Much of The Power of One is based on Bryce Courtenay's own life. Courtenay was an illegitimate child, born in 1933 in South Africa. He was raised amidst black South Africans in an isolated homestead in the Lebombo Mountains. At five years of age, he was sent to a boarding school, which was a mixture between a reform school and an orphans' home. Here he learned how to box in order to survive. He then moved to Barberton in the North Eastern part of South Africa and met a German music teacher called Doc, who was perpetually drunk. Courtenay and Doc spent much time wandering in the African bush together. Courtenay attended a prestigious private high school, and then studied journalism at an English university. He was banned from returning to South Africa since he had initiated a weekend school for black people at his high school. He fell in love with an Australian woman, Benita, while studying in England and he followed her to Sydney, where they were married. They now have three sons and two grandsons. Courtenay began to write at the age of fifty-five, after a long and highly successful career in advertising. The Power of One, published in 1989, was the first of his many best-selling novels. He has written two other novels about South Africa-the sequel to The Power of One, called Tandia, and a short novel called The Night Country. He has written three novels set in Australia-The Potato Factory, Jessica, and April Fool's Day. April Fool's Day is a tribute to his son Damon, who died of Haemophilia. Courtenay has even written a book set in Russia, The Family Frying Pan. His latest novel, Smoky Joe's Café is soon to be in bookstores.
The political background of The Power of One is unmistakably World War II and the beginning of the apartheid era in South Africa. Although the term 'apartheid' was only coined in 1948, white supremacy existed on a wide scale in South Africa long before. The first half of the 1900s was characterized by the segregation of different racial and socio-economic groups. The wealthy, technologically sophisticated British South Africans and the less well-off Afrikaner farmers or "boers" were separated; and the various black tribes of South Africa and all whites in positions of power were also kept apart. Conflict had existed between the British and the Afrikaners since the time of the Anglo-Boer War, which was fought between 1899 and 1902. An army of 500,000 British fought against a clan of 87,000 Boers. Although the Boers won some of the earlier battles, they ultimately lost to the British, who created the world's first concentration camps, in which 26,000 Boers died. Fourteen thousand black people died in separate camps formed by the British. The resultant hatred between the Boers and the British grew into a political split in 1914: the Afrikaner Nationalists formed their own party called the National Party (NP) while the British continued to lead the ruling South Africa Party (SAP).
During World War I, the NP supported Germany, while the SAP supported the Allies. This increased tensions. Economic instability caused by the Great Depression in 1934 compelled the two parties to reunite as the United Party (UP), but by the late 1930s (when The Power of One begins) Afrikaner Nationalism was awakening again. D.F. Malan formed the Purified National Party, which was closely linked to the ex-parliamentary, radical group called the Oxwagon Guard. The Oxwagon Guard shared Hitler's Nazi beliefs in racial purity. Although the SAP initiated some racist laws before the 1930s (such as the Land Act of 1913, which forbade black people from buying land outside of specific areas, and the Urban Areas Act of 1923, which prevented black people from living in towns where they were not needed by whites), it was D.F. Malan's National Party that began to escalate the racist laws. During the war, however, cheap black labor was in demand in the cities, and the laws were less strenuous. In the 1948 government elections, Jan Smuts and his United Party lost and D.F. Malan and the Nationalists seized power. D.F. Malan began to institutionalize his brainchild called 'apartheid' ('apartness' in Afrikaans), which was advertised as a way of helping each South African race to develop independently. This was merely a front for a brutal and sinister regime which gave whites complete dominion over South Africa, and forced black people (who made up eighty-seven% of the population) to live in a mere 13% of the land. During the 1950s, a number of laws set the apartheid system in motion. In 1950, the Group Areas Act made it illegal for whites and blacks to live together in residential areas. The pass laws introduced a nine o' clock curfew for black South Africans, and forced them to carry passes with them at all times. Lack of a pass could justify arrest. It was only towards the end of the 1980s, due to the efforts of F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela, that apartheid began to be dismantled. The Nationalists essentially dominated the country for fifty years, treating not only its black citizens, but also its Indian and "colored" citizens with extreme violence and brutality.
After some reflection Peekay realizes that he possesses the "physical and intellectual equipment" needed to survive the school system
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