Peekay, speaking as an adult, traces his life from the age of five up until the age of seventeen. Although he usually portrays events as they are experienced, the older voice of Peekay occasionally steps in with an intrusive, ironic comment. Since Peekay's mother suffers from a nervous breakdown, he is brought up by his black Zulu nanny, Mary Mandoma, until he is sent to an Afrikaans boarding school at the age of five. Peekay's Englishness creates great problems for him at school, where the older, Afrikaans boys treat him brutally. Peekay's traumatic childhood informs his character later in life-although he blossoms into a hero, an almost-perfect character, his childhood haunts him and leaves him with a deep-set insecurity and vulnerability. This vulnerability, which he shares with the reader, as well as his cheeky sense of humor (at one point he tells Doc that the composer W. C. Handy sounds like a "lavatory brush") ultimately makes him a likable hero with whom we can identify. Although Peekay undergoes many extraordinary adventures--many of which bring him face to face with the perpetrators of racism and apartheid in South Africa (such as Borman in the Barberton prison)--he is not a self-righteous hero. He is distinguished by the traits of extreme generosity and a love for people of all types of races, but he rarely passes judgment on others. Moreover, he does have the ability to do the wrong thing. He represents a kind of morality that is self-constructed: instead of following his mother's strict, religious tenets of good and evil, Peekay develops his own values. In spite of-or perhaps because of-Peekay's horrific youth, he becomes a "winner." He excels at boxing, not losing a match throughout the novel, and the book ends with his admittance to Oxford University. Peekay's mentors, Doc and Mrs. Boxall, claim that he is a genius, while the black South Africans in the novel hail him as the Tadpole Angel, a chief who has come to lead them out of white oppression. Peekay's unusual name is given to him by a Jewish man, Harry Crown, as a more sanitary version of the name the Judge gave him-"Pisskop" (pisshead). This is a sign of how Peekay is constructed by those around him-the concept with which Peekay struggles the most is the elusive idea of "the power of one." He battles against the idea of depending on others, and seeks personal independence in all aspects of his life.
Even though Doc, an old drunkard German music teacher, represents the world of logic and rationality, he understands the mystical side of life at the same time. In Chapter Nineteen Peekay summarizes his character: "Doc was calm and reason and order." However, Doc tells Peekay that when truth is not at stake, it is better to choose mystery above logic. Doc's relationship with Peekay begins when they meet in the hills behind Peekay's home in Barberton-Doc moved to South Africa from Germany fifteen years previously, and his speech is sprinkled with German words, and bizarre words of his own invention (such as "absoloodle"). Doc loves coffee, but he loves Johnny Walker whisky even more. Doc was a famous concert pianist in Germany, but during a concert in Berlin in 1925 he froze up while playing Beethoven's Symphony Number Five, and has been terrified to play every since. Doc becomes Peekay's piano teacher, general mentor, and best friend.
Doc gets arrested and has to spend the years during World War II in the Barberton prison since he did not ever register as a foreign alien. The first assumption of the town, however, is that he must be a German spy. Doc is nothing of the sort, and he thus represents the ultimate impossibility of pigeonholing a person according to their exterior identity. He continues to mentor Peekay while in prison, and he barters giving piano concerts (something which he hates doing) in order to be allowed to see Peekay each day. He tells Peekay that he loves him more than his life. Once Doc is liberated from prison, he and Peekay return to their roaming about the Barberton hills. One of Doc's chief hobbies is to document different kinds of cacti, and he teaches Peekay all of the prolific Latin nomenclatures. Together Doc and Peekay discover the "crystal cave of Africa," where Doc takes himself to die. Doc's death has a great impact on Peekay, who is only accustomed to brutal death. Peekay describes his and Doc's love for one another as "so fierce that it burned like a flame inside of us." Doc teaches Peekay confidence, a love of music, a love of learning, a love of Africa, and how to conquer his fears.
Geel Piet (Yellow Peter) is a Cape Colored man who works at the Barberton prison. He becomes Peekay's boxing coach and teaches Peekay his famous egiht- punch combination. Geel Piet is most important, however, in that he teaches Peekay how to box rather than fight and Peekay calls him an "artist." Geel Piet is the only non-white character in the novel whom Peekay does not romanticize. Peekay sees Geel Piet for what he is-a criminal, a conniver, a generous friend, and a stellar boxing coach. Geel Piet introduces Peekay to the shadowy world of prison black markets and together they keep the prisoners with a supply of tobacco, letters, and sugar. Geel Piet acts as a foil to Peekay in that he is described as a "limbo man"-the man between white and black, the true man of Africa, liked by no one, despised by all. Peekay, too, represents all sides. He is the mediator between the English and Afrikaans boys at school in Barberton; the Afrikaans boxers call him a "proper boer" while his hordes of black supporters believe that he is one of their chiefs, come to avenge them and challenge the white government. Geel Piet is brutally murdered by one of the prison warders, Borman, and thus becomes Peekay's first direct experience with the horrors of pre-apartheid racism.