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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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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 Moro-ka 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?"

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