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 alarm clock.
"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?"
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.