IT’S TIME TO INVESTIGATE THE ROLE OF NEWSPAPERS IN THE APARTHEID ERA

IT’S easy to back the decision by the South African Editors’ Forum to instruct the Sunday Times to apologise to those incorrectly implicated in three prominent stories carried by the newspaper between 2011 and 2016.

The stories revolved around the long simmering ‘rogue unit’, the Cato Manor ‘death squad’ and the Zimbabwe ‘renditions’.

South African newspapers have a lot to answer for – and I don’t only mean during the terrible period of state corruption that has so blighted what should have been a proud democratic era.

In fact, a hell of a lot slipped under the radar during the vicious years of apartheid….

In the 1980s, when I was a humble sports reporter (and then sports editor) with a tiny newspaper called the Cape Herald, there were some things written by white reporters that I promised myself never to forget.

For instance, Michael Owen-Smith, the cricket writer for the Cape Times who, in backing the English rebel cricket tour (supported and paid for by the South African government in 1990), said: ‘In the 15 years in which I have been covering international sport, I have never been involved in an event in which there has been so much antagonism between the players and certain elements of the media. Hopefully, cricket will come into its own in the next few weeks.

‘Mike Gatting [the captain of the rebels], in particular, has not been given a fair hearing – and fair play does not seem to be a prominent feature of coverage of this tour,’ Owen-Smith wrote.

At the Cape Herald, we were passionately opposed to the tour – with all our hearts and souls. As far as we were concerned, rebel tours nurtured apartheid – and apartheid had to be crushed.

Then there was Sy Lerman who, in 2020, received an award for being a legend of sports writing….

I was gobsmacked.

Writing about one of the doyens of anti-apartheid sport, Ahmed Mangera, Lerman claimed: ‘As a cricket administrator and personality, Mangera pales into significance against [Ali] Bacher [one of the organisers of rebel tours]. And he hides his inadequacy by shielding behind apartheid.’

The sad thing is that Bacher, like Owen-Smith, proved to masters of ‘reinvention’.

During a stint as a foreign correspondent for the Argus company in Fleet Street, London, I had – for me – a famous exchange of views with the company’s London editor, Alan Robinson.

He told me he couldn’t understand why anyone would want to see [white] South African sport isolated. ‘You guys aren’t good enough, so support the guys [whites] who are,’ he said.

We didn’t come to blows, but I was so pissed off with him – and the editor, Cliff Scott, who made no secret of his support for the Committee for Fairness in Sport (which later turned out to be a South African government front company) that when I had a chance to get my own back on them, I took it.

It was at Stoke-Mandeville, in Buckinghamshire, where a South African Paraplegic team, managed by an arrogant official called Menzo Barrish was preparing to take part in the World Paraplegic Games. Responding to demonstrators at a media briefing the day before the games, Barrish claimed South African blacks never had it so good.

It made me fume.

I immediately threw in my lot with the demonstrators, led by Wilfred Brutus and his wife, Martha. I’m not the greatest dancer, but that day I discovered rhythm which I never thought I had, joining them in chanting, ‘Gathond, Gathond, Gathond’, as my hips swayed.

Of course, I was familiar with the name ‘Brutus’. Wilfred, the brother of SANROC founder, Dennis, had escaped from Cape Town in a rowing boat, from where he had been picked up at sea by the captain of a Greek freighter, who bought him an air ticket in the Middle-East, which enabled him to fly to London.

Dennis Brutus reached London with far more difficulty. In 1963, in attempting to leave South Africa via Mozambique, he was arrested by Portuguese Security Police and returned to South Africa. Then, attempting to escape while being transported to the notorious John Vorster Square, he was shot in the back and left bleeding on the pavement after the driver of a whites-only ambulance refused to pick him up.

He was eventually taken to a blacks-only hospital – and when he appeared in court was sentenced to 18 months on Robben Island.
Robben Island was horrific.

In Pitch Battles by Peter Hain and Andre Odendaal, Brutus is quoted as saying: ‘I do not think I will ever be able to erase from my mind the images of that day of terror and violence by the sea, with the bright water and the bright sunlight, and the men struggling with the slimy masses of sunlight and the sharp, slippery rocks.’

And he painfully recalled the humiliation that followed, His feet were torn, ‘trailing grimy bandages’. And as he puttered through the prison, his fellow prisoners gaped ‘wondering how they had managed to make of me a thing of bruises, rags, contempt and mockery.’

After prison, Brutus left South Africa on an exit permit – and became one of the biggest thorns in the side of apartheid sport.
But here’s my point….

Sports activists such as Brutus and others, we given no sympathy by South African newspapers, In fact, they were treated with mocking arrogance.

This is why I believe that with codes such as rugby having succeeded in reinventing themselves as paragons of non-racialism, an investigation into sport during the apartheid years is long overdue.