Published in 1946, Peter Abraham’s Mine Boy was one of the first books to look at what life as a black person meant in South African society during the days of Apartheid.
The book’s main character, Xuma, is a man in transition. He leaves his home in the north to go find work in the big city of Johannesburg at the gold mines. He ends up in Malay camp; a suburb for blacks. There, he meets Leah, a tough but kind woman, who gives him a place to stay. Though everyone in Leah’s house does not like the idea of Xuma working in the mines, he is determined to work there, despite the harsh conditions that blacks are forced to work under.
Xuma is naïve about the city and its ways. On his first walk around the city, he is shocked to see his fellow blacks take off from whites when they have not done any harm. Rather than run, he stands his ground. When a policeman attacks him, he strikers back. This gives him reason enough to flee. His friends call him a fool because of his naivety.
Leah is a tough and strong willed woman, unapologetic about her way of life. She brews alcohol, something illegal for blacks but not for whites. When other women bootleggers in her camp are arrested, Xuma feels bad because Leah did not warn them. To which Leah says, “Life is so in the city.”
Among the other people that live in Leah’s household are Johannes and Daddy, both of whom find their solace in taking liquor.
Xuma falls in love with Leah’s niece, Eliza,, who is a teacher and dresses like the white folks. She loves Xuma but because she has passion for the white man’s things, wants someone who speaks like them she runs away, leaving him bitter. Abandoned, Xuma turns to Maisy whose love he had earlier turned down.
At the mines, Xuma’s strength makes him a successful mine boy – a boss boy for one of the mine supervisors – Paddy Oshea, or the red one, as Xuma calls him. Paddy is considerate and understanding, and despite his not being black, he becomes friends with Xuma. To Paddy, a man is a man first and then color comes second. But as Xuma soon realizes, as a black man, he remains a second-class citizen under the apartheid regime.
After an accident in the mines that takes the lives of Johannes and other miners, Paddy and Xuma lead the strike together with the mine boys when they are forced to back to work before the place is repaired. It is this incident that makes Xuma understand the real meaning of being a man first and color next, as all the workers join hands and put their differences aside.
This is a melancholic story that paints a picture of resilience in the face of numerous setbacks and unfair laws. As the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778) put it, man is born free but every where in chains. After all, what has colour go to do with personality?