All day Percy would drive us, dutifully, silently. He would
drive us into Soweto to see the coiled barbed wire and the kids.
He would sit mute as our guide gave us the dry facts of life in
that impoverished, overcrowded, violent ghetto. Then we would
leave the guide outside his office, at the parking lot with the
coiled barbed wire, before the sun got too low and the car
hijackers got busy. And then Percy would come on like a radio
"You want to know about sports in Soweto?" he would ask us, his
eyes fixed on the dusty road. "I will show you: It is hard."
And he would show us things in the dusk: the tennis center where
the money ran out, the nets were stolen and weeds now grow
through cracks in the courts; the vacant lot where a recreation
center--the first in a city of about five million people--was
supposed to have been built and where now trash piles up; the
swimming pool where on summer days 3,000 kids pile in,
elbow-to-elbow, skin-to-bones, with just room enough to cool off
for a moment.
Percy never quite seemed to understand what we were looking for,
but he always found it. We would say, "Look, the idea is, now
that apartheid is dead and the international boycott of South
Africa is over, won't Soweto rise up and become a world giant in
sports? Soweto's children are so talented and so hungry to
achieve--sports should just take off, don't you think?"
January 29, 1996
And Percy would shrug and say, "Let me show you something."
One dusk he pulled our rented van over by a shantytown of
corrugated tin shacks, its sea of wrinkled roofs held down by
cinder blocks and old logs and treadless tires. "Right here,"
Percy said, "was the field where we used to play softball."
"Yes, yes. We came to practice one day, and a family was living
on third base. It was their home. Within one week there were 50
houses on the field. Within one week! Now there must be 200. Me?
I played rightfield and pitched. Rightfield is over there. See?"
Soweto is a shameful vestige of the old apartheid system, which
herded black South Africans into squalid settlements called
townships. Soweto is the largest township of them all, a teeming
city that spreads over 35 square miles on the southwestern edge
of Johannesburg. More than half of Soweto's population is under
the age of 18.
One day we visited the Lekang primary school in White City, one
of the most dangerous parts of Soweto. To call one section of
Soweto more dangerous than another is to really go out on a
limb, since half of the residents are unemployed and the
township has been called "the murder capital of the world."
Three out of every 10 cars are hijacked at gunpoint. Even the
Sowetan, the township's daily newspaper, doesn't keep its
offices in Soweto.
On Lekang's outdoor basketball court, more than a hundred kids
were gathered in two layup lines--one for shooting, one for
rebounding--sometimes waiting 10 minutes for a brief flirt with
the basketball. Another hundred kids sat beyond the sidelines,
waiting to go on. The court surface was good, but one of the
rims looked as if it had been used in a chin-up contest. The
free throw line was only nine feet from the rim, and the
three-point arc was only 15 feet out.
We asked the volunteer coach if he didn't have more basketballs
for all these players. "Oh, yes," he said. "We have many
basketballs. We just don't have any needles to inflate them."
Percy shrugged. This business of becoming a world sports giant
is a very complicated thing.
Outsiders come to Soweto, see the barbed wire and the
kids--that's what you take from the township, the memory of those
unsinkable children playing against a backdrop of dread--and they
can't wait to help, can't help but help. But the visitors' money
rarely seems to get all the way through the wire to the kids.
Patrick Ewing, Alonzo Mourning and Dikembe Mutombo visited South
Africa in 1994 with an NBA goodwill contingent that pledged
money and licensed equipment for children in underprivileged
areas. But for the five million people of Soweto, there are
still only about 20 courts: 40 hoops, almost half of them bent.
"The infrastructure was never there for sports," says Junior
Ramovha, head of a volunteer organization called the Soweto
Sports Council. "These townships were like prison camps. The
white government felt no need to build sports facilities. That's
why we excel only in soccer and track and boxing. For those you
need so little."
But there are sprigs of change cropping up. There is a young
wannabe sports czar named Larry Gresham, who quit his job
working for his father's Johannesburg record-producing company
and decided he would become the Dr. Naismith of township
basketball. So far, working with funds from Nike and Coca-Cola,
Gresham has built five courts in Soweto. He says he was almost
killed doing so.
It happened at Lekang, actually. It was a Saturday, and the sun
was getting low, and that is almost never good for a white man
in Soweto. But Gresham needed to oversee things. The previous
time he had built a court he returned from lunch one afternoon
to find that laborers had planted a basket pole smack in the
middle of the center-court jump circle.
Anyway, late that Saturday, Gresham looked up to find himself
surrounded by three men and a handgun. They took his car, his
cellular phone, his plans and his wallet. He called friends in
Johannesburg on the school's phone, but the friends wouldn't
come to get him out of Soweto. The cops wouldn't come, either.
Finally Lekang's principal gave him a ride home.
Yet Gresham stays. He comes back to Soweto every day--including
weekends--to build more courts, to bring organized basketball to
one of the greatest untapped pools of talent on the planet. We
saw some good players in the township. The best of them might
make only average junior college players in the U.S., but they
ran and jumped so gracefully, you couldn't help but see the
possibilities. They need work on their trash talk, though. They
speak in their tribal tongues, except when they woof.
"I am going to drop you down," said one skinny 13-year-old in
English as he dribbled against his man.
"Oh, no," replied the defender politely. "I am coming for you,
"Soweto can be a hotbed of great players," says Gresham, 25, who
has never had an idea he didn't love. "Sometimes I walk up and
see kids dribbling like they were born with the ball in their
hands.... We've got a chance to do here what they did in America
a hundred years ago!... My dream is to have all the players in
my professional league come from my school leagues.... I told
Nike, 'If you control the school leagues now, it will save you
problems later on.'
"Do you know David Stern?" he asks finally. "I'm going to be
bigger than him!"
You think Stern ever had to search for needles? In Soweto every
step is uphill. Down the dirt street from Lekang, turn right at
the corner where the kids are bouncing on a tossed-out
trampoline with half the springs missing, drive past the median
where children have turned the torched chassis of an old truck
into their play fort, ride past the unused velodrome that
Raleigh, the bicycle company, built 20 years ago and that hasn't
had a wheel on it in at least a decade (the bikes wore out), and
come to a wonderful little building just oozing dreams.
It is the 15-by-60-foot gym of Baby Jake Matlala, 34, the WBO
junior flyweight champion. It was once a nursery by day, a dance
studio in the afternoon and a gym in the evening, but now it is
a full-time sports shrine. This is because Baby Jake, all 4'10"
of him, still trains there, even though there is no ring, no
air-conditioning, no dressing stall and no shower.
Matlala crowbars himself in with the 25 other fighters who crowd
the narrow blue room, trying not to get floored by a right cross
earmarked for somebody else. That chiseled giant over there, for
instance, is a good one to avoid. He is training in a pair of
dress shoes and ripped dress slacks. He is Siphiwe Nzimande, and
he is said to be the South African amateur heavyweight champion.
He says he doesn't mind the gym's chaos. If it is good enough
for Baby Jake, it is good enough for him. The little windows fog
over from the heat generated by the fighters, so the kids
looking in from outside can see nothing. Still, they stay.
"Baby Jake is their hero," says Matlala's manager and trainer,
Theo Mthembu. "He is one man who will never be hijacked. He has
his name painted on the side of the car. They would never hijack
Leaning against a wall, the pug with the bittersweet expression,
that's TNT. He was a top super featherweight contender in South
Africa in the '70s, but he never got to fight the white
champion. If you can't fight the whites, you can't make money.
TNT, whose name is Ben Lekalake, fought for almost nothing, grew
angry and, like many other young Sowetans, became militant. He
joined the antiapartheid underground, was labeled an insurgent
and lived in exile for many years in Botswana and Zambia, among
other countries. After Nelson Mandela was released from prison
in 1990, TNT returned to Soweto, and now here he is, watching
Baby Jake show the kids his championship belt. Baby Jake's
success doesn't bring TNT much peace. "This gym had many Baby
Jakes," he says. "It's just that nobody ever knew."
Muhammad Ali has been to Soweto. He visited in 1993 as part of a
fund-raising delegation to help "the underprivileged" of the
South African townships. And for several years Riddick Bowe has
been helping black South African boxers; in 1993 he donated
$50,000 to help fund their training and promotion.
Baby Jake's gym has received no foreign money. "We want to build
a new gym, a nice one, a recreation center," says Mthembu. "If
we had any money, we'd be much better off than we are now."
There are some in Soweto who say that money donated to sports
development in the township has a funny way of disappearing. As
Ramovha puts it, "People seem to have pocketed money for
themselves." But it is impossible to prove.
Not that Baby Jake's gym is without improvements. "Look," says
Mthembu, pointing to the wall. "We finally have hooks for our
We were beginning to understand.
"No, you don't understand," Percy said one night, his eyes ever
ahead. "You do not understand how it was. I will show you
He pulled up in front of a small, neat house. He said, "A man
died on my front lawn."
When? "During the rioting in 1976. We were throwing rocks at the
police, and they chased us. He was not a man I knew well. I was
merely seconds into my house when he was shot behind me. We
thought everything was fine until we looked out and saw him
lying in the yard."
Until now Soweto has had few true kids. The generation of
teenagers and young adults you see now was not allowed to be
kids. So many were preoccupied with political activism, fluent
in the ways of protest, demonstrations, civil disobedience: the
struggle against apartheid. And they were fearful of crime. They
were not athletes. "I have been protesting since I was seven
years old," Percy said.
In fact, the protest that changed everything involved township
kids. In June 1976 schoolchildren and their parents marched
against a new government policy that ordered all schools to
teach certain courses in Afrikaans, the language of the Dutch
white settlers. Sowetans wanted their children to learn in
English, which was useful, and their tribal languages, which
gave them pride. The number of protesters was huge. Violence
erupted. The police opened fire, killing hundreds of
demonstrators and setting off the worst riots in Soweto's
history. Much of the city was torched. The uprising spread to
other South African townships and accelerated the process of
political change that would culminate in the abolition of
apartheid in 1991 and the election three years later of Mandela
as South Africa's first black president.
"These kids were not concerned with sports, they were concerned
with politics," says Timo Smouse, of the Moroka Area Sports
Committee, which represents one of 32 areas in the township.
"This has slowed our development of sport." Besides, even if
they were good at sports, what was the point? There were no
Olympics for South Africa, no soccer World Cup, no Rugby World
Cup. Until the Barcelona Olympics in 1992, no South African team
had been to the Games in 32 years. As it is, it will probably be
the year 2000 before a Sowetan has a decent chance to win a medal.
Five years ago rugby was hardly discussed in Soweto. It was a
white sport; soccer was black. It was not illegal for a black
person to play rugby, but it was practically unheard of. We
mentioned the sport to TNT, and he screeched, "Rugby! You did
not try to play rugby in Soweto!"
Percy's eyes narrowed at the mere mention of rugby. To him,
attending a rugby game would be Uncle Tomming of the worst sort.
"I won't be seen attending a game, not even now; some fans wave
the old flag there," he said, referring to the orange, blue and
white banner that flew over South Africa during apartheid and
has since been replaced by a flag that incorporates the green,
black and red of the African National Congress. "They sing the
old national anthem. I never took time to learn the words. No,
South Africa's Springboks are now the rugby world champions, and
they have one nonwhite, Chester Williams, on the team. But
Williams is not a big hero in Soweto. He is from Cape Town, and
he is not black but colored--that is, of mixed race. (Apartheid
divided South Africans into four racial categories: white,
black, colored and Indian.) In Soweto they put up rugby posts in
the park near the old velodrome, but kids use the field for
soccer when they use it at all. Horses graze there.
We called a man named Nelson Botile, of the Soweto Rugby Club,
who told us to come watch the club play a game on a Saturday
morning. "You will see," Botile said. "The old days are gone. In
two years time, you'll have Sowetan players on the national
team. We will have more than one Chester Williams, don't you
We showed up. Two kids were there--and no game. "You can change
the laws," Percy said, starting the engine again, "but it is
another thing to change the people."
Golf? What could be whiter than golf? One day we stumbled on a
course that had been willed to life at the intersection of two
freeways and an off-ramp on the edge of Soweto.
Down an embankment four men were walking through a wasteland of
rocks and mud and weeds that sits in the huge triangle between
the freeways. It is the kind of ground that seems to have gone
untouched since the roads were constructed. And yet, as we
looked, we saw it: a four-hole "course" being played by the four
caddies who built it. We skidded down the embankment to see it.
A hole was nothing more than a buried can that had once held
beans. A flag was a red handkerchief tied to a tree branch stuck
in the earth. The green was a circle 10 feet in diameter where
the weeds had been pulled out and the dirt had been flattened as
best it could be. The holes ranged in length from about 120 to
about 450 yards The whole golf course was an unplayable lie.
Nevertheless, the men said they play it every day, nine times
around, 36 holes.
So we asked to play it. On the 2nd hole we were about to hit
from the tee--where the weeds have been cut down to, say, two
inches--when David Shuping, the leader of the group, said, "No,
no, no." He pointed to another circle 10 feet behind. "You must
play the championship tees." But of course.
David said he hopes to have a job in golf someday, and he has
the swing for it, lovely and smooth. He could use an Ashworth
contract, though. He wore threadbare gray slacks with a brown,
orange and white flannel shirt, blue-and-red socks, black dress
shoes with holes in them and a blue-and-white baseball cap with
nothing written on it. He played out of a ripped Wilson bag that
carried six mismatched irons and one splintering wood. He used
split golf balls he'd pulled out of a pond. Still, he played his
course every day.
What do you call it? we asked.
"St. Andrews," he said, grinning.
The township has only one other golf course, the Soweto Country
Club, and it has a wonderful feature. You can drive the
fairways--in your car. This is because the place has declined
since somebody broke in and stole all the pipes for the
sprinkling system. So the club put up a coiled barbed-wire
fence. That was stolen, too, raising the possibility that the
fairways will deteriorate to the level of those at "St.
Andrews." But for three South African rand (90 cents) on
weekdays, you can live with it.
Tennis is worse. In the 1970s Arthur Ashe made several visits to
Soweto and helped establish the Javabu Tennis Complex in the
township. Over the years it has fallen into disrepair. The eight
courts still stand, but rackets and balls are too expensive for
the kids. So the center sits there like a vagrant, a good
example of how many things can go wrong in Soweto before there
is the slightest step forward.
The sports world's boycott of South Africa meant that in the
late '80s and early '90s there were no international tennis
tournaments in the country to help generate development funds,
and few visiting stars to act as role models. You could barely
find a tennis coach in Soweto. And until 1991 South Africa had
three national tennis organizations--one for whites, one for
blacks and one for coloreds.
Black, white, colored and Indian: Every man, woman and child was
forced into one of these groups and, once in a group, made to
live only in areas with like shade. But how did the government
decide if you were black and not colored, or colored and not
white? Try cubbyholing people on any street in Los Angeles into
those groups. A minister we met asked us to take pencils out of
our bags. He put the pencils in our hair, just above the ear.
"One way was the pencil test," he said. "If the pencil stayed
perfectly still, you were black."
Now that legal segregation of the races has ended, South African
whites are more fearful than ever of blacks. Tension in
Johannesburg is at an alltime high, with car hijacking epidemic
and often accompanied by murder. Drivers who are alone at night
simply slow down at red robots (as stoplights are called) and go
through if the way is clear.
But hijacking is even worse in Soweto. The first time we drove
into the township, the very second we crossed the border, Percy
reached down and unsnapped his seat belt.
Why'd you do that?
"Uh, well," Percy said. "Just to be more comfortable." We asked
him two more times, and the answers never made sense. Why ride
with the belt off? One dusk we asked him again. "When you are
hijacked, you must get out of the car immediately," he said.
"You do not want the hijackers thinking you are reaching for
your gun when you reach for your seat belt button."
Crime is everywhere. But the youth of Soweto do not have a lot
of options. Jobs are scarce. There are three movie theaters in
the township. There is no indoor gym. There is no indoor
recreation center. A decent new park has not been built in the
township in years. The sprawling Moroka district does not have a
single library or swimming pool. At Kentucky Fried Chicken the
food is passed out through steel bars.
To make matters worse, high unemployment makes it hard for black
families to pay their rents. And rent money in Soweto goes
toward the township's maintenance and services. With little
money coming from residents, nothing is getting built--no
softball diamonds, no soccer fields, no rec facilities. Says
Smouse, "It boils down to this: What can the kids do?"
Percy, who is training to become a reporter, says he almost
tried crime himself. "For five years I had no job," he says. "I
would just roam the streets, the way you see these boys doing. I
would read the want ads: 'Whites only.' There is no industry
here, no market. I was sitting with some guys one night and they
said, 'We rob this shop tomorrow.' They asked me if I would do
it with them. I told them yes. I wanted some money. But when
they came to pick me up the next day, I chickened out. I hid."
Where are those guys now, in jail? "No, no! They are here, man!
I see them driving BMWs. Most of them now have established
Just as we were thinking that every dark cloud in Soweto had a
darker cloud inside it, we happened upon cricket. At Elkah
stadium, amid the desperate poverty of the township, stood one
of the loveliest cricket pitches you ever laid eyes on.
Surrounded by five-foot-high fences coiled with barbed wire, it
was still a thing of beauty, a captured paradise. It held the
greenest grass in Soweto, carefully mown. There were freshly
painted bleachers and a first-rate locker room. And it was all
paid for with funds raised by Dr. Ali Bacher, managing director
of the United Cricket Board, who has given up his medical
practice to devote himself full time to the sport.
Ten years ago practically no one played cricket in Soweto.
Today, thanks to Dr. Bacher, the Soweto Cricket Club fields a
killer team. Its youth squad, whose players range in age from 15
to 24 (except for the 40-year-old captain), became the first
black South African cricket team to tour overseas. It went 7-5-3
in England. If there's any one sport in which the township is
ready to make like a giant, it is cricket.
One boy on the pitch showed amazing bat handling skills. His
name is Hamilton Kgeola, and he is 12 years old. He came to the
pitch one day three years ago because he heard that free cookies
and Coke would be offered after a cricket clinic. Hamilton
played for the first time that day, and he kept playing because
he was promised a T-shirt. Now he loves the sport, excels at
it, even though his father glares at him whenever he brings it
up. "He criticizes my sport," Hamilton says. "He wants me to
But what can his dad say? Hamilton's grades are good, he was
elected a prefect at Isaacson Primary School, and now he has
been offered free room and board to play cricket and study at a
mostly white school called Parktown Boys in Johannesburg.
Hamilton will leave the four-room house in Soweto where he has
lived with his father, a grandmother, two brothers, an aunt and
her husband, and his dad's girlfriend and their baby. The house
has no indoor bathroom.
Is Hamilton scared to go live with whites?
"No, I am happy to be having white friends," he said.
Won't he miss home?
"No," he said, crinkling his nose as though he had been asked,
Care for a tetanus shot? "I am glad to be going. Here the
gangsters can shoot you and take your money."
Besides, he said, he has dreams: "I want to play for my country."
Something about Hamilton making it has brightened everything. Or
maybe that's because it is Friday afternoon in Soweto, and there
is a liveliness in the air. There are more adults around. A kid
finally has a hand to hold.
"Tomorrow there will be funerals and weddings all over," Percy
says happily. "And festivals. You will see 50 of them or more."
Why? "Because people die all week, but their families work for
whites, and whites won't let them out to go to a funeral. So we
save all our funerals, and our weddings, for the weekend. For
each wedding and each funeral, a cow will be slaughtered."
Those tiny sprigs of promise continue to pop up. We hear about
an American named William Redd, of Richmond, who has been to
Soweto twice. When customs officials inspected his luggage, all
they found were rackets and balls. He was a friend of Ashe's and
is trying to rebuild the late tennis star's center.
We hear of a South African mobile phone company, MTN, that has
pledged 10 million rand to the national tennis program over
three years, with an emphasis on developing the game in
We also meet twins in Soweto who have become promising squash
players by practicing on a muddy court that is a kindergarten
half the day. Better yet, Soweto schools are sending kids by the
hundreds to pools to learn to swim. And it seems you can't throw
a bucket of birdseed anywhere in the township without hitting
the basketball entrepreneur, Gresham.
The change is slow. It is slower than ketchup in a new bottle,
but it is starting to flow. How can you doubt it when caddies
build a golf course out of roadside rubble, and boxers train to
become champions in a broom closet, and cricket-loving doctors
start sporting revolutions?
"There was a time," says Hamilton's grade school principal,
Thulare Bopape, "when people here did not play sports. It was
during the time of protests and uprisings. Our children were
preoccupied. The people were preoccupied. Now on Sundays, you
walk along and see people playing soccer and cricket and
basketball. I think sport is a uniting factor for us, a way to
reach out to people of other colors. It can be done through
sports. People who play together can learn together."
Driving back to the hotel that night, Percy says, "Let me show
He hands us back a picture of his four-year-old son. "His name
What does that mean?