Mandela's lasting counterpunch
Nelson Mandela Dies At 95
I never met Nelson Mandela, but I stood outside his house with a hundred others in the barbed-wire ghetto of Soweto in 1995, one year after his election, wondering whether we might glimpse the great man.
Then I spent three days in that massive slum and saw what Mandela was up against. I saw it through the prism of sports in Soweto then, or what passed for sports.
Twenty dilapidated basketball courts for a part of Johannesburg that had 1.3 million people, half of whom were younger than 18.
There was a golf course called "Soweto Country Club," so hard-baked and tattered you were allowed to drive your car on its fairways.
Three thousand kids crammed like sticks of gum into Soweto's one public swimming pool.
No recreation centers, unless you count the mattress some kids had hauled out of the dump and were turning flips on.
This was Soweto then: I was taken to a softball field, one of the few in the entire sweltering city. Or rather, they told me, it used to be a softball field, until one morning the teams arrived and found a family living on third base. By the end of the day, four families had put up ramshackle houses on the infield. By the end of the month, 200.
Only two sports hung on in Soweto then, the cheapest sports of all -- soccer and boxing.
Soweto could not afford sports. Soweto could barely afford food. Soweto was fighting the underground battle Mandela was leading for freedom, for equality, for the right to learn English, for the right to vote, for the simple right to start their own businesses. The apartheid government had provided almost no money for infrastructure, for protection, for roads.
No wonder Soweto was boiling over with anger.
To be a white man in Soweto then was putting one's life on knife's edge. They told us not to buckle our seat belts: Makes it easier to jump out of the car on the very good chance it was carjacked. We could not eat in restaurants for fear of being robbed or killed: We ate in people's homes. And we needed to be through the barbed-wire fence by sunset -- or else.
Nearly two decades later, as Soweto celebrates Mandela's epic life after his death on Thursday, sport blooms.
There are hundreds of basketball courts in Soweto now, so many that, in 2009, one of the officials trying to grow the game, Jackie Masenya, lamented to The Sowetan newspaper, "I always get upset when I drive around Soweto to see basketball courts empty."
There are at least a half-dozen golf courses in the city now. Soweto Country Club even has actual grass on it. The first Soweto Festival of Golf happened in April, and the winner was Musiwalo Nethunzwi, 24, born one year before Mandela was freed.
There is a Soweto Tennis Open now, 4 years old, held each year at the Arthur Ashe Tennis Center.
Even the pariah sport -- rugby, the very symbol of white oppression in Soweto -- has taken hold. There is a Soweto Rugby Tournament now. There are even three black faces in the team picture this year of the perennial world power -- and once despised -- South African Springboks.
The two most popular sports, though, remain soccer and boxing, maybe because the man who brought all this unthinkable change, Mandela himself, was a boxer. To keep his body and his sanity during his 18 years at Robben Island prison, he trained for boxing in his small cell, as he had in the 1950s at a Soweto gym.
"I was intrigued by how ... one used a strategy both to attack and retreat," he once wrote, "how one paced oneself over a match."
The match is over now. The boxer rests.
Nelson Mandela, the former South African president and anti-apartheid icon, died at the age of 95.
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