74. Mine Boy by Peter Abrahams

Title: Mine Boy
Author: Peter Abrahams
Genre: Novel/Race/Love
Publishers: Heinemann (African Writers Series)
Year of Publication: 1946 (this edition, 1989)
Country: South Africa

For the Top 100 Books Challenge
'You say you understand,' Xuma said, 'but how can you? You are a white man. You do not carry a pass. You do not know how it feels to be stopped by a policeman in the street. You go where you like. You do not know how it feels when they say "Get out! White people only." Did your woman leave you because she is mad with wanting the same things the white man has? ... That is understanding. The understanding of the heart and the pain of understanding, not just the head and lips. I feel things! You want me to be your friend. How can I be your friend when your people do this to me and my people?' (Page 172) 
And this serves as my summary of the novel Mine Boy, a story about love and race published two years before the official implementation of apartheid in South Africa in 1948, but which highlights the racial discrimination and prejudices that existed in South African society at the time. We follow Xuma, who has migrated from his village in the North to Johannesburg in search of a job in the mines, as he goes through one heartbreak after another. The book opens with his entry into Johannesburg where he was spotted and taken into the residence of the benevolent Leah, at Malay Camp, one of several sprawling black only quarters devoid of social amenities. This gesture is common in most African societies, where people are obliged, by tradition, to help one another, especially those who have travelled from afar, known and unknown.

After Leah got to know the purpose of Xuma's migration he offered him a job which he declined, subtly, opting for a job in the mines because 'it is a man's work' even after he had been informed that the miners 'cough and then spit blood and become weak and die'. Leah was a Skokiaan Queen dealing in locally-brewed beer, a product that has been banned, of which a culprit could serve a jail term if arrested. Abrahams used something as simple as beer to show how deeply divided the society was at the time. For as we read later when Xuma has become aware of the 'ways of the city', he questioned
Why is it wrong if Leah sells beer and right if a white person sells beer? (Page 168)
In spite of this, Leah provided for Xuma until he got a job at the mines as a Boss Boy for Paddy (or the Red One), after he was introduced by Johannes, Lena's 'man' who is 'loud and boastful and arrogant and told the world that he was J. P. Williamson and he would crush any sonofabitch' when drunk and the one who is 'quiet and retiring and soft spoken ... Gentle as a lamb and seemingly ashamed of his great size and strength' when sober. Johannes introduction as a character and his behaviour is very metaphorical. It's almost parallel to the workings of the read Johannesburg society, not finding itself, drawn by two opposing ideologies: blacks are humans vs blacks are not.

At the residence of Leah, at Malay Camp, are Maisy - the sprightly lady who made Xuma laughed even when he doesn't want to; Eliza - who love the things of the whites; Daddy - the always-drunk man who was once a respected and wealthy man, took Leah into his residence and catered for her until he began to assert his rights and mobilise people to do same; Lena who had educated children but worked with Leah; and Ma Plank a worker at Leah's place. Xuma fell in love with Eliza but Eliza is enigmatic. She wants the things she knows she could not have. She wants the things of the white man and this made her unhappy and this unhappiness fed into her relationship with Xuma, loving him and 'unloving' him at the same time. So that sometimes she would willingly decide to be with him only to leave a few seconds later. The 'madness of the city, that had affected her mood caused it to swing from one extreme to the other stochastically. But Maisy also loved Xuma and made him smile. The psychological dilemma, the torment of wanting and not having, or needing and knowing no matter how hard you work at it you simply would not achieve it plays out well. However, it could also be a mentally embedded ideology deeply seated in the minds of the natives for there were blacks who had what the white men had.

Just when Xuma thought all was well with him, after Eliza had asked him to take her as 'his woman', things began to fall apart. First Daddy died after he was knocked down by a car, then Eliza 'went on a long train journey' from which 'she will not return'. Then, Leah who had been bribing some policemen for information on their activities, was trapped and arrested. Thus, once the major tree was cut the birds had to leave and so all the people at Leah's residence left. Xuma became devastated at the arrest and jail of Leah to the detriment of his work at the mine. Paddy having noticed Xuma's desolation attempted to imbibe some activism into him. However, this activism was to rear its head when Johannes and his white master, Christian, died underground in the mines. Xuma and Paddy led a demonstration against the mine manager, requesting that the problem be solved before they go in and work. The police were called in to effect the arrest of the striking miners.
One by one the lights of Malay Camp were turned out. One by one Vrededorp and the other dark places of Johannesburg, of South Africa,  were turned out. The streets were empty. The leaning, tired houses were quiet. Only shadows moved everywhere. Only the quiet hum of the night hung over the city. Over Vrededorp. Over Malay Camp.
Regarded as the first modern novel of Black South Africa, the novel is told from the point of view of Xuma, his travails become ours and his heartbreaks too. By using the simple and everyday life of Black South Africans, Abrahams showed us how racism (or apartheid) had become endemic in South African society so that from birth to deaths one is discriminated against. It is believed that this was one of the first books to expose universally the condition of black South Africans under a white regime. And yet the author never exhibited hatred in his narration for there were likable whites as well as detestable blacks. He propounded the 'man first' ideology, as explained by Paddy to Xuma.

This is the first novel by a black South African I have read and I recommend it, as most of the SA Literature I have read, unreservedly. 

Brief Bio: (born March 19, 1919, Vrededorp, near Johannesburg, S.Af.), most prolific of South Africa’s black prose writers, whose early novel Mine Boy (1946) was the first to depict the dehumanizing effect of racism upon South African blacks. Abrahams left South Africa at the age of 20, settling first in Britain and then in Jamaica; nevertheless, most of his novels and short stories are based on his early life in South Africa. Mine Boy tells of a country youth thrown into the alien and oppressive culture of a large South African industrial city. (Source
ImageNations Rating: 5.0 out of 6.0


  1. Very interesting. Black South African writers are hard to find in bookshelves even these days, so I can only imagine how was the situation in 1946.

    The first quotation is powerful and hard to accept, but it's true. It touches on different ways of feeling: intellectual (heads and lips) and emotional (heart). Some people think they understand, think they feel for someone and sympathize, but it's only in the head, not in the heart.

  2. @Stefania, you always give me something to think about. I love your interpretation of 'heads and lips' and 'heart'. Yes, it is easy to say 'I know what you are feeling' but can we really know? Bob Marley said it right: 'Who feels it knows it more'.

    Sometimes when you read about things that years back like say Slavery, Holocaust, Apartheid, Segregation etc, you begin to question what the proponents were thinking. You ask several questions such as 'are they humans'? But they occurred. And they are occurring. Our children would one read our history and ask 'why should one country invade another'? and many such questions. Is this an implication that we are heading towards an ideal world?

    This particular review was spontaneous and this wasn't the direction I wanted to take but once it came out I couldn't change it. I really wanted to discuss the issues raised in there: discrimination and love.

  3. By some miracle, this book is available at my library. I will be reading it as soon as it arrives and then will read your review in detail and let you know what I think. Thank you for bringing it to our attention.

  4. Sandara, I would be waiting for your thoughts too.

  5. I 1st read "Mine Boy" in the 90's.
    I picked up a copy 3 years ago and I still haven't been able to get myself emotionally ready to read it again.

    Keep doing what you do here. Very educative & encouraging.

  6. thanks. I'm inspired by your comments.

  7. Well, this book is waiting impatiently to be read and reviewed on my blog. I would finally get back to your review when I've read the book. Cheers!

  8. "Is this an implication that we are heading towards an ideal world?"

    No, in my opinion humans keep doing the same mistakes over and over, only we don't always realize. We go on with our lives and only now and then stop to think about the greater picture. This is my experience at least.
    In 20 years time we will be saying "how could we not realize that those horrible things were happening? How come that we were indifferent to this and that? How could we have lived through that?".

  9. repetition could explain it. And I agree with you. I wonder if we would ever get rid of these things. If there ever would be a time when we would be approaching such a state. I mean a relatively ideal state when we shall no more live the Orwellian life of inequalities.

  10. Sounds like a really great novel Nana, thank you for the review. Glad I have it to read!

  11. I love this novel. Written in simple sentences yet the turns are dramatic.

  12. I read this novel when I was eight.I loved it and I still do.

    1. some stories never leave the reader and this is one. I still think about the tall muscular man who fought for the workers and died.

  13. This novel inspired me a lot..that's why I choose this, actually this novel talks about things that is real...the scenario of being maltreated by anyone and discriminate by what your color is...violate the human rights and against the law of GOD. I use this in my demo lesson plan at school...thanks a lot for sharing and enlighten the mind of the other..GOD BLESS

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