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Mark Mathabane is born into a poverty-stricken black family in South Africa during the apartheid years. Throughout his childhood, Mark suffers hunger, witnesses violence, and learns to hate and fear whites.
At his mother's insistence, he starts school and promises to stay there. Though he hates it at first, he grows to love learning; it opens another world for him. He is obviously an intelligent young man and quickly rises to the top of the class, despite the fact that the school metes out frequent punishments to Mark because his family is often late paying school fees and can't afford the uniforms and books. When Mark graduates from primary school at the top of the class, he earns a scholarship to pay for secondary school, enabling him to continue his education.
When Mark's grandmother starts working as a gardener for a kind white family, it opens two important doors for Mark: books and tennis. The Smiths send comic books and classics like Treasure Island home with Granny for her grandson. Mark's voracious reading teaches him English. With the tennis racket that the Smiths send, Mark starts hitting a ball around at tennis courts in Alexandra. Soon enough he becomes friends with a black tennis player who starts to train him.
Mark joins the high school tennis team and one of the players introduces him to Wilfred Horn, the owner of the exclusive Tennis Ranch. Mark starts playing tennis at the club and Horn becomes his unofficial sponsor, paying for Mark's entrance fees in tournaments. The Tennis Ranch is dominated by Germans and other European expatriates, rather than white South Africans. It is technically illegal for Mark to be playing there, but everybody ignores the rule. The opportunity gives Mark the chance to become comfortable in the world of whites, to recognize his own fundamental equality with them, and to even confront some of the stereotypes circulating about blacks in white society.
The renowned tennis player Stan Smith takes Mark under his wing when the two meet at tennis courts. (Stan was in the country playing at a tournament.) Stan pays for Mark to participate in the South African Breweries' Open. Mark's decision to play is both personal and political. Because the apartheid government is under pressure to make changes in its policy towards blacks, it tries to make some cosmetic changes by "integrating" sports. Black tennis players decide to boycott the Open, saying they won't be part of efforts to make the apartheid system appear acceptable.
Mark doesn't want to be used by whites either, he wants to make an informed decision. He seeks the opinion of people he respects, and is ultimately advised to participate because it will open doors for him. The black tennis association bans Mark from playing in black tennis for life because he breaks the boycott, but it turns out to be one of the more important decisions Mark makes. Though Mark is censured by the black community for his decision, and though he is breaking the law by traveling to white sections of Johannesburg to play tennis with whites, Mark continues doing what he's doing. Part of the reason he continues is because he knows that earning a tennis scholarship to a college in the U.S. is his only ticket out of South Africa. Though he finds a lucrative job at a bank following graduation, he knows he wants to live in a land where he's free.
Stan Smith talks to his tennis coach at the University of Southern California, who writes to colleges around the U.S. on Mark's behalf. Mark earns a tennis scholarship to Limestone College in South Carolina and leaves for the U.S. in 1978.