The Power of One

I was a child of Africa, a white child to be sure, but nevertheless Africa's child. The black breasts that had suckled me and the dark hands that had bathed and rocked me had left me with a burden of obligation to resist the white power that would be the ultimate gift from those who now trained me.
  — Peekay

The Power of One is a novel by Bryce Courtenay, first published in 1989. Set in South Africa during the 1930s and 1940s, it tells in first person the story of an boy of English descent who, through the course of the story, acquires the nickname of Peekay.


Spoiler warning

The protagonist of the story spent his first 5 years on poor rural farm belonging to his England born grandfather. His Zulu nanny has made sure understood the ways of the people. But his world is turned upside down when his mother has a nervous breakdown as has to go away. So it was arranged that he would attend a Afrikaner boarding school, where not only is he the youngest student, but also the only "Rooinek" (literally "rednecks", Afrikaans slang for the British) in the school. If that was not enough, he developed a chronic bed-wetting problem. This all combined to result in such heavy bullying that he began to think his real name was his given nickname "Pisskop" (pisshead in Afrikaans). His real name is never revealed in the book.

Two years later he is summoned home for good, but due to Newcastle disease his family had returned to the East Transvaal town of Barberton, where they lived before he was born. This required him to travel via train. But this required him to have his first pair of shoes (rail company rules). When he told the shopkeeper his name was Pisskop, the shopkeeper took pity on him and rechristened him P.K. (Peekay).

On the Trip he met a welterweight boxer, Hoppie Groenewald; who gave Peekay a maxim that will stay with him forever:"First with the head, then with the heart". And he also witnessed Hoppie win a match against a tremendously large light heavyweight in a boxing match. Which showed Peekay that little can defeat big though foundation of his power of one.

Unfortunately the home coming was not a happy one, for while his mother had returned, she had come back a born-again christian, who had fired his nanny when she refused to convert. Peekay could not bring himself to see his mother's new beliefs so remained at constant odds with her, including over the fact he acknowledged no name but Peekay.

But there were bright spots in his new life, first he becomes friends with the man who later becomes his tutor, the German professor of music and amateur botanist Karl von Vollensteen, who introduces himself as Doc, and the town librarian, Mrs. Boxall.

Southland Concerto: What fans of the book consider the saving grace of the movie adaption.

However, just as World War II begins, Doc is arrested for failing to register as an enemy alien in wartime. Doc is sentenced to stay in prison for the duration of the war, and Peekay regularly visits him in prison. The kommandant (commander) of the prison, a Boer who greatly admires German culture, gives Doc preferential treatment and allows him to keep a cactus garden in the courtyard.

Through these persons Peekey learnt to box, but he also was exposed to the darker side of white dominated South Africa. With the Doc's and Mrs. Boxall's help he started to covertly improve the lives of the prisoners. As a result, many of the prisoners start calling Peekay the mystical name Onoshobishobi Ingelosi, the Tadpole Angel.

The legend followed him when he won a scholarship to the prestigious Prince of Wales School in Johannesburg, for his secondary school education. There he continues both his boxing, and his resistance to the growing Apartheid movement with his new best friend Hymie Levy (called Morrie Levy in the American publication of the novel), the son of a Jewish millionaire.

The spanking scenesEdit

Peekay was beaten daily with a sjambok in his first boarding school by the school matron for wetting his bed.

Near the end of stay at the first boarding school his teacher punished him with a ruler for math error, which resulted in him breaking cover and showing how advanced he was. This triggered a nervous break down in the teacher, and she started really beating him with the ruler till she drew blood, the school covered up the incident when the doctor came to tend to him.

When he first started defying his mother when they were reunited she tried to use spanking as a punishment, which left him unfazed as it was nothing compared to what he revealed had happened to him at the original boarding school.

During his time at the prison he witnessed judicial corporal punishment of the prisoners.

When he went to his second boarding school Peekay ran afoul of the fag system, and was caned by his prefect for stealing a cream bun.

See alsoEdit


  • UK hardback edition ISBN 0-434-14612-9
  • US paperback edition ISBN 0-345-35992-5
  • Children's adaptation ISBN 0-141-30489-8