In 1992 South Africa was allowed back into world sport. The reborn sporting nation has had remarkable national team success and has hosted major sports events – but is it being matched by integration? Chris Green reports

In 1992 I met an African National Congress sports spokesman exiled in London to discuss how the changing political situation might end South Africa’s isolation from world sport.

For a young boy who grew up in the English Midlands city of Worcester in the 1960s and whose first sporting hero was Worcestershire and England cricketer Basil D’Oliveira, I had always been dismayed by apartheid and the need for sporting sanctions against South Africa.

‘Dolly’, a hugely talented ‘cape coloured’ cricketer who had fled South Africa to play county cricket in England but had soon progressed – even though he was well into his 30s – into the England test team, was a totem of hatred for the ruling National Party in South Africa.

When the England cricket team, under the guise of the MCC, sought to include D’Oliveira in the 1969 touring team to South Africa, president BJ Vortser vehemently dismissed the squad as “the team of the anti-apartheid movement”, so the tour was cancelled and sporting sanctions were placed upon South South Africa African national teams.

All this had a profound affect on me as a boy. How could anyone hate someone purely for the colour of their skin – especially dear old, mild-mannered, crowd-pleasing Dolly, whose son Damien I played  schools’ cricket against (and who went on to play county cricket and is now head coach of Worcestershire’s academy)?

So spool forward to my meeting in 1992 with the ANC in London where hopes for integration were high but measured. “It will take a while,” I was warned, “maybe generations.”

On the face of it, the acrimony of the days of the so-called D’Oliveira Affair didn’t look likely to whither away quickly. This was recently retold in an excellent book written by Peter Oborne – Basil D’Oliveira: Cricket and Controversy (Little Brown, 2004) – which revealed that D’Oliveira was actually offered cash to pull out of the proposed 1969 MCC tour.

Yet the pace of progress since 1992, on the surface at least, has been stunning: two IRB Rugby Union World Cup wins – the first in 1995 when, remarkably, South Africa hosted the tournament just three years after its South Africa – 15 years on sporting isolation had ceased and a year after free voting took place to elect the country’s government for the first time in South Africa’s history – followed by this autumn’s victory in France.

In 2003, South Africa hosted the Cricket World Cup and in 2010 it will become the first African nation to stage the most financially lucrative prize in world sport, the FIFA World Cup, a sport in which they won the African Cup of Nations in 1996 – again, the first time they had competed since the end of sporting sanctions.

Throw in the individual successes of golfers like Ernie Els and Retief Goosen, world high jump champion Hestrie Cloete and swimmer Penny Heyns – who won South Africa’s first Olympic Games medal after being readmitted to the Olympic family in Atlanta in 1996 after a 32-year absence – and it is clear to see South Africa has arrived back at the top level with a huge bang.

There have also been some poignant symbols too: Nelson Mandela sporting a Springboks shirt and scarf when handing the William Webb Ellis Trophy to victorious South African captain Francois Pienaar to the delight of the capacity crowd at Ellis Park in Johannesburg in 1995. Sadly Thabo Mbeki’s presence in Paris last month didn’t carry the same personal magic – but then it is hard to imagine Gordon Brown or, for that matter, Tony Blair, wearing an England shirt, let alone looking remotely inspiring should they chose to do so.

Then there was Basil D’Olveira’s triumphant open top parade through the streets of Cape Town in 1999 – when he was voted one of South Africa’s Sportsmen of the Century. In 2003, D’Oliveria and white South African batsman Graeme Pollock (whose burgeoning career in the late 1960s was arguably hit harder than anyone by the boycotts) were the two cricketing giants invited out on to Newlands Ground in Cape Town to take part in the opening ceremony of the Cricket World Cup.

South Africa has been keen to recognise its stars of the past. President Thabo Mbeki handed out the newly conceived Order of Ikhamanga – South Africa’s highest honour for achievement in the creative and performing arts and sport – to 11 South African sportsmen and women who were honoured for a range of achievements under a variety of circumstances.

Two orders in the gold class went to South Africa’s sportsman of the 20th century, golf legend Gary Player, and 1950s football superstar Steve ‘Kalamazoo’ Mokone.

Mokone would undoubtedly loved to have been among the 115 black African players now competing in European football. The increase from virtually zero in 1992 has been another impressive measure of the improvement of football in Africa as a whole, rather than merely South Africa.

So where does this leave sporting integration? At the top level most of the competitors representing South Africa in traditional white sports are still white and those played mainly by black sportsmen, are, well, black.

Only pace bowler Makhaya Ntini, the first black player to play test cricket for South Africa, who has been No.2 in the world rankings for much of 2006/07, has gained a regular foothold in the nation’s test team (and all the more remarkably because his career seemed over after he was convicted of rape in 1999 but was overturned on appeal).

The reverse situation is similar in South Africa’s predominantly black national football team. After winning the CAF Cup of African Nations in 1996 they were first Southern African country to reach the World Cup final in France in 1998 and reached the 2002 finals in Japan/Korea.

In rugby union, pacy winger Bryan Habana – who raced a lion in a publicity stunt – is the most visible black player in South African rugby and one of only two black players in their triumphant Springboks 2007 squad.
There is hope that the success will encourage integration in the sport – which is hugely symbolic as the Springboks was once considered the team of the white South African police – and which failed to happen after the momentous 1995 World Cup victory.

“Our victory during the 1995 World Cup offered us a window to see what South Africa can be. We did not build on that,” said sports minister Makhenkesi Stofile, who is more confident the 2007 win will be a stimulus to make the game truly representative of the country’s racial mix and believes a repeat failure would be unacceptable.

“This victory should herald a new era in which we all embrace change and tackle the challenges still being faced by our rugby and sport in general,” he said.

Stofile is chewing over the thorny issue of positive discrimination – whether a quota system needs to be employed in order to achieve more diversity in South Africa’s national teams.

The Institute of Race Relations’ Chris Kriel is against the idea: “Sport is one South African factor that is able to bring people together across racial and class boundaries. The success of sports teams and not their racial make-up appears to be the primary unifying factor.”

If rugby is supposed to unify the nation, it is a slow process. The Springboks fielded just one black player at the 1995, 1999 and 2003 World Cup finals and two in 2007. But there are slightly more encouraging signs among the five teams competing in last season’s domestic Super 14s league, who fielded 28 nonwhite players between them.

”Without development at primary and secondary school level, transformation at national and provincial level will not take place,’ said Kriel.

South Africa’s problems are also about class and gender as well as racial divide. There are voices who believe role models are needed at the top of South Africa to achieve more representative national teams which would help to bring about social change and lead to a more equal society.

The country has a huge opportunity to show how far it has come since the end of apartheid when it stages the 19th FIFA World Cup in 2010.

Five entirely new stadiums are being built for the tournament with five of the existing venues being upgraded at a total estimated construction cost of R8.4 billion.

The stakes are high – with rumours circulating that the World Cup could yet be moved to another country. FIFA executives, including Franz Beckenbauer, have expressed concern over the planning, organisation, and pace of South Africa’s preparations.

Welfare organisations have expressed major concern about plans to wipe away squatter camps and shelters to improve the image of the World Cup venues, arguing that it is inappropriate to invest so much public money on stadia when much of the population lacks basic services and housing.

These are the real long term issues with which South African sport and society has to grapple, beneath the surface glamour of national teams winning major sports events – the ‘hard yards’ as they are called in sports training.

Chris Green is a freelance journalist

This article first appeared in PE & Sport Today – December 2007

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