In the early 1980s, I faced the most powerful man in South African rugby across the biggest boardroom table I’d ever seen, and listened respectfully as he pointed (PW Botha-style) at me and barked: ‘You … are anti-South African.’
I’ll never forget Dr Daniel Hartman Craven.
I interviewed him during the era of sports boycotts … anti-apartheid demonstrations … Cheeky Watson … Hassan Howa … and Sacos – and he didn’t mince his words as he outlined his views.
As far as Craven was concerned, just one organization was to blame for the difficulties white rugby found itself in at that time: Sacos, the South African Council on Sport … or ‘Saa-kos’, as Craven pronounced the acronym.
In many ways, Craven was more than just the president of the South African Rugby Board; he was also the baton master of a South African choir that sang a familiar chorus – ‘keep politics out of sport’ – in impressive but misguided harmony.
That didn’t mean to say ‘Dok’ (as most people referred to him) didn’t have a view on South African politics….
‘I’m against apartheid …‘but I’m for tradition,’ was what he told me.
When I heard this, my first thought was that he was taking the p*ss. And so I wasn’t sure whether to laugh at him – or to engage him in furious argument.
Given that the ‘tradition’ he spoke about was built on a foundation of no mixing between black and white (except in a master-servant – or madam and maid – way) and of white baasskap, what he said sounded like a complete cop-out … the essence of hypocrisy.
In the end, I performed a cop-out of my own. I decided my job was to record and report what he said – and so, with the help of my cheap cassette recorder and the Cape Herald (the newspaper I worked for at the time) – that’s exactly what I did.
Craven was at his tetchy best that day. He accused me of being anti-South African because he believed that the Cape Herald (and yes, he read the newspaper) and I, particularly, gave Sacos far too much publicity. He couldn’t understand why a South African newspaper wanted to give so much exposure to an organization that (in his mind) wanted to overthrow the political order in South Africa.
In his eyes, the Cape Herald, Sacos and I were not very good products of South Africa.
Now, fast forward almost 30 years – to a Tri-Nations test match on 20th August 2011 between South Africa and New Zealand at the Nelson Mandela Bay Stadium in Port Elizabeth, and Craven’s famous quote, in a ‘New South Africa’ guise, came flashing back to me….
It happened when the camera zoomed in on a coloured fan, complete with ubiquitous ‘passion gap’, singing ‘God Defend New Zealand’, with more emotion than I’d ever seen an All Black player or New Zealand-born fan sing it.
I was amazed.
‘He’d probably tell me: “I love South Africa, but I’m for tradition,”’ I mused.
‘Apartheid’s gone,’ I had to remind myself, ‘but the tradition of supporting the All Blacks continues among pockets of rugby-loving fans in the townships of the Western Cape and Eastern Cape.’
It would be easy to condemn these supporters – and to describe them as misguided or unpatriotic.
But I won’t.
Sad to say, we live in a country of unresolved issues – among the groups that apartheid created … among those who used to rule … among those who used to be ruled … and among those who came together almost 20 years ago to form – on the face of it – unified sports bodies.
A few weeks ago, after a funeral service for Brian Gaffney, a well-known Western Cape sports journalist, I listened with interest as past and current rugby administrators argued among themselves about whether or not unity between black and white unions had killed the game in the townships.
‘We gave the whites the key to get back into international sport – and what did we get in return? Nothing. We have the same cabbage patch facilities of the apartheid years. And, instead of a reservoir of new talent on which to draw, all we see is a generation of drug addicts in our townships,’ raged one administrator.
But another countered: ‘You are where you are today, because you insist on carrying on your ridiculous, destructive infighting – not with formerly white clubs and unions – but with people who represented the unions you played against in pre-unity days. You and those who think like you are your own worst enemies.’
Let’s be perfectly clear about one thing: I do not doubt the good faith of those who have embraced unity. But for the same reason, I refuse to criticize those who describe sports unity as a failure. And sad though it is to watch, I understand why there are South Africans who stand hand-on-heart, singing the New Zealand anthem, before cheering on the men in black against our boys in green and gold.
All of us with an interest in sport must acknowledge that mistakes were made during the changing of the guard….
In those heady days that followed the collapse of apartheid, we rushed into unity to get our teams to a cricket World Cup and an Olympic Games – when we should perhaps have concentrated our efforts on working towards closure on a range of apartheid-sapping issues.
We allowed ourselves to be swept along on a wave of Rainbow Nation euphoria.
Perhaps Danie Craven knew much more about tradition than any of us understood all those years ago.
Perhaps we ought to admit that people all around the world are prisoners of tradition – in the way they conduct everyday relationships with their neighbours, in the way they prepare their meals and in the way they administer, play and support sport.
Perhaps the problem in our case is that many things we would describe as ‘tradition’ (or ‘traditional’) are nothing more than inventions of apartheid – and that far too many South Africans, therefore, remain locked in an apartheid mindset.
Perhaps … perhaps, the time has come for all of us who seek lasting change and progress to make a series of genuine attempts to find one another….