Narrated from a third-person omniscient perspective, Peter Abrahams’s Mine Boy opens in the protagonist Xuma’s point of view. Tired and carrying a small bundle, Xuma walks through Malay Camp, Johannesburg, in the dark, listening to a distant clock strike three times to indicate that it is three in the morning. In the impoverished area of mostly black and mixed-race residents, Xuma meets Leah and asks where he can have a drink, admitting he has no money. Leah says he is strange and asks where he comes from. He says up north. Leah shines a flashlight over his large body before saying he can come in for a drink and a rest.
Three men and an old woman sit inside Leah’s place, drinking beer. Ma Plank goes to bring some food for Xuma. Dladla and Daddy are hostile toward Xuma before starting a knife fight with each other. Ma Plank returns to break up the fight before it really begins, and Daddy goes back to sleep, snoring loudly. Leah explains that “her man” is serving a three-year sentence for killing a man who tried to kiss her; she keeps Dladla around because she gets lonely and needs a “plaything.”
Xuma says he came to the area intending to work in the mines. Leah warns him against it, saying he’s strong now but he’ll wind up coughing blood, growing thin, and dying. She says he should work for her. The others work for her burying beer: there’s good money in it. She could use Xuma as a strong man. She offers him a bed, saying he can repay his debt later. Leah warns him that if he tries to cheat her, she’ll cut him up. Xuma is amused and says he doesn’t understand her; all he understands is her kindness. She says the city is a strange place. Xuma tries to sleep but dwells on the odd people he has just met. Nothing ties them down, and they seem to believe in nothing.
In the second chapter, Xuma wakes with the sun, realizing he is still in the strange house. A bee enters the room and Xuma runs out to escape it. In the street, Daddy is in the center of a group of people, dancing a war dance and shouting ancient battle cries. The commotion at the center is a fight between two women, Lena and Fat Liz. The fight ends when Lena hits Liz in the head with her shoe, causing blood to flow. Leah breaks the fight up, brings the women in the yard to recover, and then prepares food for Xuma.
Xuma considers how strange Leah is, because she is tough with everyone but kind to him. Leah can tell he thinks she wants to sleep with him. She tries to explain that she likes him because they come from the same place, even though he is from the north and she from the south: their people have the same tribal laws and customs. She says he doesn’t understand, but maybe he will. Daddy enters and Leah asks him to explain the custom and the city. Daddy drunkenly speaks of a relationship between the custom and the city, where the custom gave the city beer and beautiful women. But the city didn’t say thank you, and then the beer was taken away, and now people go to jail for drinking beer. Daddy goes to sleep on a sack laid next to the women who were fighting. Leah kisses his forehead and Xuma observes aloud that she likes him. Angrily, she asks what it is to him.
Leah’s boyfriend’s brother Joseph arrives and Leah gives him instructions about a job, asking Joseph to take Xuma along. It is Saturday, a half-day holiday for black citizens of Johannesburg, so the streets are full of people with money to spend. There are also strong men who come to the social center of town to fight each other until only one is left standing. Men often die in the fights. Colorfully dressed women watch and by the end of the day men and women pair off to drink and sleep together. People watch the fighting and gambling from their verandas.
Two “swankies” come down the street: the identically dressed men wear purple suits and carry canes and red handkerchiefs. People laugh and make comments as the fashionable men pass. When a police van appears, people scatter in all directions; only the colored people—i.e. mixed-race people—don’t run. Xuma stands still as a policeman approaches, believing himself safe since he has done nothing wrong.
The policeman strikes Xuma with his stick on the left shoulder. Xuma punches the cop in the face and he falls unconscious to the ground. Two police run after Xuma. Xuma runs and a colored man stands in his way to block; Xuma hates colored people, whom he refers to in his head as “half-castes.” Xuma is relieved when a second colored man knocks the first to the ground and waves at Xuma. Xuma follows the man down a passage and through yards until they arrived in the man’s house. The man’s wife comes in. Xuma is surprised when he sees she is black. Xuma says he should go, but the man suggests they lie low until the police stop looking for him.
The third chapter opens with Xuma trying to find Leah’s place at twilight. He runs into Daddy, who is drunk and tries to fight him before quickly falling on his head. Daddy offers to lead Xuma there if Xuma buys him a drink. Joseph and Leah are pleased to see that Xuma escaped the police.
Leah would like to talk with Xuma but all the rooms in her place are full of people drinking. They take a walk and a black policeman on a bicycle stops to tell Leah that police will raid her place in the morning to dig up her beer. Leah pays the policeman a bribe—five one-pound notes. Back home Leah introduces Xuma to Eliza, a beautiful young teacher. Eliza prepares food for Xuma and he can’t stop admiring her beauty. Xuma strains himself lifting a sewing machine for Eliza; she rubs ointment into the purple bruise where the policeman’s club struck his shoulder. Xuma tells her about his family up north, where he has a father and a brother and sister. There are few cattle and the land is not very fertile. There is no school. He says he plans to go back after working in the mines. Eliza says Leah talks about Xuma a lot. Eliza is Leah’s niece. Leah raised Eliza after her mother died, and sent Eliza to school.
Eliza takes Xuma out of Malay Camp to where the noise of the city diminishes and there is grass underfoot. Eliza says she likes to come here, because it is peaceful. They lie on the grass and watch the twinkling city lights in the distance. Xuma says she is beautiful; Eliza laughs and says he is simply lonely. But Xuma feels there is something between them that cannot be ignored. They discuss the mine dumps in the distance—large piles of white sand extracted from the mines. As they walk back to town, Xuma pulls her to him and asks why she doesn’t like him. She smiles but says nothing. He takes her chin in his hand and leans down to kiss her. She stiffens and cries out for him to stop. She apologizes and then they walk separately for some time. Eventually she falls in step with Xuma and apologizes again. He says he isn’t angry. She has a sad look on her face and tells him he doesn’t understand.
Back at Leah’s, the place is full of people drinking. Ma Plank and Lena, the thin colored woman, who had been fighting that morning, are ladling beer out of vats. Xuma notices that there are many colored women with their arms around black men, but there are only one or two colored men. A colored woman puts her arms around Xuma’s neck and says if he buys her a drink they can go to bed together. Ma Plank hands Xuma some of the money she has collected and asks him to bring it to Leah.
As he is going out to Leah, Xuma is confronted by Dladla, who brandishes a knife and cuts Xuma’s face, accusing him of taking his woman. Lena hands Xuma a club. Leah joins the fight with Dladla and his two henchmen. Xuma knocks one of the men out without a sound. A tall man named Johannes P. Williamson enters and crushes the other man’s throat. Leah warns him not to kill the man, lest he go to jail. Johannes drops the man, who falls silent and still to the ground. Dladla swipes at Leah but misses; she grabs his arm like a vice and head-butts him. She chokes him out and stomps on his face, drawing a cry of protest from Xuma. Leah smiles and tells the others to take the dirt away.
Leah takes Xuma to find a doctor who can stitch up his cut. When they return, everyone has been cleared out except Johannes, who works in the mines, and Lena, Leah, Ma Plank, and Daddy. Leah tells Xuma that Eliza likes him but that’s she’s a fool because she wants someone who reads books and wears a tie and can speak like a white person. Leah suggests that Xuma will have to take her by force. Xuma asks Eliza if what Leah says is true. Eliza says that his bed is made, then leaves without answering his question.
The opening chapters of Mine Boy establish the protagonist Xuma’s naivety and confusion as he encounters the strange environment and people of Malay Camp, a slum of Johannesburg, South Africa. Xuma has come from an economically depressed region up north intending to work in the gold mines, but his lack of money means he immediately becomes indebted to Leah, an illicit beer seller.
Xuma is confused by Leah’s kindness, not fully understanding that she sees value in Xuma’s size and strength. By the end of the first chapter, the author has introduced the thematic preoccupations with work, poverty, and the divided roles of men and women.
In the second and third chapters, Abrahams continues to explore these themes, as well as the theme of violence. Xuma wakes to a public fight on the street between two women, who are cheered on by the crowd. The motif of drinking arises: it is clear the women and many others watching have been drinking all night.
Leah asks Daddy to explain to Xuma how such alcoholism has come to be in the slums, but his drunken explanation goes over Xuma’s head. Daddy is trying to explain that these conditions have been created in part by a South African apartheid liquor law introduced in 1927 that made it illegal for black South Africans to sell alcohol. Black South Africans were only allowed to drink in government-owned beer halls likened by many to drinking in a cage. Meanwhile, white people were considered responsible enough to drink and sell liquor freely.
Xuma is exposed to more racial oppression when out walking with Joseph. Xuma has done nothing, and so thinks himself safe from police intimidation. His lack of fear in the face of the white policeman’s authority is taken as a challenge and the police officer strikes him. Xuma encounters more sudden eruptions of violence when he returns to Leah’s that night and Dladla swipes his face with a knife.
The third chapter ends with Xuma learning from Leah that Eliza, while she may like him, is prevented from following her feelings due to the assimilationist ideals she has absorbed, meaning that Eliza rejects the culture of her people in favor of adopting the mannerisms and culture of the white Dutch colonizers.