What is Leah's significance in Mine Boy?
Leah functions as a strong maternal figure to Xuma and the people of Malay Camp, who respect her steadfast, often mocking attitude in the face of adversity. But while she is respected, she is also feared: Leah has the authority to stop a street fight between Lena and Fat Liz even while everyone else in the vicinity is cheering them on. For Xuma, Leah acts as a surrogate mother figure. She practices tough love, advising him on how to survive in the city while teasing him for his ignorance. Later in the novel, Leah helps Xuma overcome his devastation at having been abandoned by Eliza, despite the fact she herself is similarly upset. In this instance and others, Leah sacrifices her own feelings in order to keep the peace among the people around her, knowing that if she were to succumb to her own despair, others would follow suit.
Discuss the role of work in Mine Boy. Why is the type of work people engage in significant?
The need to survive and make money drives Xuma and many other impoverished characters in Mine Boy to find work that is often precarious, involving illegal activity, workplace danger, or both. Precarious work is a dominant theme in the narrative. For Leah, her work as an illegal beer seller involves secrecy, police bribery, the looming threat of imprisonment, and the need for violence to solve disputes that she cannot take to the police. For Xuma, work at the mines—though legal—involves unsafe working conditions that lead to lung sickness and mine collapses, on top of the physical exhaustion and spiritual emptiness Xuma feels as he toils all day. Ultimately, the precarious work that these characters engage in results from a lack of safe employment opportunities: for people of color in South Africa, they must take these jobs because there is no better alternative in a society ruled by the affluent white minority.
Discuss the significance of colonialism in relation to the conflicts that arise in Mine Boy.
Most of the conflict in Mine Boy can be traced to conditions created by settler colonialism in South Africa, which at the time the novel is set was ruled by a white minority descended from white Dutch and British colonists. Laws and de facto segregation efforts disenfranchised black and colored people while concentrating land, wealth, and political power in the hands of whites. The region's colonial legacy is reflected in the white policemen's undue violence against people of color, in the beliefs that Xuma has about not being able to be friends with Paddy, in Eliza's desire not to think of herself as black, in Leah's need to hide her beer-selling business, and in the miserable conditions in which the people of Malay Camp live. While the novel ends with Xuma having had an epiphanic realization that a society without racial divisions could exist, the decades that followed the novel's publication only saw the South African government increase its efforts to segregate people of color from the white minority, ushering in the apartheid—"separateness"—era.
Why might Peter Abrahams have chosen to depict so much violence in Mine Boy?
Violence erupts in Mine Boy without warning or, often, reason. The night Xuma arrives at Malay Camp, he is exposed to the bizarrely casual violence between Dlada and Daddy. The next day, he wakes to a bloody fight between Lena and Fat Liz, which the people watching seem to find entertaining. Later that same day, Xuma is nonplussed by the arrival of white policemen who strike at him and other black men indiscriminately. His friend Johannes, when drunk, likes to grab men by the throat and threaten to kill them. Paddy also tells Xuma he must use violence against workers if they question his authority. Even Leah, despite her kindness, reveals a violent side when she breaks Dlada's arm and stomps on his face. The lurid displays of violence in Mine Boy show how people learn to protect themselves when subject to racist and economically precarious conditions that necessitate bloody conflict resolution: without police or legal authority to trust, the black and colored residents of Johannesburg must rely on violence to survive. In this way, the violence of the systemic inequality created by colonialism begets smaller acts of violence on a widespread scale.
What is "the devil" inside Eliza? Why is it significant to the novel overall?
Early in the novel, Eliza confesses to Xuma that she has a "badness" or "devil" inside her: this devil is her desire to be like a white person in spite of her blackness. Eliza says that she has always felt she is white on the inside; however, she is not comfortable with this belief, as she has a competing desire to embrace the black people around her, such as Leah and Xuma, whom she loves. Eliza's desire to act and be seen as a white person means she has taken on assimilationist ideals: she sees how the privileged white people in South African society live, and she aspires to have the same lives they do, which involves speaking and dressing similarly. Eliza describes her assimilationism as a devil inside her to emphasize the feeling that her drive is like a possession she has no control over. The conflict that results from this devil—both for Xuma and for Eliza internally—speaks to the novel's overall thematic preoccupation with the arbitrary divisions that have resulted from colonialism in South Africa. When Eliza says she wants to be white, she is really saying that she wishes to escape the underprivileged conditions to which she was born. In a more just society, such as Xuma imagines at the end of the novel, she would not have to associate a comfortable life with white people.