From Xuma's first interaction with the alcoholics at Leah's to the police attacks on the striking mine workers, violence erupts repeatedly throughout Mine Boy. Drunken fights are a common sight in Malay Camp—fights which the locals view as entertainment. Drunk men also fight each other as a public spectacle on Saturdays in town, only to be disrupted by the arrival of police vans full of policemen who start striking people indiscriminately. Johannes, when drunk, has a tendency to grab men by the throat and lift them. Paddy also instructs Xuma to use violence against workers if they question his authority. The casual violence confuses Xuma: though not naturally violent himself, Xuma will strike back if struck. The overt displays of violence speak to the lack of more humane forms of conflict resolution: when there is no authority to trust to help solve conflicts, individuals lash out against each other in order to survive.
To survive in the city, most of the characters in Mine Boy undertake precarious work—jobs that are either illegal or dangerous, and often both. The theme of precarious work is evident in Leah's illegal beer selling, which involves secrecy, police bribery, threat of jail time, and the need for violence to solve disputes that would otherwise be resolved by police. While the work Xuma undertakes in the mine is legal, the drive for profits and lack of worker rights allow for conditions that lead to lung sickness and unsafe working conditions.
The theme of poverty undergirds much of the conflict in Mine Boy. The lack of economic possibilities up north sends Xuma to the city, where he encounters desperately poor and depressed people, whose need for money keeps them in dangerous and unsanitary conditions. Though Xuma comes to the city to make an honest living, the white supremacist policies of the South African government will bar him from ascending the social and economic ladder, no matter how hard he works.
Eliza's inability to acknowledge her love for Xuma stems from the fact that she has absorbed assimilationist ideals from living in a colonial society that sees white people as superior. Rather than accepting and appreciating herself for who she is, Eliza seeks to be and act like a white person, whose way of speaking, dressing, and behaving she deems preferable. Even though Eliza likens her assimilationist ideals to "a devil" inside her, she is helpless to rid herself of the possession; ultimately, she rejects her culture and leaves Leah and Xuma, intending to pursue her dreams of assimilating into white society.
Nearly all of the conflict in Mine Boy can be attributed to the settler colonialism that has created such desperate conditions for the novel's characters. As a colonial nation, invaded and taken over by white Dutch and British people whose descendants became the country's minority rulers, South Africa is rife with injustice and exploitation. The theme of colonialism pervades the novel: from the government's attempts to build camps outside the city for black people to live in to Xuma's belief that he and Paddy can never be friends, the colonial project puts barriers between people, both physical and invisible.
In the darkness that surrounds the novel's oppressed characters, the theme of kindness emerges as a beacon of hope. Leah, though tough, is consistently generous and respectful when dealing with the people she keeps close. Ma Plank too is a figure of kindness, as she never seems to mind helping others, and asks nothing for herself. At the novel's most trying moments, kindness exists as an inverse to the discord that conflict would otherwise sow: whether between Paddy and Xuma, or between Xuma and Johannes, or Maisy and Xuma, kindness illuminates the characters' humanity in the midst of dehumanizing conditions.
Racial Segregation (Apartheid)
Though Mine Boy was published two years before the first official apartheid law was enacted, the novel depicts the racial separation that would be increased during the apartheid era. The illegal beer selling Leah engages in results from a law that made it legal for white people to sell alcohol but prohibited black people from the business. The areas the characters live in and walk through are also divided by income, which, as far as Xuma can see, corresponds to race. Xuma also reflects on how white people have clean, open restaurants while black people are packed into filthy, confined eating halls. The socially enforced separation of society into black and white public spheres was legally entrenched in 1948 when the minority white ruling party adopted apartheid as an official policy.
Mine Boy Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Mine Boy is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.
This question calls for your opinion, there is no right or wrong answer. Although, I have mixed feelings about Leah's character, I do admire her strength, kindness, and tenacity. I don't agree with all of her actions, but you have to admire her...