A significant number of South African citizens – good, principled men and women – have never believed that the South African Rugby Union (SARU) could ever be a credible agent for the promotion of non-racial sport, and particularly non-racial rugby, in this country.
South African rugby in the era of democracy has a sad history of promises made … and quickly and casually broken. And so, no one should be surprised that, despite the by-now tiresomely regular hands-on-heart commitment to transformation and the promise of new opportunities for black players, next month, when the Springboks participate in their 6th World Cup, the run-on team will have a familiar look about it. They will, in all likelihood, start their campaign with a side containing just two black players – a long-serving wing (in Bryan Habana) and a loosehead prop who wasn’t even born in South Africa (in Tendai Mtawarira).
This is hardly better than their first foray into the World Cup in 1995, when Chester Williams was the only black member of the team that started the final against the All Blacks.
It is a disgrace – of which the consequences should be mass sackings in SARU. In this regard, I am convinced that the weight of public opinion will result in heads rolling – even if South Africa wins the World Cup.
But this column is not about team selection, or even about transformation. Rather, it revolves around another issue, an issue centering on a lack of respect. It is about pissing on other peoples’ history. It is about SARU’s stock reaction to criticism of their failure in so many different areas both inside and outside the game: a silent, but unmistakably clear and arrogant … ‘Fuck you!’
South Africans who fought apartheid in sport are proud of their achievements – and do not take kindly to those whom they see as untransformed and always advantaged spitting on the sacrifices they made during some of this country’s darkest days.
On Saturday, the Springboks will play the Pumas in a friendly in Buenos Aires, which will have no meaning on the field, but will lead to at least one serious question being posed off it.
And it is this….
What the hell possessed SARU to agree to participate in a match celebrating the apartheid history of Argentine and white Springbok rugby?
Saturday’s game will commemorate the 50th anniversary of the tour to South Africa and the then Rhodesia by an Argentine team in 1965, during the high-noon of apartheid.
For those who have forgotten – or who want to forget – let me tell you what the 1960s meant to black people like me … to my parents … to my grandparents … to my family … and to my friends.
It was an era in which mixed marriages were forbidden, in which mixed-race couples were hounded, harassed, driven apart and often exiled. It was an era in which sexual relationships across colour lines were banned. It was an era in which the Population Registration Act ‘defined who was of which race’. And it was time in which countless thousands of black South Africans were driven from their homes as a result of the National Party’s Group Areas Act.
And that’s not all….
In 1963, the promulgation of the General Law Amendment Act gave police the right to detain people and, as some would point out, to torture them for 90 days without trial, and without access to a lawyer. By 1970, 22 people had died in detention after ‘falling out of windows’, ‘hanging themselves’ and ‘slipping on bars of soap’.
This, dear readers, was the Sixties.
Also in 1963, the ANC’s top leadership was detained at Liliesleaf Farm outside Johannesburg, after a raid by security police. In the so-called Rivonia Trial that followed in 1964, eight ANC leaders, including Nelson Mandela were sentenced to life imprisonment.
And yes, SARU, this is just another snippet of the true meaning of the 1960s.
And still this is not all.
In the 1960s, black sportspersons also felt the full weight of the jackboot of apartheid.
Of Maoris and Dollys
For many years, England, Australia and New Zealand and France, white South Africa’s traditional sporting opponents in rugby and cricket, knew what they needed to do if they wanted to undertake tours to the southern tip of Africa: they had to pick all-white teams.
And they were more than happy to comply. In one instance, the England cricket selectors were even prepared to drop a player of Indian origin in a series in the UK, so as not to upset the South African government.
But there is always an inevitability about change – even slow change. And so, as opposition to apartheid began growing, overseas administrators were forced to make polite ‘what if’ enquiries – such as ‘what if we were to choose our teams on merit?’
The question was first seriously raised during discussions about a New Zealand tour scheduled for South Africa in 1967. Word from New Zealand was that All Black selectors were becoming increasingly reluctant to collaborate with South African rugby authorities and their government in excluding Maoris from their touring teams.
Leaks from various sources suggested that the South African authorities would relent, and allow the All Blacks selectors to choose their teams on merit.
This confidence, however, proved to be misplaced….
On 4 September 1965, in a speech to hundreds of cheering supporters at Loskop Dam, near Groblersdal in present-day Mpumalanga, Verwoerd said: ‘No!’ His reasoning was that ‘once [different races] have integrated on the sports field, then the road to other forms of social integration has been opened.’
Verwoerd’s decision was later ratified by his cabinet.
But bad though this decision was, the biggest scandal of all during the 1960s was what became known as the ‘D’Oliveira Affair’. It revolved around Basil D’Oliveira, a cricketer from the Bo-Kaap, who was forced by apartheid to leave South Africa, to establish a career in England, for England … and JB Vorster, Verwoerd’s successor as Prime Minister of South Africa.
D’Oliveira’s dream was to return to the land of his birth as a member of an MCC (England) side. A run of bad form during an England tour to the West Indies saw him lose his place in the test side against the touring Australians. But then he was recalled for the final match of the Ashes series at the Oval.
D’Oliveira knew that his recall had brought him within sight of realising his incredible dream. Just one good performance would see him packing his bags for South Africa – and a test series against the Springboks. Or so he thought. He plundered 158 runs off the Aussie attack, but when the team was announced, his name was missing. He would never forget that day: it was Wednesday, 28 August 1968 – and he just broke down and cried.
But in the furore that followed, he was thrown another lifeline: the England allrounder, Tom Cartwright, withdrew through injury, and D’Oliveira was named to replace him. But this is where Vorster stepped in. Addressing a National Party congress in Bloemfontein, Vorster said, amid a cacophony of cheers from the party faithful: ‘The MCC team as constituted now is not the team of the MCC. It is the team of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, the team of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee and the team of Bishop [Ambrose] Reeves (an outspoken English cleric].’
The tour was cancelled.
So, again, dear readers this was more of the 1960s. Do you want SARU to celebrate and commemorate these events – in YOUR name?
SARU had no right to have accepted to play a game under these circumstances – and to be part of the celebrations of such a dubious occasion.
Whoever was responsible to agreeing to the request for this friendly match should resign – with immediate effect. Or be fired.
And the players, especially the black players need to be respected too. After being briefed by people who understand these issues, they should be given the option to withdraw from the squad.
This is the very least that SARU can do.