By then Coetzee
had come some distance from the boy who had been only dimly aware that he might
have a future as a professional fighter. "I was dumb, stupid," Coetzee
says. "But in 1973 I got into the army [the South African Defense Force]
and fought on the boxing team. The coaches said, 'Why don't you reenlist for
another year and fight under our colors before you become a professional?' I
said, 'What's a professional?' "
for a moment, ransacking his English—he's more fluent in Afrikaans—looking for
the words that will explain the extreme isolation of a country that prohibited
television until 1976, when Gerrie was 20. "We are so far away. South
Africa is the other end of the world from America, the bottom of Africa, right
in the corner of the world. I didn't read newspapers; I thought South Africa
was the biggest country in the world, with the biggest army.
aware of the outside world until I became a professional fighter. When I was
growing up, my mother, my father, my family, we treated people not as to their
color but just as people. We were always open. It didn't matter what color
people were, we didn't notice it, we didn't grow up that way. When I was 14,
all I cared about was rugby and school. If I thought of apartheid, I thought
only, that's life, that's how people live. I wasn't too bright, I guess, but at
that age, we didn't care. Now at 12 or 14, kids are having discussions about
it, but not then.
became a professional fighter, I discovered that in South Africa there was a
different championship for blacks and for whites [a practice that was abolished
in 1976]. It struck me that that wasn't right."
Coetzee spoke out
against apartheid, thus earning the respect and the loyalty of many blacks.
"I have a big following among blacks," he says. "I'm very proud of
that. I get on with them, I feel at ease with them. I can talk to them about
sports, about boxing."
He is driving his
car, and he shifts a little in his seat, back on the tightrope again. "I'm
still proud to be a South African," he says. "I believe the government
is making huge steps toward the right principles. There are changes every day,
life is changing for the better. They are helping people."
As he talks,
Coetzee drives by an abandoned mine, past the high glittering heaps of earth
still waiting to be sifted for deposits of uranium and gold. Across the road is
a compound, surrounded by a chain link fence and patrolled by men in uniform.
Here, black miners imported from Malawi, Botswana, Mozambique and Lesotho, and
working in nearby mines, live in a haze of alcohol and forsaken dignity.
"Everything here," Coetzee says, "is politics. You simply can't get
away from it. Sometimes it makes me nervous just to leave my house."
The questions of
race are clearly ones that Coetzee wishes would just evaporate, but they dog
his every footstep. He would rather not be forced into the role of
standard-bearer for the racial supremacists of white South Africa, but the
racial subtext is always there.
It was there, for
instance, when Cedric Kushner, a former rock promoter who's been Coetzee's
adviser for two years, listened to the unsolicited advice of a publicist who
told him how to put Coetzee before the people. Stay away from the radio call-in
shows, the man told Kushner, where you can get "a lot of blacks calling in,
a lot of idiots calling."
redundant, isn't it?" Kushner had said.