Bantu culture as illustrated by Kaffir Boy

In Kaffir Boy, most of the people in Johannes' life (his parents, his friends, his teachers) have a tribal background. They are all Bantu, but also the Bantu tribes have some differences between each other. In this article, we will try to evaluate which of Johannes' problems in Kaffir Boy are caused by the tribal culture in his environment.

Faith and Superstition

Page 32: My fathers tribal rule had as its fulcrum the constant performing of rituals spanning the range of day-to-day living. There were rituals to protect the house from evildoers, toward of starvation, to prevent us from becoming sick, to safeguard his job, to keep the police away, to bring us good luck, to make earn more money, and many others, which my young mind could not understand.
Bantu religions are natural religions. There is a spirit in every aspect of nature, and these gods and spirits are actively intervening in everyday livf. Humans have to appease the good spirits, so that they help them to wealth and happiness, but they also have to contain the evil demons and the witches, who control them. They manage to do this with old traditional voodoo-rituals, which mostly have to be performed by the oldest member of the family. In Kaffir Boy, Johannes' parents are very superstitious. When his father loses his job and is short of money, he immediately sees the witch doctor in his homeland. There he wants to buy voodoo "remedies" against his worries. But also Johannes' mother is very afraid of witches in their neighborhood, who want to poison her and her children.

Family issues caused by tribal culture

Between mother and father:
Page 67: "Why don't you stop having babies, mama?" I said.
My mother laughed. "I will stop one of these days, doctor."

"Why not stop now?"
"Your father won't allow it."

Page 75: "So why are you still living in Alexandra?" the policeman said. "You know that all those whose passes are not in order are supposed to be back in the tribal reserves."
"My husband is here,
murena," my mother said. "We have been living here for over fifteen years."
"Then he is breaking the law by having you here."

Page 77: "I hear you have been talking to those mad men and women again", he said as we sat down for dinner. Laughing, my mother replied. "Yes, and I intend to become mad like them by joining their church" (...) "But I need a job," my mother insisted, "And haven't you noticed that all the Christians have jobs? Beside going to church won't mean that I will stop worshiping your religion." She put an emphasis on the word your. "You can't have it both ways,dammit," my father said angrily.

Johannes' father is Venda, his mother is Shangaan. Because of their different backgrounds, they would never have been able to marry, even to know each other, but in Alexandra, all the tribes were mixed. Because of that, the tribal background became less relevant for them and marriages between people from different tribes became possible. But this does not mean that people completely forgot their background, when they came to Alexandra; they were still fixed on their personal culture. In the case of Mr. and Mrs. Mathabane, the husband wants to dominate his wife, as it is the custom in the Venda tribe. He wants her to obey his rules, even though they do not make sense for her or their family life. He wants herto worship only his religion, and only to speak his language. But Johannes' mother does not agree to this. She also has quite a strong character, and the good of her family is the most important thing in her life. So she is more liberal in most areas of life, when it seems to be the best for her and her children. She does not have a problem with breaking up with old customs or archaic opinions. She is, for example absolutely willing to exchange her tribal religion for Christianity, because she has discovered, that all Christians in her neighborhood find good jobs, while her family is short of money and food. Her husband is strictly aganinst her decision, because it would be blasphemy against his gods. His animosity against white men and everything in connection with them is too strong for him to realise that he would have better chances for a job, if he were a Christian. The main reason why the father dominates the mother is that in his culture, men buy women from their parents, and handle them as items. Women are their property, and men are responsible for their wives. The husband has to feed his wife, and if she commits a crime, he is the one to blame. Johannes' mother would probably follow this rule, but her husband does not adhere to his duties as a husband, and that is why she is responsible for the well-being of the family. Because of that, she cannot avoid breaking the tribal rules, and she cannot understand him at all why he blames her for this. There is still one point to refer to: Her husband would not allow her to stop having children, because having a lot of children is a sign of virility in his tribe. Proving his maleness is more important to him than thinking of the family budget.

Between Johannes and his parents:

Page 32: My father's tribal ruel had as its fulcrum the constant performing of rituals spannig the range of day-to-day living. There were rituals to protect the house from evildoers, to ward off starvation, to prevent us from becoming sick, to make him earn more money and many others which my young mind could not understand.

Page 33: "Why does he beat me, then?" I protested. ...
... "He's trying to dicipline you. He wants you to grow up to be like him."
"What! Me! Never!" I shook with indignation. "I'm never going to be like him! Why should I?"

Page 62: Though the reality and meaning of the Bible stories seemed vast and alien, I still found the stories enthralling, so I said: "The Bible stories are nice."
My mother agreed.
"But yours are better," I said.
She smiled.

Johannes grows up in Alexandra, without the strict education of his father's culuture. This is why he cannot understand his father, when he wants him to perform rituals which are completely strange to Johannes. For Johannes, these rituals only have one goal: to rule the family and to harass the children, especially Johannes. He does not believe in the aim of these rituals, and so they become even more useless to him. Johannes' mother, by contrast, has a different influence on him. She often tells him and his siblings interesting and exciting stories and fairytales about demons, witches or animals. But she does not only tell him these stories, she also explains their moral to him and makes him learn something from it. So she is the only source of inspiration for his faith. But Johannes' father does not only pester him with his rituals, he is also vehemently against his education in a European, Christian school. He wants Johannes to follow the old paths, by becoming a warrior or a witch doctor in the Venda homelands. In his opinion, Johannes would betray him and the whole Venda-culture by studying the bodies of thought of the whites. Like most of the children of his age, Johannes has no more connection to his parents' tribes. He wants to live the new way of life, modern city life.
Between Johannes and other kids:
Page 34: Whenever they laughed at me I would feel embarrassed and would cry. I began seeking ways of distancing myself from my father's rituals. I found one: I decided I would no longer, in the presence of my friends, speak Venda, my father's tribal language. I began speaking Zulu, Sotho and Tsonga, the languages of my friends.

Johannes was always the only Venda child in his neighborhood. When he was younger, the other children made fun of his different language and the rituals he had to perform. But this was not out of hostility. It is normal that children are afraid of strange and different people. The children in Alexandra were uprooted, taken away from their former culture, and Alexandra acted as a melting pot for the different ethnic groups. So the children were not longer Venda, Zulu, Tsonga or Shangaan. They now built a completely new ethnic group, consisting of different parts from their former tribes. When Johannes begins to adapt them and learn more commom languages like Tsonga, they accept him as a full member of their group.


In conclusion, we can say that Johannes' life would be much easier if his environment were not so much affected by tribal culture. Of course, it would not solve all his problems, but some of them would dissappear. As an intelligent, rational boy, Johannes has a good chance to make his way out of poverty, but the superstition, stubbornness and traditions of his father pose a lot of unnecessary obstacles to his mental development. If Johannes were allowed to go his own way without any objections or obstructions from his father he he would not be richer indeed, but he would certainly have a better quality of life, and much fewer worries, which would help him to centre on his future.