SPRINGFIELD, Ohio — The beneficiary of an illiterate mother who believed that education was the only way out of the ghetto, Mark Mathabane learned to love learning as he came of age under apartheid in South Africa. That love carried him from despair, hate and anger to possibility and hope, and eventually to America, an award-winning writing career and now to Wittenberg, where he will present the keynote address during the university's 161st Commencement Exercises, Saturday, May 13.
“When we began our search, we knew that we wanted someone with a global focus,” said Elise Renz, president of the 450-member senior class. “Our generation is living in a world community, not just in a country, and we wanted to reflect that. We also thought it was important to have someone who affirms the power of a college education. Mark and his family worked tirelessly so that he could come to America for college.”
The author of The New York Times’ bestselling autobiography Kaffir Boy and several other books celebrating the power of knowledge, the world’s common humanity and the resiliency of the human spirit, Mathabane has touched the hearts of millions with his words.
Born of destitute parents whose $10-a-week wage could not pay the rent for their shack or put food on the table, Mathabane spent the first 18 years of his life as the eldest of seven children in a one-square-mile ghetto that was home to more than 200,000 blacks in South Africa. A childhood of devastating poverty, terrifying police raids and relentless humiliation drove him to the brink of suicide at age 10. His mother’s courage and sacrifice, and Mathabane’s own strength, love of learning and dreams of tennis stardom, fueled by Arthur Ashe, helped him turn his life around.
Tennis became Mathabane's passport to freedom, and in 1978, with the help of 1972 Wimbledon champion Stan Smith, Mathabane left South Africa to attend an American university on a scholarship. In 1983 he graduated cum laude with a degree in economics from Dowling College in Oakdale, N.Y., where he was the first black editor of the college newspaper.
After studies at the Poynter Media Institute and the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism, Mathabane completed the manuscript of Kaffir Boy, which later won the prestigious Christopher Award, climbed to No. 3 on The New York Times’bestseller’s list and secured the No. 1 spot on The Washington Post’s bestseller list. The book has been translated into several languages and is currently used in classrooms around the United States. The American Library Association also has included it on its list of "Outstanding Books for the College-Bound."
His other non-fiction works include the national bestseller Kaffir Boy in America, Love in Black and White, co-authored by his wife Gail, and African Women: Three Generations, which details the struggles and triumphs of his grandmother, mother and sister Florah. In 2000, Mathabane penned Miriam’s Song, which tells the true story of his sister Miriam's coming of age during the turmoil and violence that preceded the end of apartheid and Nelson Mandela's election. Mathabane’s first work of fiction,Ubuntu, is a thriller set against the politically and racially tense backdrop of post-apartheid South Africa.
Mathabane has appeared on The Oprah Winfrey Show, Today, CNN, NPR, The Charlie Rose Show, Larry King and numerous other TV and radio programs across the country. His provocative articles have also appeared in The New York Times, Newsday, U.S. News & World Report and USA Today. In addition, he has been featured in Time, Newsweek andPeople magazines. A sought-after lecturer, he was nominated for Speaker of the Year by the National Association for Campus Activities.
“All of his amazing accomplishments are proof that with the right training and persistence, success is inevitable,” Renz said. “We are thrilled to have Mark Mathabane as our Commencement speaker."
- Karen Gerboth