Although the South African government forbids Arthur Ashe from entering the country for six years for making critical remarks about apartheid, in November 1973, they allow him to come play in a tournament. As they anticipate Ashe’s arrival, Mathabane becomes friends with a fellow player and sharp Zulu student named David. David remarks that if Ashe had made such critical remarks in South Africa, he likely would’ve numbered among the ranks of black activists who mysteriously “commit suicide” in prison, under the supervision of white authorities.
South Africa’s banning of Arthur Ashe demonstrates how little dissent the apartheid government tolerates from black people. Additionally, the rash of mysterious suicides clearly implies that the white government routinely murders black activists and leaders while they are in prison, suggesting that apartheid’s defenders are not only ruthless, but murderous.
Since schools are not allowed to teach black history, David teaches Mathabane about the African National Congress (ANC) liberation movement. The ANC movement began in 1912 and sought the peaceful liberation of all black people in South Africa, following the example of Gandhi. However, the apartheid government refused to even negotiate, and many ANC leaders were driven underground. In Mathabane’s generation, tensions between the government and the ANC run high.
The government’s refusal to teach relevant periods of history not only demonstrates how much control it exerts over black education, but also suggests that the government fears black students having a full knowledge of such history, as it could lead to liberation movements or even revolution.
Even Wilfred is excited about Arthur Ashe’s arrival to South Africa. At the same time, another black boxer named Bob Foster beats a white opponent and, for the first time, the apartheid government allows photos of the fight to be published in the newspapers. However, Mathabane has no interest in boxing and he hates Bob Foster. Unlike Ashe, Foster refuses to speak out against apartheid, criticize the white government, or visit the ghettos, and many black people see him as a traitor, an “Uncle Tom.”
Mathabane’s hatred toward Foster suggests that many black people regard anyone’s refusal to condemn apartheid as an implicit cooperation with it instead. “Uncle Tom” (a reference to Uncle Tom’s Cabin) is a common insult in the latter half of the story, and insinuates that a person hides or betrays their black skin in order to fit into mainstream society.
On the first day of Ashe’s tournament, Mathabane watches him win all of his matches in a packed stadium in Johannesburg. The minority of black spectators are ecstatic, and the mood in the black bus on the way home is overjoyed and energetic.
Like Muhammad Ali’s victory over a white opponent, Ashe’s victories symbolize black people’s ability to achieve and win, even against a white opponent.
However, as the bus drives back into the ghetto toward Alexandra, Mathabane can feel everyone’s spirits fall as they see the rundown buildings and tired faces of black workers. Mathabane wonders how black Americans came to be so successful, and if they are somehow different than black South Africans. He thinks of all the famous black American athletes, writers, musicians, who descended from a slavery more extreme and severe than anything South Africans experienced. Somehow, black South Africans seem stunted as a people, unable to dream or achieve in the same way, which only perpetuates racist ideals of “white supremacy.” Mathabane realizes that he will never be able to truly rise to Ashe’s level of skill as long as he stays in South Africa.
Mathabane’s feeling that black South Africans have been stunted suggests that apartheid’s structural oppression is so effective that it holds an entire majority population from truly expressing itself or demonstrating its capability. Ominously, this suggests that apartheid operates like a fine-tuned machine, a perfect example of calculated and carefully administered racial prejudice. As long as such a system stands, it seems unlikely that Mathabane or other aspiring black people will reach their true height.
Ashe wins his next several days of tournament games, seemingly aware that his performance will reflect on all black athletes’ ability in the minds of white Afrikaners. Mathabane is stuck by Ashe’s confidence while speaking to white people—if someone asks him a question he considers beneath him, he “dismisses” it and says what he wants to say.
Ashe’s ability to dismiss infantile or unimportant questions suggests that he is confident in himself as an intelligent human being who has just as much value as anyone else. Thus, he asserts himself as deserving of white people’s full respect—an attitude that is virtually unheard of in apartheid South Africa.
At the end of the week, Ashe holds a tennis clinic in Soweto for black tennis players. Although Mathabane is not invited as an athlete, Wilfred gives him the fare to go to Soweto anyway to try to see Ashe once again. The train is so packed that people hang out the windows or ride on the roof, which results in several of them being electrocuted or falling to their death. According to the passengers, this is typical—the train is always packed. When Mathabane gets off the train and starts walking to the clinic, he sees a gang of tsotsis robbing and murdering a man “in broad daylight,” so he backtracks and takes a longer route instead.
Mathabane’s trip involves several violent or grotesque deaths, yet he recalls it with with an air of indifference that suggests such horrors are commonplace in South Africa. Where witnessing a murder once caused Mathabane to contemplate suicide, now such deaths seem nearly mundane. Mathabane and everyone else’s indifference suggests that societally, black lives are attributed little value, and the loss of one or two seems insignificant even to black people themselves.
On Mathabane’s way to the clinic, a drunk on the street claims that Arthur Ashe is “a gift,” and Mathabane reflects that he seems a “black messiah sent from strange shores to come liberate us,” to show black people what they can accomplish if they don’t let apartheid tell them who they are. However, when Mathabane finds Ashe standing on a stage, giving a speech, some black protesters tell the athlete to go home—even though they love him, they believe his “presence legitimizes the system.” Ashe loses his last match in South Africa to a white man, but before he leaves, he petitions government leaders to end apartheid in sports, or else international teams will boycott the country. He also states that “black patience” is running out quickly, and that “black moderates [are] turning into radicals and revolutionaries.”
Once again, simply by proving that black people can be exceptional and excel in their field, Ashe becomes a symbol and beacon of hope for black people in South Africa, living proof that they can succeed too. However, the protesters’ belief that Ashe’s “presence legitimizes the system” suggests that they view any interaction with the government at all as implicit cooperation with the apartheid rulers. Ashe’s warning that moderates are radicalizing suggests that the anger of the black community is growing and can only be contained and repressed for so long.
When Ashe leaves, he forms the Black Tennis Foundation (BTF) which entices corporate sponsors to fund and promote black tennis leagues in South Africa. Hoping to get to America, Mathabane writes several letters to Ashe but hears no reply. Several younger players start seeing Mathabane as their role model, but many in Alexandra start to hate and threaten Mathabane for spending time in white communities and playing a white sport, calling him “Uncle Tom.” Mathabane starts being more cautious, but refuses to quit tennis or give up his white friends.
Mathabane’s position as both a role model to some and an “Uncle Tom” to others suggests that the black community is divided. Some, like Mathabane and his mother, see the embrace of certain white institutions like education and sport as inevitable progress. Others, like his father and those who protested Ashe, see any participation in such institutions as a betrayal of the black community. Ironically, those who view Mathabane as a race traitor are implicitly arguing for their own form of segregation from white society and culture.