Formation of Identity

Megan Allen and Ashlyn Singer


Identity is defined as," the condition of being oneself, or itself, and not another." This definition comes into play as we observe Mark Mathabane's personal experiences in Kaffir Boy, and how they made him the man he is today. We are who we are based upon our choices, decisions, and actions, and their resluting consequences. Not only are we affected by our own actions, but we are also affected by the actions, opinions, and choices of the ones close to us. All experiences have the power to impact us in some way and leave a deep impression on who we are as a person.

"I am a part of all that I have met."


" ' Why does he beat me, then?' I protested. 'Other fathers don't beat their children.' My friends always boasted that their fathers never laid a hand on them.

'He's trying to discipline 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?' (Mathabane 33)"

This is the first realization that Mark has about being his own person. His parents have always dictated who he is by forcing him to act a certain way, and now he is starting to formulate his own opinions about who he wants to be.

"Rats never stopped eating our palms and feet, and we often were unable to walk or handle anything for days because both areas were like open wounds. Bedbugs and lice sucked us dry during the night. And just about every day my mother had to get new cardboard to make pallets because the rats were eating those too, But in all of this I passively accepted as a way of life, for I knew no other. The house, the yard, the neighborhood and Alexandra were at the hub of my existence. They constituted the only world I knew, the only reality. (Mathabane 96)"

These things and situations made up who he was because they were the only things he had ever known. All of your thoughts and opinions are based around a core center of beliefs from previous experiences. He drew his identity from the things he had and the problems he faced because that was the only thing for him to recognize himself with.

"...I felt that I could not just sit back and let them order my mind and shape my life as they saw fit, without asking questions; that somehow I had to seek my own answers to the complex life around me. If it turned out that those answers I unearthed were no different from theirs-which I very much doubted- well, then I would believe everything they said with a clear conscience. But somehow I knew that, from the life around me, there would most likely come answers different from my parents'...(Mathabane 102)"

This is a time when Mark is strongly questioning his parents beliefs, and questioning who he is because he has identified himself with their beliefs for so long. He is lost and confused because the one stable thing in his life isn't so stable anymore. This questioning is healthy because it's allowing him to choose to be his own person with his own beliefs, rather than blindly following his parents.

" At seven years old I had sense enough to know that though I was beginning to oppose tribal values and superstitions, to declare my opposition openly without evidence to defend myself would no doubt cast me, in the eyes of my father, as a tribal infidel. And I knew my father would not hesitate to drive me out of the house, and if my mother came to my defense, which I knew she would do, she too would be driven out. Therefore I told myself to feign belief, and to wait for the time when I would go out into the world, learn other ways of life and gather the evidence to confront my parents. If, then, they still refused to accept my way of life, I would rebel, and face the consequences. After all, my life was my own to do with as I pleased. (Mathabane 103)"

Mark's family was very strict in their core beliefs, and there wasn't much room for negotiation. But, he knew that in order for him to actually be able to truly believe in what he said and did, he must discover if it was true for himself, and not blindly follow his parents. This shows a maturation and a newfound passion to stand up for who he is, no matter what the consequences. It shows a pride that was never seen before now.

"I felt unloved, unwanted, abandoned and betrayed by a world that seemingly denied me an opportunity to find my niche. A world that seemed to hold out nothing to me but hunger, pain, violence and death. It didn't feel that the world or anybody owed me anything, but I felt that the world and everybody had to at least give me an opportunity to prove my worth, to make something of myself, whatever that something might be. That lone winter, however, I felt that I had lived long enough. I felt that life could never, would never, change from how it was for me, Suffering had finally succeeded in penetrating to my very soul and established in my consciousness a certain fear of living. (Mathabane 167)"

He had experienced so much hardship in his life that those were the only things that were on the forefront of his mind. They were inescapable, and the only way he thought he could be happy was to truly escape the world he lived in. This is at a point where he has nothing of substance to identify himself with, only the constant struggle of everyday life. This shows how easily shaken a person's faith can be when they put it in the wrong things, or they don't put it in anything at all. His personal identity was lost when the good things in his life he identified with were lost.

" At the same time I was discovering the richness of the english language I began imitating how white people talked, in the hope of learning proper pronunciation. My efforts were often hilarious, but my determination increased with failure. I set myself the goal of learning at least two new english words a day. (Mathabane 194)"

Mark needed something to put his time and energy into to feel like he was making a difference in his own life, and so he used the english language. This perserverance attributes to the formation of his identity, because, he had already gone through so much hardship in his life that one more task was managable. He wanted to have a future and a freedom that wasn't offered from the people of the ghetto he lived in. His identity as something greater than that in which he was born into became a reality when he kept going with his studies.

"Along one of the streets I stepped into a pothole and severely sprained my ankle. The next day it was so swollen that I couldn't even put my foot in a shoe. My first match was two days away. I was determined to play despite the injury.(Mathabane 318)"

This shows Mark's pereserverence and unfaultering persistence that he has developed from all his past experiences. This is one of the final pieces in the puzzle of his identity, and by this point he is now strong in the sense of who he is and he is proud of where he came from.


1. How do personal experiences shape identity?

2. What makes someone's identity or self worth falter?

3. What experiences shaped Mark's identity the most and why?

4. How did Mark's family impact his sense of identity?

5. How can beliefs and faith change how you percieve to be as a person?

Works Cited

Mathabane, Mark. Kaffir Boy: The True Story of a Black Youth's Coming of Age in Apartheid South Africa. New York: Macmillan, 1986. Print.