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SWINGING FOR THE FENCES
Rick Reilly
January 29, 1996
SOWETO'S TALENTED YOUNG ATHLETES ARE STRIVING TO EXCEL, BUT THEY ARE HINDERED BY THE LEGACY OF APARTHEID
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January 29, 1996

Swinging For The Fences

SOWETO'S TALENTED YOUNG ATHLETES ARE STRIVING TO EXCEL, BUT THEY ARE HINDERED BY THE LEGACY OF APARTHEID

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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he said, referring to the orange, blue and white banner that flew over South Africa during apartheid and has since been replaced by a flag that incorporates the green, black and red of the African National Congress.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, man."

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 worry."

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 Ash-worth 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.

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