One afternoon, soon after I turned nine, my mother bundled my sister and me into her VW Beetle and drove two miles up the road to an unfamiliar house in our neighborhood. It was a beautiful spring afternoon, the powder blue sky darkening to violet over the Rivonia hills. We parked behind a few other cars and joined a gathering of moms and kids on the unkempt verge outside the property. Clutched in my hands was my autograph album, a small volume with a plasticized white cover bearing the picture of Mickey Mouse. My aunt had given it to me the previous Christmas, and so far the only entries were a few clichéd verses from my grandmother and her friends and a rude rhyme about wee-wee scrawled in by my cousin Melissa.
We had come to meet Big John Tate, the U.S. contender for WBA world heavyweight champion. And I was going to get his signature whether he liked it or not.
* * *
It was October 1979, and an African-American, Big John Tate, was in South Africa to fight our white local hero, Gerrie Coetzee. For our sport-obsessed nation starved of international competition, the fight was momentous. Even as a girl I was swept up in the delirium—the atmosphere in the classroom was electric. For all our lives, the international community had shunned our country—isolated it—but now it was as though a bright light had suddenly been turned in our direction and we were prancing around in its glare.
"We are just going to show those Americans! Gerrie's going to thump him!" the boys resoundingly assured each other, echoing their fathers.
My father, however, who always knew more about anything than anyone, explained to me that Tate was here to determine who was heavyweight champion, as the title had been left vacant following the retirement of Muhammad Ali.
"Muhammad who?" I asked.
Dad grinned and went on to tell me about the great, irreverent, genius Ali, who had danced like a butterfly, stung like a bee. I had never paid much heed to boxing before, but this phrase and its attendant imagery entranced me. And there was something else exciting about the bout. We, as a family, were behind Tate, our support reflecting the complex position many liberal South Africans found themselves in. We loved our country, but my parents reviled the policies of the apartheid government, and their sentiments had inevitably rubbed off on their daughters. Gerrie Coetzee, an Afrikaner and the poster boy of the Nationalists, was a complete antihero to us.
And then we heard that Big John Tate was actually staying in Bryanston, our suburb. The Group Areas Act, which prevented blacks and whites from living in the same neighborhoods, did not seemingly apply to Coetzee's world-famous American opponent, or else the authorities, in their desperation for the fight, were just ignoring the transgression.
"And he is happy to meet fans," someone told my mom while she was out shopping for groceries at Pick 'n Pay. "If he sees you waiting, he might come out."
And so, on that particular afternoon, there we were, impatiently peering through the eight-foot-high wrought-iron gates.
Big John Tate appeared at last and strolled up the drive. He was flanked (unnecessarily, one imagines) by a couple of minders. He wore shorts and a yellow T-shirt with his name emblazoned across the back. Big was not an apt description. He was colossal. He smiled at us through the bars but did not actually unlock the gate, so we pressed in closer, the small group of moms, the boys and girls, the children inevitably barefoot. Perhaps we applauded and perhaps we didn't. I cannot actually tell you, for in that moment I was sucked into that vortex that swirls around celebrity. A few kids found the courage to approach him. He signed their scraps of paper, with the unwieldy discomfort of the adult illiterate, but otherwise he was smiling, affable, a gentle giant. The moms chatted to him, said they hoped he was having a nice time in South Africa, wished him luck.
"Go on," my mother said, "don't be shy now."
I shuffled forward, proffered my Mickey Mouse autograph book and a pen. Big John Tate grinned and took the book with his enormous hand. He signed a page, then maneuvered the book back through the bars toward me.
"That OK?" he asked.
I nodded, managed a whispered thank-you. I could not believe it.
Big John Tate had a real American accent! I wished he would speak again.
A week later, on October 20, 1979, Big John Tate defeated Gerrie Coetzee at Loftus Versfeld Stadium before a crowd of 80,000 people. It was the first time in South African history that people of all colors had been allowed to sit together in the audience. I was thrilled. This was how it was supposed to be: the American hero rolling into town and vanquishing the bad guy. That the bad guy was a fellow South African made no difference. To a nine-year old growing up in a country of contradiction, Big John Tate's win proved there was justice in the world.
Roll forward thirty-five years to last week. It was almost Midsummer's Day and I was taking my dog for a long walk near our home in Connecticut. Sunlight glinted off the inlet of Five Mile River, and at one point we passed a split-rail fence covered in exultant New Dawn roses. I was listening to a book on tape, half-concentrating on the rather monotonous narrative voice and half-concentrating on my irritating tugging dog, when the words "Limburger sandwich" fell like a meteorite out of the story into my consciousness, and in an instant I was thrown back to 1980, to a poolside in Johannesburg.
I am lying face down on a towel, which in turn has been spread out on a patch of grass. Huge thunderheads pile up into a sky that, truth be told, is far higher than any sky I shall see later in my life when I no longer live at these latitudes, at this altitude. My hair lies across my shoulders, stiff and sweet with chlorine. Open before me is a comic—Archie. And Jughead, my favorite character, is once again eating Limburger on rye.
I am at Jenny's house: Jenny, unappreciatively blessed owner of stacks of comics, which lie in neat towers on the lower bookshelf in her bedroom. Jenny and her sisters like to read them, but I, a prolific, obsessive devourer of the written word, take to them like crack cocaine.
Jenny and her sisters swim laps of the pool, play Marco Polo, practice tumble turns beneath the glittering blue, but I lie there until my eyes hurt and my fingers have turned dark with ink from turning the splashed pages. I might be lying somewhere near the end of the African continent, but for a few hours I am entirely caught up in Riverdale, in this two-dimensional wholesome American town of pranks, romantic misunderstandings, and good-heartedness. It is oddly familiar but also entirely foreign—like looking into a mirror that distorts your image just enough for you to recognize it is you but also to see it is not you at all. Archie and his friends speak English, but they also inhabit a world of Limburger cheese, soda fountains, and jalopies—exotic mysteries I cannot begin to comprehend. And that is before I even reach the last few pages in the comic and get to stare at the wonders entirely beyond our grasp.
Do you want to see through people's clothes with Amazing and GUARANTEED X-Ray Specs?
I most certainly do!
Then send $1 with a mail-order coupon.
"No," my mom says adamantly later that day. "They won't accept rands."
South Africa, 1980. Apartheid still has another decade to run its course, and only a few miles away, lives are lived in extraordinary opposition to our own. As ten-year olds we are aware of it, of the yellow police vans that patrol the streets, of the gross injustices; but we are also unaware. We forget; we live. We pretend we are mermaids, we play netball, we climb trees and roller skate and explore the veld around our houses. And once a year, in winter, we gather in our living rooms to watch Wimbledon. As English-speaking South Africans, we are all connected to the UK, not just through our blood but through our inherited culture. Britain is both something familiar, something to be proud of, and also unreal, with its queen and castles and purportedly endless rain.
And as for the holidaying British we meet, they are real softies, we think. On one camping trip, I befriend an English boy who erupts in repulsive blisters after a mere day in the sun. And unlike us, with our ubiquitous bare feet, they insist on wearing sandals all the time, even with socks! We find it ridiculous, and perhaps even more so because, in the guise of entertainment, another culture is exerting its influence upon us.
In 1976, when I was six years old, the apartheid government relented: TV was finally allowed in South Africa, despite their fears it would contaminate our minds. The excitement was palpable, and it did not take long for my parents to buy one.
It was a thing of wonder, our first television, despite the greenish cast of the picture. Cased in a huge brown wooden box, it dominated our living room. Shows were initially broadcast for two hours each evening, between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., and English and Afrikaans alternated nightly. We watched all the children's programming—what little there was—and sometimes I would turn on the screen during the day just to stare at the no-transmission signal, a colorful clock-like motif accompanied by an insistent drone.
By 1978, a new word had entered our vocabulary: Dallas. All the parents were obsessed, and for a while it seemed as though it was all they could talk about. I made my mother recount the story line in detail; I wanted to know everything about Southfork, the wonderful Bobby, the beautiful Pamela, and in particular the machinations of J. R. Ewing. Thursday night, traditionally maids' night off in Johannesburg, was transformed from being one of boredom (as with no on-site babysitting, parents actually had to stay at home with their children) to one highly anticipated.
And it was not only the parents who were discovering the joys of American shows. From 1976 until 1993 the British Actors' Equity Association refused to sell programming to SABC (the South African Broadcasting Corporation) in protest of apartheid. SABC needed content to fill its new airtime, and, in response, the great American circus rolled into town.
As kids, we were hooked. Bye-bye boring old Haas Das se Nuuskas, and hello Bonanza! And you, too, Brady Bunch family and then Lassie, Starsky and Hutch, The Little House on the Prairie, Knight Rider, and The A-Team. One of my classmates broke his big toe in his frenetic scamper out of the bath to watch the latest episode of Battlestar Galactica. Everything about America was desirable—the good guys always won, there were great car chases (or horse chases or wagon chases or motorbike chases or spaceship chases, depending on which show you were watching). The sun shone over the Pacific Ocean. People were friendly and ate burgers, and nobody, nobody ever wore socks with sandals. Yes, we loved James Bond, and as girls we all fantasized about being Princess Diana (but married to Prince Andrew). I had spent my early years on a hundred imaginary picnics with the Famous Five, eating rounds of sandwiches and lashings of ginger ale and an entire chocolate cake on damp Welsh hillsides, but when Christopher Reeve emerged from the revolving door as Superman in 1979 and caught Lois in midair as she plummeted from the Daily Planet skyscraper, my South African heart flashed red, white, and blue.
Now when I look back on it, the Nationalist government was probably right to fear television, for it did put ideas into our heads. That hearty American self-confidence, the ideology of truth, justice, and the American way that was reiterated in every piece of Americana we came across, from Laura Ingalls's frontier, to Archie Andrews's high school, and in the very real win of Big John Tate. We weren't American but we absorbed the message nonetheless; it cast a bright light on everything that South Africa at the time was not. For a generation of children consciously or even subconsciously cognizant of being heirs to a nation poisoned by injustice and deceit, this can only have been a good thing.
And what of Big John Tate? After a post-championship life riddled by cocaine addiction, petty crime, and obesity, he died of his injuries following a car accident in April 1989. Less than a year later, Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and South Africa began its own journey toward truth and reconciliation. Tate, who had grown up in poverty and never learned to read or write, was silent on the subject of apartheid. In response to his title fight in Pretoria, he was blacklisted by the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid and placed on the Register of Sports Contacts with South Africa. But to South Africans of all colors opposed to the apartheid regime, John Tate was a hero, and truly as big as they come.