-africa.
James, Wilmot G. The State of Apartheid. L. Rienner, 1987.
Mandela, Nelson, and First, Ruth. No Easy Walk to Freedom.
Heinemann, 1988. Memmi, Albert. The Colonizer and the Colonized. 1974.