Take a look. The scar from the bullet cuts across Josia Thugwane's chin. No, don't stare. Try to be subtle. Wait until the photographer asks him to pose facing the industrial ugliness of the Koornfontein Mines or until Thugwane picks up his three-year-old daughter, Zandi, as she goes into one of her opera-diva pouts. There. Take a look.
See the direction the bullet traveled? The angle? Not many scars look like this one. This is almost a groove in the flesh, maybe an inch long, slicing left to right. If, say, Thugwane's face were constructed of cement, you would say that some ill-mannered kid had pushed a finger across it while it was still wet. This, instead, was a finger of speeding lead. Some kid pulled a trigger on a jostled gun and let the bullet rip.
Thugwane (pronounced tug-WAN-e) will describe the situation, no problem, except he will do it in Ndebele, his tribal language, which sounds a lot like Zulu. Do you know Zulu? His tongue will click in the back of his mouth in the middle of some sentences, click here, click there, and sometimes a phrase in English—a brand name or a simple direction, such as "Castle beer" or "turned right"—will jump into the middle of the conversation. Sometimes a harsh Afrikaans word such as bakkie, the word for pickup truck, will be added to the mix.
The confrontation took place inside Thugwane's bakkie. A Mazda. He had stopped to give a ride to three hitchhikers, one of whom he recognized. This is a normal event in black South Africa. The hitchhiker he recognized went, instead, to a Nissan Sentra that stopped behind the bakkie. The two strangers climbed into the bakkie. Thugwane started driving. The Nissan followed. A BMW pulled in front and drove slowly. Something felt strange to Thugwane. One of the men pulled a gun, presumably to steal the bakkie. This is also a normal event in black South Africa.
Thugwane reacted. He hit the gas and turned the wheel hard one way, then hard the other way. The bakkie swerved and jumped. Thugwane turned the wheel again. One of the hitchhikers fired.
"I didn't feel anything," Thugwane says through an interpreter. "No pain. But the bullet went through the windshield after it touched me, and I saw blood everywhere. I grabbed the door handle. The truck was still going. I opened the door and got free of my seat belt and jumped."
What would have happened if the gun had been knocked just an inch in another direction? Half an inch? What if Thugwane had not jumped clear of the truck? The vagaries of life sometimes leave overwhelming questions in their wake. There would have been no Atlanta for him five months later, no triumphant inn into the Olympic Stadium at the end of the marathon on that Sunday morning, his arms stretched to the sky, this 5'2", 97-pound man suddenly a symbol of all the emergent hopes of his rehabilitated nation. History! The first black man from South Africa to win a gold medal! There would have been none of that.
Take a look at Thugwane again. Take a look at the entire face this time. This is the face of his country, the face of "the golden boy of South Africa," according to President Nelson Mandela. The innocence is there: Thugwane was a 25-year-old long shot who traveled across years of neglect, generations of change, in a single run of two hours, 12 minutes and 36 seconds through the streets of a faraway land. The confusion is there: Thugwane is an uneducated tribal man brought into a buttoned-down world of commerce and contracts. The pride is there: He is a champion at last, his potential set free by the end of apartheid, by the first open South African elections, in 1994, and by rich resources and opportunities available at last to the bulk of the downtrodden people who live in this land.
Here is the face of the man who beat every other man in the biggest event of the biggest athletics carnival ever held. Here is what South Africa can be, and here is what South Africa is. A groove from a bullet is still the face's most noticeable feature.
"Is it possible to go back to the place where you were attacked, where you are still afraid?" you ask. "Can we see where you lived?"