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Mark Mathabane's Escape from Apartheid Takes Him to the Top in America

Aired June 17, 2000 - 3:30 p.m. ET


JAN HOPKINS, HOST (voice-over): Apartheid; The policy of strict racial segregation and political and economic discrimination against non-whites as practiced in South Africa.

I had to tell a story and I had to tell it honestly, often brutally honest.

HOPKINS: Mark Mathabane is a best-selling author. His often brutally honest book, "Kaffir Boy," tells what it was like to grow up in Soweto, one of the world's most impoverished cities, during a time when to be black in South Africa was synonymous with hopelessness.

FIFI OSCARD, FIFI OSCARD AGENCY: It was an honest, clear picture of a life that we could here almost not imagine, because the poverty was so abject and the injustice was so appalling.

HOPKINS: His book is routinely taught in U.S. high schools, and he is a much sought after motivational speaker.

MARK MATHABANE, WRITER: Whenever the rats got wild and they'd eat the bottom of my feet, then the only time I would realize it is when I stood up and realized that my feet were so raw I couldn't stand.

HOPKINS: And while his speeches challenge today's students, they swarm him afterwards just for a chance to shake his hand.

MATHABANE: Nice to meet you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: My name is Caleb Iderly (ph).

MATHABANE: OK, pleasure.

Nice to meet you, thank you.

HOPKINS: Same story on his book tours.

Mathabane has built his writing career, six books now, into if not a publishing empire then a thriving business. And he's using the Internet to make money for himself and make his books more valuable to the reader.

NED CHASE, EDITOR: Let me put it this way. They're both best sellers on "The New York Times." That means 40,000 or more copies, so he definitely made money.

HOPKINS: Along the way, he made friends. Celebrities from TV host Oprah Winfrey to tennis legends Arthur Ash and Stan Smith have not only helped him, they have also been moved by him.

STAN SMITH, FORMER PROFESSIONAL TENNIS PLAYER: Yes, I would say he changed my life. You know, he is a real inspiration to me.

HOPKINS: But not everyone finds Mathabane inspirational. In fact, a growing cadre of mothers would like to run him and his books out of town, women like Erica Nicotta think his book should be banned.

ERICA NICOTTA, PARENT: I can't imagine anyone teaching this and believing that this is appropriate for this age group.

HOPKINS (on camera): Were you really surprised...


HOPKINS: ... to know that in America people would not want your book on library shelves?

MATHABANE: Very, very, because that's what was done in South Africa. And that's what I presume was done under communism in the former Soviet Union. And that's what's been done in many oppressive lands. But this is the land of freedom.

HOPKINS (voice-over): Find out how Mark Mathabane escaped South Africa and apartheid, made it to the top in America, and now must deal with the tricky crosswinds of freedom, next on MOVERS.


HOPKINS: Side by side with pigs and goats, people are picking through garbage, searching for food. This is Alexandra (ph), South Africa, one of the most impoverished cities in the world. Many of the 700,000 people who live in one square mile, known as Alex, live in cardboard shacks -- no electricity, no running water. It is here Mark Mathabane was born in 1961.

MATHABANE: I remember the days when we went to the garbage dump with my mother and siblings. And we clawed through the dirt, you know, for half-eaten sandwiches. I remember the day when we boiled cattle blood as soup because there was nothing to eat. And for a child, hunger can be a terrifying thing.

HOPKINS: But perhaps more terrifying than growing up hungry, the police raids that were a staple of life under apartheid.

MATHABANE: I remember just how my own parents tried so hard just to keep the family together. And they couldn't, because one of the laws they were violating by doing that meant that they had to run away from their own home in the middle of the night.

HOPKINS (on camera): Because of police raids?


HOPKINS: I mean, this happened very, very often in your childhood, right?

MATHABANE: Oh, just about every day. I was conditioned to wake up early at about 3:00 or 4:00 in the morning, when the police would break down the door or shatter the window, or when I would hear screams of children. I knew that my mother would have to flee her own home, and I would have to take care of my brother who was 1, and my sister who was 3, at the time when I needed to be taken care of.

HOPKINS (voice-over): So it felt to Mathabane to care for his younger sister and brother until it was safe for his parents to return, usually the next day. Life went on this way until Mathabane turned 6. That's when his mother decided her son would have an education, even though the family lacked the little money required for books or clothes.

(on camera): In the beginning, to get Mark to school you had to tie him and carry him, didn't you?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Yes, we were going to school without shoes.

MIRIAM MATHABANE: Not only that, not only that, probably there isn't heat. You know, my mother has to really force us to do that. It's because of -- we were always punished most of the time.

HOPKINS: It was at the school that Mathabane was beaten repeatedly for not having a uniform. What he did bring to school was a new hunger -- for learning.

TEACHER MPHAMPELE: He was very, very bright and attentive, in every -- in all the subjects.

HOPKINS: The students learned to read and write the African language, Shangon (ph), but Mathabane also taught himself English by reading castoff comic books his mother brought home from one of her wealthy white employers. So while Mark's first English words were boom and zap, he was reading. From comics, he quickly moved on to anything he could get his hands on.

HOPKINS (on camera): You're sitting in a very comfortable house surrounded by books in a very nice part of North Carolina. How much do you think about where you came from when you sit in this environment?

MATHABANE: Constantly, because it is just so unbelievable to think that I could have made that extraordinary journey from poverty and oppression to freedom and opportunity.

And you commented about being surrounded by books. I think that they're a testament to what was crucial in the success of the journey, the fact that the knowledge that I sought, which was mostly in books, was key to making the miracle happen.

HOPKINS (voice-over): Also key to making the miracle happen: tennis. At 14, Mathabane saw Arthur Ashe play tennis in Johannesburg.

Ashe was the first free black man Mathabane had ever seen. He decided he would try to become a great tennis player himself. Mathabane managed to get a used racket and taught himself to play. Along the way, he met many pro players, the most important being Stan Smith.

SMITH: I first met Mark in Johannesburg at Ellis Park, and he was actually watching Bob Lutz and I warm up before our match. And he was just looking at this kind of scene of the -- I guess dreaming about being in the tournament himself. And after Bob Lutz left, I looked at him and I said, well, do you want to hit a few balls?

MATHABANE: He was as white as the whitest person I ever met. He grew up in Pasadena, had very little contact with blacks, and you wouldn't think we had anything in common, but the one thing we had was our humanity, because he approached me as a human being, and saw in me a young person who was yes, intense, yes, had gone through experiences that he couldn't comprehend, but it was somebody who needed an opportunity, because all I asked from the world was an opportunity.

HOPKINS: And Stan Smith gave Mathabane the opportunity to the escape South Africa. He helped him win a tennis scholarship to an American university in South Carolina, and when Mathabane lost that scholarship because he studied too much and played tennis too little, Smith again stepped in, this time paying Mathabane's full tuition at another college.

MATHABANE: He said, Mark, I will help pay for your education, so don't worry about being too much of an athlete. Be a student. It is why I was able to get that economics degree cum laude at the end, and also I was experimenting with writing as editor of the college paper, something I would never have done, find my voice.

HOPKINS: Find out how Mathabane has used that voice to shatter barriers and break new grounds in the world of writing books and publishing on the Internet, when MOVERS continues.


HOPKINS (voice-over): The school of journalism at Columbia University provided another major turning point in Mark Mathabane's life. In 1984, midway through his first year of working on a master's degree, Mathabane floored friends and families by announcing he was dropping out.

MATAHABANE: People said, you must be crazy. You need this degree. It's security. Why are you chucking it all away and trying something that nobody has ever tried, at least your age, or from, you know, South Africa?

HOPKINS (on camera): And so that's when you wrote the book?

MATHABANE: That's when I said, OK, I'm leaving journalism school. I'm going write this book, because the worst thing for me to do is to have a regret that says, oh my gosh, if only I'd done it back then. So I wrote the book. And you know what? It changed my life. Because even though it was an immature book written by a 23-year-old, it had heart.

NED CHASE, EDITOR: He grew up in the world's worst slums, living literally off dumps at times, in a shack, and yet he was never embittered. He was mean or sour.

MATHABANE: I was satisfied to just get my first book published. I mean, at 23, when you get your book published, you know, it's quite a thrill, especially when you couldn't speak a word of English at age 11, you know, so that's quite a milestone.

HOPKINS (voice-over): But writing the book "Kaffir Boy" was one thing, editing it another, and getting it published was another thing altogether.

KEVIN MCSHANE, FIFI OSCARD AGENCY: A lot of the publishing community out there didn't believe that it would sell. (A), it's about another country, and (B), it's African-American culture. And they didn't believe there was a big market here for that.

MATAHBANE: After a six month search, "Kaffir Boy" was finally picked up and published by McMillian. Mathabane's memoirs sold more than 15,000 copies, decent, but by no means a blockbuster.

Just when it looked as though "Kaffir Boy" would become yet another book relegated to the remainder bins, talk show host Oprah Winfrey read it and invited Mathabane to appear on her TV show.

MATHABANE: So she took the book and read it. And when she, you know, mentioned it over the phone call, she said I could not just put it down, and I just had to talk to you.

HOPKINS: After the show, sales of "Kaffir Boy" took off. It made the "New York Times" best-selling list 10 weeks in a row. Then came in rapid succession Mathabane's second book, "Kaffir Boy in America," his marriage to Gail and their book written together, outlining the trials and tribulations of interracial marriage. And then a fourth and fifth book.

But then at a time in his career when many writers settle and live on the off past glories, Mathabane was feeling unsettled. He had discovered that while he could his books published, he had no control over how long he could keep them in print, so he launched, a Web site where you can buy Mathabane's books, read South African news, as well as inspiration quotes. And taking his cue from past greats Dickens and Twain, Mathabane also serializes his books on the Web. In the process, he's become a virtual book- publishing machine.

MATHABANE: Now I feel my books are part of a collective memory. I'm trying to keep alive the spirits of those who are dead and gone, who paid the ultimate price for my freedom and my prosperity, the nameless people in South Africa who fought hard, you know, to keep hope alive. HOPKINS: Unlike most writers who depend solely on their publishers for distribution, Mathabane has taken back the rights to his works. That means he handles everything, from the printing and inventory to orders and shipping. A key to the whole enterprise, Mathabane personally writes in each book that leaves his house.

MATHABANE: And while Mathabane says it's tough to achieve the volume of sales he would through traditional publishing, on a per-book basis, he makes considerably much money doing it all himself.

MATHABANE: You can not afford in today's world to be just a writer. Even the great Stephen King is discovering, how lucrative it is to know just the basics of business. You know, for instance, I'd be lucky to get royalties after all the accounting that goes on into determining what royalty you get. But now I know that if I keep my expenses down but still produce a quality product, you know, market -- well, that I end up making 10 times what I would make through a traditional publisher.

What's more, Mathabane has found when a traditional publisher refuses to take on a book, he can do that on his own, too. Mathabane's first books were all non-fiction, but when it came to his fifth book, "Ubuntu," a novel, despite his success, no one would touch it. So with the help of the Internet, he also became a self- publisher.

HOPKINS: I finished the manuscript, sent it off too a printer, saw the process from the beginning, chose the cover, chose the quality of paper. Now my book, the latest one that I self-published, is superior in packaging than all the books I published traditionally.

HOPKINS: Mathabane's Web site also allows him to stay in touch with his audience. But not all the correspondence he receives is favorable. Find out why some of his readers want to see Mathabane's books banned.

That's next on MOVERS.


UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: If there could be one statement you could leave for your children or the people you've come into acquaintance with for their lives, what would it be?

MATHABANE: Remember that you can accomplish more through love than through hate. I really believe that.

HOPKINS: Mark Mathabane relishes interaction with his readers, both in person and on his Web site. But while he gets plenty of praise for his book, he also receives cries for help. Students often write about parents who want to ban or sensor "Kaffir Boy," Mathabane's best-selling memoir about growing up under apartheid.

One passage in particular draws fire from parents, how 7-year-old Mathabane witnessed friends who were so hungry that they prostituted themselves for food. Mathabane says his book has been banned in about two dozen U.S. school districts because of that passage.

MATHABANE: The latest was in Michigan, where students, you know, got on the Net and sent me e-mail and said, do you know your book is being banned? And I was able to write that article and become involved in that fight.

HOPKINS: After Mathabane protested, the district decided to keep "Kaffir Boy" on its reading list but taped over the prostitution passage. Mathabane counts that as a partial victory in his ongoing battle for literary freedom.

Mathabane is also making strides in another, more personal mission, helping his family enjoy the benefits of life in the United States, including access to education. Four of Mathabane's sisters, their children and his mother have all left South Africa and joined him in the U.S.

Mathabane presides over a huge extended family, most of whom live near him in North Carolina. They're used to seeing the author decked out in full-length yellow rubber gloves. He now does most of the household chores so his wife Gail can finish her M.B.A. while working full-time as a bank vice president. The couple has three children.

GAIL MATHABANE, MARKS MATHABANE'S WIFE: He's a great Mr. Mom, a great dad, a very committed dad. And he does all the grocery shopping. He doesn't like me to do it because he says I buy the wrong things, so I've given up. And now he's doing his own laundry. He says I don't do it the way he wants it done, and so he's slowly taking over just about everything.

HOPKINS: It's not until everyone has been fed and gone to sleep that Mathabane gets down to the business of writing. He recently published his sixth book, "Miriam's Song," a memoir about his sister Miriam and her coming of age under apartheid. As with "Kaffir Boy," Mathabane says he wrote "Miriam's Song" to give his readers hope.

MATHABANE: My task is to spread this message of empowerment through the books, you know, I write, through the Web site that I have. Because once I knew that there were young people out there, multitudes of them, who were just eager to connect with someone who would spur them to greater things, I knew that I had found my calling.

And if I can find a way through what I do, the books I write, the speeches I give, the lectures, et cetera, to tell that young person that yes, you may feel confined, you may doubt yourself. But look at my life. Look at what I was able to do, given the little I began with. And you can do it. You can do it. Believe it, you can do it. And I tell you, once the belief is there, the dream is possible.



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