How Mandela Stuffed Up South African Sport

The following is a speech delivered by Dougie Oakes at the ‘Second South African Sports History Conference’ at Stellenbosch University. THE SPEECH: THIS IS an address about a fallacy that took root just before and after the 1995 Rugby World Cup tournament. It is about a fallacy that ceded control of a game in which only white players could aspire to play for their country to the VERY people who devised the segregated and then rigid apartheid rules which governed who could play where. It is about a fallacy that led to the betrayal of thousands of black rugby players who had fought so hard for non-racialism against a regime that was prepared to torture and kill its opponents. It is about a fallacy that was built on something that wasn’t real – a ‘rainbow nation’ … and on mumbo-jumbo, called ‘Madiba Magic’. Nelson Mandela did many good things for South Africa, an example being his attempts to guide South Africans towards reconciliation. But he also made some terrible errors of judgment. In this respect, one of his worst decisions was to agree, with his inner circle of advisors to pick up the tab for South Africa’s apartheid debt. Another mistake was to give white South Africans a free pass into international sport – without asking them to make a single sacrifice. Black South Africans are still paying the price for this largesse today. Let’s be quite clear about this: Apartheid, and its predecessor, Segregation, were wonderful policies – for those who were white. They were even better for those who played a sport such as rugby. Both formed part – at different times, of course – of the ultimate quota system. Playing under the emblem of the Springbok, life could not have been better for white South African sportsmen and women, and spectators…. Ladies and gentlemen, I’d like to beg your indulgence as I digress for a few moments to show what white sport was like – and why it deserved no sympathy from those at the head of the changing of the guard. I want to take you via this address on a journey some of you have probably been on before – on the lush canvass of white sport in the era of apartheid. I’d like to give you a black perspective of this journey. I want to show you why Mandela erred badly to allow the Springbok emblem to be retained by white rugby and why allowing the white South African Rugby Board to maintain control of the game in South Africa are key reasons why transformation has NOT taken place. A small number of black players being pushed through a narrow pipeline of so-called ‘traditional’ rugby schools can NEVER be described as transformation. It is ASSIMILATION. Today, black players, whether they like it or not, are part of a national body that glorifies a history of the Springbok that is tied to apartheid, to players who supported apartheid, and to officials who for a long time arrogantly told their counterparts in other countries who could and could not be chosen in their touring sides to South Africa. To be part of this structure is to be at one with people who even today admire the 1960s Springbok Centre, Mannetjies Roux, for kicking an anti-apartheid protester during a pitch invasion of a match in the Springbok tour of the UK. It is to be at one with the fawning comments of Supersport commentators relating to the wonderful rivalry between white Springboks and the All Blacks over many decades. I feel sick when these same commentators say things such as ‘since our return to international sport’. The truth is that even the conservative old farts who ran the game in countries such as England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, France, Australia and New Zealand, who supported the Springboks through thick and thin, were eventually forced to join the rest of the world in isolating South Africa. Ladies and gentlemen, let me start my journey… IN THE early 1980s I walked across the lush, green grass of Coetzenberg at this University – on my way to a meeting with a man whom the majority of white South Africans referred to as ‘Mr Rugby’. It was not a happy get-together. But it was something that had to take place. Both of us had issues we needed to get off our chest. Daniel Hartman Craven did not like me. And I didn’t like him. To say our meeting was hostile would have been an understatement. We faced each other across the biggest boardroom table I’d ever seen, with only a cup of coffee each and a plate of Eet-Sum-Mor and Romany Creams separating us. From his position at the head of the table, Craven glared at me before launching straight onto the attack… ‘You’re Sacos,’ he growled, pointing a stubby, accusing finger at me. ‘Sacos is not interested in sport. It wants to destroy South Africa,’ he said. I grimaced, then smiled. What he suggested was true in one respect. I strongly supported the principles espoused by the anti-apartheid SA Council on Sport. Yes, I believed in the Sacos mantra of ‘no normal sport in an abnormal society’. But destroying a country? ‘No, No, No,’ I countered, ‘all Sacos wants to do is destroy apartheid in sport.’ And then I accused him of supporting apartheid. He denied this vehemently. ‘I’m against apartheid but I’m for tradition,’ he said in the course of vigorously defending his position. I laughed. He became angry And so it went on. Accusations were met with counter-accusations. He shouted. I was calm. Th e old boy could see nothing wrong with the SA Rugby Board. I argued there was nothing right with them. Finally, we called a truce – and over more coffee we decided to agree to disagree. Craven lived in a world where ‘Malays’ (as he said) used to come to Newlands where they’d support Western Province from their ‘Non-Europeans’ corner. To Craven, this was the way it had always been. This was the way it would always be…. His views were the epitome of white paternalism. There are two things worth remembering about the South African Rugby Board: Firstly, it was a whites-only body from the time it was launched in 1889. Secondly, Afrikaners took to the game with remarkable ease. When the first all-white rugby team toured the UK in 1906, it was led by a deeply conservative Afrikaner teacher named Paul Roos who, later became a National Party MP for Stellenbosch. Because he refused to travel on a Sunday he took his bicycle with him to matches in Johannesburg so that he could cycle the 70km back to his home in Rustenburg before Saturday midnight. Roos’s team – he is credited with having named them the Springboks – were as determined to ensure that even their opponents in the UK adhered to their policy of all-white teams, as Brendan Gallagher of the UK newspaper The Telegraph wrote in 2006: “One hundred years ago a brilliant flyhalf, James ‘Darkie’ Peters, should have been running out with England in front of 40 000 spectators at Crystal Palace to play against the first Springbok touring side. Instead, he was left fuming back home in Plymouth, putting in an extra shift as a carpenter at the Devonport naval dockyards to sweat off his anger and humiliation.” In the bowels of the changing rooms, in an earlier game, a huge row broke out when tourists belatedly noticed Peters and were seething at his presence on the pitch. Initially, they refused to play but eventually the South African High Commissioner and local dignitaries, who feared a riot if the game was cancelled, persuaded Roos and his team to play, albeit under protest. The enraged South Africans reacted by playing brilliantly and ran out 22-6 winners. In 1921, the Springboks, as they were now known, toured New Zealand, where they came up against a New Zealand Maori team. George Nepia, the legendary All Black, described the match in his autobiography as ‘more than just rugby. It was racial conflict’. The South Africans won by a single point, but one of the South African journalists, CWF Blackett, who had accompanied the team on tour, wrote in a local newspaper, the ‘Napier Daily Telegraph’, that ‘it was bad enough having to play a team officially designated as New Zealand natives, but the spectacle of thousands of Europeans frantically cheering on a band of coloured men to defeat members of their own race was too much for the Springboks, who were frankly disgusted.’ Blackett’s report caused an outcry in New Zealand, but just seven years later – in 1928 – the All Black selectors caved in to South African demands of ‘when in Rome, do as the Romans do’, by picking a whites-only team. All other countries were happy to abide by this rule. Rugby in South Africa was claimed as a white-man’s sport even though the first national controlling body for black players was formed less than a decade after the formation of the SA Rugby Board. At the same time Afrikaner cultural groups began looking at ways to usurp the game in South Africa. For a long time, Afrikaner players and even some administrators bought into the notion of rugby uniting white Afrikaans- and English-speakers. But groups such as the Broederbond wanted Afrikaner Nationalists to take complete control of the game, and with it the country – on Afrikaner Nationalist terms. Their chance came in 1948 when DF Malan’s National Party won the first post-Second World War poll, edging out the tired United Party of the equally tired and out-of-touch (in white eyes, anyway) Jan Smuts. Rigid apartheid was the aim of Malan and his party. Any loopholes which might have let, say, a coloured player into a white team, which would have resulted in racial mixing of spectators or the sharing of ablution or eating facilities were quickly closed. The white electorate loved what was first promised and then given to them. This was exactly what they wanted. Life on the sports fields at home or on those of their traditional rivals could not be better. And yet … and yet, trouble was brewing. In the 1960s, New Zealand rugby authorities began asking why they couldn’t pick their best players to tour South Africa – meaning, ‘why can we not pick Maoris’? It was left to the South African Prime Minister, Hendrik Verwoerd, to answer the question. On September 4, 1965, addressing a gathering of the faithful at Loskop Dam in present-day Mpumalanga, Verwoerd was as forthright as usual: ‘Our standpoint is that just as we subject ourselves to another country’s customs and traditions without flinching, without any criticism and cheerfully, so we expect that when another country sends representatives to us they will behave in the same way, namely not involving themselves in our affairs, and that they will adapt themselves to our customs. In short, South Africa was not prepared to allow a New Zealand team containing Maoris to tour the country. After Verwoerd’s death, his successor BJ Vorster reversed the decision, allowing Maori’s in an All Blacks side in 1970. Vorster’s decision led to a breakaway by Jaap Marais and a few other members of the National Party, who formed a splinter party known as the Herstigte Nasionale Party. By the 1970s, white South African sport was in the grip of a relentless squeeze by organisations such as the South African Sports Association, the SA Non-Racial Olympic Committee, the South African Council on Sport, the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, the New Zealand-based Halt All Racist Tours, the Organisation of African Unity and various other bodies throughout the world. With the Broederbond in the forefront, white South Africa strove desperately to maintain sporting ties with its ‘traditional partners and even with some black countries, via rebel tours. It was an era of ‘multinationalism’ and the awarding of honorary white status, and every time the government, in the form of its sports policy spokesperson, Piet ‘Promises’ Koornhof, it looked more ridiculous. Somewhere in the late 1980s, the penny finally dropped… The only way into international sport was via the ANC. A flotsam and jetsam line-up of sports officials, many of dubious character, and government officials made a beeline for Lusaka, Harare in Africa, and various countries in Europe, to seek an audience with the ANC. The ANC was flattered – and played the role of fairy godfathers and mothers for all they were worth. But I believe these ANC exiles were out of touch with reality…. Soon after FW de Klerk had unbanned the ANC, the PAC and the SA Communist Party, on February 2, 1990, the ANC began lifting the sports ban on various codes, ‘provided they participated in matches that were non-racial’. This infuriated members of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, and those who supported them. A Labour Party MP, Bob Hughes, told Aziz Pahad, the ANC’s deputy secretary of international affairs that ‘ambiguities and inconsistencies over the sports boycott had helped to confuse the public’. He begged the ANC to be patient. If any problems arose later, it would be very difficult to revert to the situation as it stood. But the ANC wouldn’t listen. And Pahad denied the public was being confused. Instead, he asked the British Anti-Apartheid Movement to consider lifting the boycott as far as it affected ‘non-racial’ bodies. An angry Hughes wrote back to him, caustically stating it was a pity the ANC had not consulted the anti-apartheid movement about its change in policy. The rush into international sport quickly became a tidal wave. South Africa sent a team to the Barcelona Olympics without even a flag. There was a cricket tour to the West Indies. And India toured South Africa. In 1992, South Africa sent a cricket team to the World Cup in Australia. The ANC’s sports policy, if it could be described as a sports policy, was badly put constructed and executed. At best it was naïve. This naivety had all the hallmarks of the involvement of Mandela and his dream of reconciliation. White South African sportsmen and women were not asked to make a single sacrifice. Nor did they offer to make any. All they wanted was to play international sport – and they got their wish. The way rugby is administered is beyond abnormal. Somehow or other, the SA Rugby Union has managed to get the country to accept a “qualified” merit system for rugby – very much like the “qualified” franchise for black voters that the old Progressive Party used to punt. And the sad thing is that the ANC government has been complicit in selling this system to the public. In August 1992, white South African spectators were given their first chance to show that they were prepared to buy into the new order. New Zealand and Australia arrived in the country for matches against the national side. It was at the time of the Boipatong massacre in which 44 people had died in decidedly suspicious circumstances. Many suspected the South African security services of having been involved in the killings. The ANC’s request to the SA Rugby Football Union was simple: hold a minute’s silence for the dead of Boipatong before the game against the All Blacks; don’t sing the old national anthem; and don’t wave old South African flags at the match. These requests were ignored. When a minute’s silence was requested, the crowd sang Die Stem as loudly as they could, and egged on by the Afrikaans press throughout the week, hundreds of apartheid flags were brandished at the match. It was obvious that tens of thousands of white South Africans, perhaps, even more, yearned for the good old days of apartheid. Before the World Cup tournament in South Africa in 1995, many prominent South Africans wanted the Springbok emblem to be dumped. Horrified officials went straight to the man they knew would support them: Mandela. Mandela suggested that the emblem be retained for the World Cup, and that talks be held afterwards to decide on its future. When Mandela spoke, everyone listened, and so the emblem was granted a stay of execution. South Africa won the World Cup, Mandela wore Francois Pienaar’s spare Number 6 jersey at the trophy-handover. And everyone was drunk on rainbowism, ‘Shozaloza’ and ‘for he’s a jolly good fellow.’ It didn’t last long. It couldn’t last long…. More than 300 years of segregation, followed by apartheid was never going to be wiped away just like that. Reconciliation was an admirable ideal, but surely Mandela must have known that more stick than carrot was going to be needed to build a new country. Where are we now? We are still in an era where South African rugby’s own K-word is being thrown around freely, cruelly and arrogantly.
If truth be told, it has been like this ever since the advent of political democracy. The word is “kwota” (for it is among Afrikaans-speaking white South Africans that it is used most often and most contemptuously). But there are also English-speakers who are happy to use its English version – “quota” – with the same amount of venom and contempt. Whether said in English or Afrikaans, it has several meanings in rugby, all of which are insulting and racist. It means an African or coloured player. It means “not good enough”. It means “you’re not really wanted here”. It means “you’re only in the side because the selectors did not have a choice – they have to select you”. And it means “scapegoat” whenever a team loses. This sham unity has severely wounded the game in township schools, and even at senior level. No one can dispute this. The most unfathomable question is: Why is the Springbok still being retained as the symbol of the national side? It is a racist symbol. To put it bluntly, there is only one place in South Africa for a racist symbol: an apartheid museum. It beggars belief that players who represented 9% of the country – in what were surely the most blatant instances of quota selections – should still be feted as “greats” by certain communities. Even worse is the question of what gives them the right to pass any type of judgment on whether a black player in any team is a “quota” selection or not. The SA Rugby Union has had numerous opportunities to make a courageous decision for the first time in their up-to-now uninspiring history. It’s easy. All they have to do is ditch the Springbok and send it to the apartheid museum, along with all the other relics and records of its inglorious past. Otherwise, they should explain why these should be retained. If they cannot, and if they continue to refuse to take decisive action to work towards a truly democratic country, that decision should then be taken out of their hands. The so-called unity that was introduced with the advent of democracy, has proved to be one of the biggest confidence tricks in the history of the game in this country. With sleight of hand, white administrators engineered a process that was far removed from true unity. They succeeded in getting those promoting non-racialism to join their structures. It was a process that destroyed club rugby in the townships. Their promises to develop the game in the townships, by taking it into the schools and by building facilities were forgotten as quickly as they were made. But back to Mandela… He must take much of the blame for what happened in sport in the first few years of ‘democracy’. White South Africans, of whom very few would have voted for the ANC anyway, were happy to pay lip-service to his attempts at reconciliation. Their pretences were worthwhile. It enabled them to live exactly as they had lived during apartheid. Mandela let down badly those who had fought apartheid sport so bravely and, sometimes, at such great cost. Whether he meant it or not, he rewarded some of apartheid sport’s most notorious servants, by opening up international opportunities for them – long before proper unity had been achieved. But what left a particularly bad taste in the mouths of many was his feting of, particularly, Ali Bacher, who by organising international rebel tours, almost destroyed world cricket. It’s hard to believe that Mandela actually agreed to write the foreword to Rodney Hartman’s book, ‘Ali, the Life of Ali Bacher’, and that it should have included observations such as: ‘His cricket achievements are many, locally and internationally. Even in those years of seclusion on Robben Island, we took note with pride, although we were naturally opposed to the racially exclusive nature of the team, how he led South Africa to victory against Australia. ‘Ali Bacher is a great South African who has brought pride to all of us,’ Mandela added. This is unbelievable…