Education and child labour as illustrated by Kaffir Boy

Children at school
For being allowed to go to school various official papers are needed, for example a birth certificate, which proves that the child is born and raised in the school's town. If the child was born at home, the parents need to go to the appropriate hospital and get a birth certificate. Otherwise children are not allowed in school. In Kaffir Boy the mother has forgotten to get this certificate. Three times she has to go to the official authorities in the early morning to get the permit. The first time the white man from the office was too busy to greet her. She had gone through all this trouble for nothing. The second time he said that she should have this certificate and get it at the hospital. But as she went to the hospital, they said that she first should have the permit. The mother was desperate and told a white sister her story. Luckily a white nurse commiserated her after the story and gave the birth certificate to her. Now she can go to the office for the last time to get the permit. It has taken her a whole one year to get all the papers. [Chapter 20, page 108-119]

“The baas [boss] says he can’t see you today,” he [a black policeman] said, removing a fancy overcoat from a nail behind the door. “He’s got to rush home.” “Can’t you help us, murena [sir],” my mother asked. “We’ve been here since five in the morning. All I need are papers for my son. Please tell him I desperately need the papers for my son. Please murena, please.” [page 112, line 7-12]

“How come? Is he a bastard? Are you sure you’re his real mother? Does he have a father?” the white man fired at my mother. “I know you Kaffir women breed like rabbits.” “He is my child, mei makulu baas [my big lord],” my mother said, tears streaming down her cheeks. “The reason he doesn’t have the clinic paper is that he was home-delivered.” [page 116, line 9-14]

Conflict of interests

These are the dreams of a South African child
When his mother wants to take him to school the protagonist called Johannes refuses. In his opinion school is just a waste of time. He has heard from school going children that in school they demand tyrannous discipline and that children get daily beatings by their teachers and he does not fancy the long school hours either. He is reluctant to surrender his freedom and independence. Another reason for his refusal is the allegiance to his gang. For him it is more important to learn how to fight, rebel and steal. His father does not want his children to go to school either. He prefers his tribal education to the “white man’s useless education”. As he hears that the mother had taken their son to school he beats her badly up. He is not prepared to pay for school.

This is the moment Johannes changes his mind. He recognises that his mother does everything to make it possible for him to go to school. In his mother’s eyes going to school is the only way to become a part of the white’s world and not to remain excluded from it. She also fears the street. If children do not go to school they often become tsotsis [gangsters]. Then it is just a question of time before someone will kill them. On the protagonist’s first school day a woman tells a pitiful story about that.

“How did he [woman’s son] die?” my mother asked in a sympathetic voice.
“He shunned school and, instead, grew up to life by the knife. And the same knife he lived by ended his life. That’s why whenever I see a boy-child refuse to go to school, I stop and tell the story of my dear little mbitsini [heartbreak].” [page 127, lines 1-5]

First day at school

There are other frightening things on his first school day. For example he sees canes and thinks of a torture chamber. The teacher kindly says that as long as he behaves she would not have to use them on him. There is no escape anymore. In the classroom the children are tightly packed and some of them faint because of the heat. The teacher explaines the rules of the school. It is necessary…
  • to respect the teachers,
  • to learn some hymnes from the bible,
  • that the mothers are prompt in buying books, uniforms and the quarter’s school fees,
  • to respect buildings, desks, blackboards and benches. If there is any chronic shortage of them, the malefactor will be relocated in shacks down by the river,
  • to come early to school, otherwise you will be whipped,
  • to be Shangaan (other people are not allowed to join this school),
  • to speak only Tsonga,
  • to keep with the rules, otherwise there will be punishment.
The teacher tells the children that they should not be terrified by white people, they will not eat blacks and that they should learn as much as possible so they will achieve a meaningful future for black people. After these words all teachers sing a hymn and say a prayer.

The veteran schoolgirls clean the classrooms during the winter holidays. The veteran schoolboys clear the jungle of weeds. We do not consider this as child labour because of the definition given above. Some teachers are children. Johannes' first teacher is only a 16-year-old girl. She cannot get the necessary attention from the children. They fight for a seat on the benches. The young teacher screams and begins to hit children to get attention. As the children are quiet they learn “AEIOU’s” and to count to twenty. [chapter 21-22, page 123-139]

Everyday life in school

In school there are Hebelungu [catholic sisters]. They offer a low-cost lunch for four cents. Johannes only rarely gets lunch money, whereas his friends do. If he is hungry he begs for food from his friends. During everyday life in school canes are used, for example for:
  • a lack of school uniform,
  • having long nails,
  • having uncombed hair,
  • a lack of primer,
  • being late,
  • being a noisemaker,
  • not doing homework or doing it incorrectly,
  • not paying school fees in time.
Sometimes Johannes cannot even sleep anymore at night because of the pain induced by the caning. He really wants to learn about words, songs and numbers. At the end of the year teachers praise him since he has achieved the highest grades in his class. Everybody is proud of him, even his father. However, he shows it only once: He pays Johannes a new book and slate. This is the only moment his father shows some generosity.

After the first winter holidays a lot has changed. His sister goes to school also. Because only the mother is prepared to pay for schooling, there is not enough money for both children. Johannes is repeatedly caned in front of the other children. As he does not want to bear the punishment any longer he wants to leave school until he can get a uniform and the necessary books.

A drawing made in class.
His father often says that black school is for teaching how to be white’s slaves. Johannes begins to think for himself about his education. Other children who have left school live in junkyards and dilapidated buildings, supporting themselves by stealing and begging. Next morning Johannes pretends to go to school but actually joins other children in junkyards and goes stealing with them. However his mother finds out that he has skipped school. She is really clever: She takes Johannes’ homework to someone who can read the date. Thus she knows since when Johannes has not gone to school anymore. One morning she secretly follows him. Later she goes to the school and talks with the headmaster. Johannes then gets punished by more caning.

Johannes' grandmother works for white people as a gardener. By doing this she gets comics and school books for him. In school all the other children want to look at these. By reading a lot he improves his English. At one time the grandmother takes Johannes with her to the white family where there is a boy of his age. Johannes is fascinated: He did not know, for example, that whites have school buses, that whites are taught such nonsense as “blacks have smaller brains” and that they even believe it!

Johannes’ gang does not like him to be absent from the street fights. They threaten him badly. He then quits gang life. Instead he takes on jobs such as newspaper or butcher boy. With the extra money he can then pay his own school fees, uniform and books.
[Chapter 23-32, page 139-204]

Is child labour a topic presented in the book?

UNICEF defines child labour as work that exceeds a minimum number of hours, depending on the age of a child and on the type of work. Such work is considered harmful to the child and should therefore be eliminated:
  • Ages 5-11: At least one hour of economic work or 28 hours of domestic work per week.
  • Ages 12-14: At least 14 hours of economic work or 28 hours of domestic work per week.
  • Ages 15-17: At least 43 hours of economic or domestic work per week.

Enough time to play, tobe a child?
In the book there are only few passages which describe child labour . By far the worst is prostitution. Once a boy asks other hungry children on the streets if they want to have some money and food. Of course they do and so follow him. He brings them to into a building where are some men are sitting on a couch. They eat fruit and also feed the children. When they have had enough, they all get naked and brutally rape the boys. Once Johannes is also there. However, he does not accept any food. When he sees the boys taking off their cloths he runs away - he is fortunate [Chapter 10, page 62-74].

Because Johannes’ parents brew beer and sell it from home, Johannes has to enter all the names of guests into a book and how much they owe the family. Sometimes he enters some deliberate mistakes in order to make some extra money. Because the guests are illiterate, he also writes letters for them and earns some more. Thereby he also practices writing and arithmetic.
[Chapter 30, page 182-193]


In conclusion we can say that going to school is tough for the children in Johannes' township. First it takes a lot of time to get all the necessary papers for a school permit. Then life in school is also difficult. There are strict rules and brutal punishment for disobeying these. School is expensive and Johannes' family is cannot pay all school fees. So the poor little boy is often caned. Therefore he sometimes does not want to go to school anymore but takes to the street where fights and steals. Johannes takes on a few jobs which can be considered child labour. This allows him, later on, to buy new uniform and school books.