Tennis helped ‘Zulu Dreams’ author escape apartheid

Growing up during apartheid in South Africa, Richman Mahlangu discovered that his only way to escape government-sanctioned racism and poverty was to excel at tennis.

Mahlangu, a Henderson resident, serves up his story in his book “Zulu Dreams: From Apartheid to Ivy League.” He is slated to speak and sign books at 1 p.m. Feb. 22 at the 567 N. Stephanie St. Barnes & Noble.

Born in Durban, South Africa, Mahlangu grew up under the oppressive enforcement of apartheid, a system of racial segregation.

He was the youngest of five children raised by a single mother after his father’s death.

“From the time I was 10 I dreamed of escaping the horrors of apartheid,” he said. “I dreamed of going to America and educating myself. People would laugh.”

He decided to focus on school but knew that education alone might not be enough.

“I found a broken tennis racket one day and started hitting a ball on the wall,” he said.

The activity allowed him to escape momentarily from his challenges.

“The sport kept me away from the streets,” he said. “Most kids were drinking and smoking at that age.”

One afternoon, a man named Tim Gray watched Mahlangu play for a few minutes.

“I saw this young 14-year-old, barefoot and armed with an adult racket with more gaps in the frame than strings, but doing his best with a single very bald tennis ball,” Gray said. “His initiative, keenness and determination have been key features of Richman from the moment I first met him.”

He set up a net for Mahlangu to hit the ball over.

“And of course I hit it every other time,” Mahlangu said.

When Gray returned hours later, he found Mahlangu glistening with sweat. Gray made him a deal.

“He said I could come to where he teaches tennis,” Mahlangu said. “If I helped pick up balls on Saturday morning I could get a free half-hour lesson.”

Despite a two-hour bus ride, Mahlangu didn’t want to pass up the opportunity. For two years, Gray taught him.

“My family never saw me,” Mahlangu said. “I would go to school and go practice.”

Gray saw Mahlangu’s skill grow.

“I had obviously quickly realized the interest for the game that my little ball boy possessed,” Gray said.

He invited Mahlangu to an all-white tennis club.

“People squealed a little, but they eventually got over it,” Mahlangu said. “Tennis had few black people in the sport. It was seen as a white man’s sport.”

Mahlangu graduated from high school and got a job at an Austrian tennis camp.

“Even though it wasn’t South Africa, I still felt the stigma of being the only black player,” he said.

While there, he expressed his desire to go to America to obtain an education. One of the coaches had a connection at UNLV and helped Mahlangu connect with the university.

“I thought it was a hoax,” Mahlangu said.

Not only was he admitted to UNLV, he obtained a full-ride scholarship.

“I arrived with three rackets in my bag and $300 in my pocket,” he said.

During one semester at UNLV, Mahlangu’s scholarship was put on hold.

“There was an issue with my senior certificate (from high school),” he said. “I was told if I took 24 credits, I could regain it.”

He borrowed money from friends to complete the semester and earned back his scholarship.

In 1990, only a semester shy of graduating, his scholarship ended. Without any money, Mahlangu decided to return to Europe for the summer to make enough money to pay for the last semester.

However, he had issues returning to the country.

“So I was stuck in Europe,” he said.

He continued to play tennis and eventually met his wife.

In 1995, they returned to Nevada and Mahlangu completed his bachelor’s degree in theater arts and earned a master’s in educational psychology.

“I actually became a massage therapist to pay my way through grad school,” he said.

Now he works as a guidance counselor for Johnson Junior High School, and his children Nicholas and Yannik are in college — one at Harvard and one at Georgetown — on tennis scholarships.

Over the years, Mahlangu would write down bits and pieces of his story. After 30 years, he self-published “Zulu Dreams” on Dec. 17. But he doesn’t want to stop there.

“I want to sell a million copies,” he said. “I want to be featured on ‘Ellen’ or ‘Oprah.’ Oprah built a school in South Africa, so there is a connection there.”

Gray hasn’t received his copy of the book yet, but he looks forward to reading it.

“Words do not adequately describe my admiration for Richie,” he said. “I am proud to know where he has come from. His is a truly remarkable story.”

Mahlangu has already been able to help support his family in South Africa.

“They live in the same house I grew up in,” he said. “It still doesn’t have running water. I want to move them to another area.”

Mahlangu foresees traveling back to his native country to speak with children about overcoming adversity.

“It doesn’t matter what your race or gender is,” he said. “It doesn’t matter if you’re different. You, too, can be successful.”

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Contact Henderson/Anthem View reporter Michael Lyle at or 702-387-5201.

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