At the tender age of five, our hero is sent to boarding school from the South African farm where he lives with his grandpa because his mom has a nervous breakdown. Gee, thanks Mom. While he's there, the other boys torture him for being English (they're Afrikaners). South Africa was colonized by two warring groups: the English and the Dutch, and their descendants haven't quite gotten over the bad blood at this point—even the kids learn to dislike each other. As a result of the bullying, the poor guy develops a bed-wetting problem.
The ringleader of the bullies is a kid called the Judge who has a swastika tattoo on his arm and promises to turn Peekay over to Hitler when he makes it to South Africa. This kid sounds like a real charmer. He also kills Peekay's pet chicken, which scars him for life (really).
On a train home, Peekay meets Hoppie Groenewald, a boxer who teaches Peekay that little can beat big, and Peekay decides he will become the welterweight champion of the world. Even though he doesn't know how to box. Hey, a kid can dream.
When he gets to the town where his family now lives, Peekay's mother has sent his nanny away for being a heathen (she's become a born-again Christian). Peekay's pretty mad about that, but luckily he meets a German music professor called Doc, who teaches him about nature and piano. Doc gets thrown in jail for being an unregistered alien (not the kind from space, though that would be an awesome plot twist), and Peekay goes to visit him every day for piano lessons. He also starts boxing with the prison team. His coach, Geel Piet, is a long-time prisoner who is half-white, half-black, and recognizes Peekay's potential.
Over time Peekay, Doc, and Geel Piet build up a black market where they bring in tobacco, salt, and sugar to the prison, and also have a letter-writing service, which is highly illegal, and makes Peekay famous among the African prisoners. They nickname him the Tadpole Angel. An evil guard, Lieutenant Borman, kills Geel Piet when he finds him carrying letters, but luckily Geel Piet didn't tell on Peekay for bringing them in.
Doc finally gets out of jail, and Peekay gets a scholarship to a fancy boarding school in the city. While he's there he starts training with a professional boxing coach, and he also learns how to make money by running gambling scams with his new best friend, Morrie. It seems like for Peekay, crime actually does pay—but don't go getting any ideas now.
While he's training, Peekay gets roped into a fight against a black boxer, Gideon Mandoma, who turns out to be Nanny's son. The people want to know if the Tadpole Angel is their leader, and when he beats Gideon after a hard fight, he confirms that he is.
Peekay tries for a scholarship to go to Oxford University, but he doesn't get it, which is the first loss he's had in many, many years. So he decides to go work in the copper mines to make a ton of money for college. He takes a really dangerous job and makes tons and tons of money, but one day he gets into an awful accident. After he's recovered, another miner that he's never seen before attacks him. It turns out to be the Judge, the mean bully who killed his chicken at school. He's still got it out for Peekay? Sheesh, this dude needs to move on.
Peekay fights the Judge, who is still big and mean but is no match for Peekay's amazing boxing skills. He takes him down, and then he carves his initials and a Union Jack flag over the swastika. He feels like a new man after taking revenge. And with that violent and bloody triumph, the story ends.