Stoke-Mandeville in Buckinghamshire, UK, in 1981 – and I’m intently watching two South Africans …
One is a smug, arrogant and patronizing sports administrator named Menzo Barrish.
The other, Wilfred Brutus, is a passionate opponent of a disgraceful social-engineering scheme devised at the end of the 19th century by a Briton named Cecil John Rhodes, and perfected as a gift to whiteness by a political grouping of Afrikaner misfits – the National Party.
Barrish is an unashamed defender of this system of apartheid.
Brutus – hates it with everything in his being.
And there I was, 65km from my home in Richmond, London, on a warm summer’s day, watching a fight unfold between a supporter of the South Africa of apartheid with a supporter of a South Africa as it could have been.
In an open-air media conference, Barrish claimed South African blacks – well, ‘our blacks’ to him – had never had it so good.
A group of protesters, led by Brutus, and exiled South Africans judging by the language of their protest, responded by chanting: ‘Gathond, gathond.’
I joined in – well, because I felt I fucking-well needed to.
Let me tell you about Brutus….
Like his brother, Dennis, he was heavily involved in the Struggle against apartheid sport, and was chairperson of the Western Province branch of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, until harassment, arrests, bannings and jail in terms of legislation aimed at the ‘Suppression of Communism’ forced him out of this position.
A note here would be appropriate: you did not have to be a Communist to fall foul of this legislation.
During one of his periods of imprisonment, Brutus was told by a Dr Fuchs, whose duty it was to see to the medical needs of the political prisoners: ‘I don’t know why the State doesn’t exterminate you’.
It was probably the proverbial last straw for him….
‘In 1968, in an interview with the British Anti-Apartheid Movement, shortly after arriving in the UK, Brutus said: ‘I came out of Jail on March 20 this year – and was immediately served with an order which, among other things, banned me from going anywhere near to any educational institution, printing or publishing house, or factory.
‘I used to be a teacher and I couldn’t get any work’, he said.
Five days after his release, he was arrested yet again – for breaking his banning order – and given the maximum sentence for this ‘offence’ – three years.
Released on bail of £250, pending an appeal, he decided it was time to get out of the country. He felt he would be able to serve the Struggle far more effectively outside South Africa.
Six weeks later, without a word to his wife, he left home – never to return.
He picked up a rowing boat, two bottles of water and a packet of vitamin pills – and rowed out to sea.
‘In the excitement, I left behind all my carefully packed food,’ he said.
After two days at sea in his tiny boat, he was picked up by the captain of a Panama-registered ship.
‘I wouldn’t advise anyone to choose the escape route I chose,’ he quipped to his interviewers.
It appeared his advice was heeded: as far as is known, he was the only political activist to leave South Africa in this way.
On arrival in Bahrain, in the Middle East, the captain escorted him to the airport and paid for his airfare to London.
From his new base, he played a key role with his brother, Dennis, and other top officials of the SA Non-Racial Olympic Committee, among whom were Chris de Broglio and Isiah Stein, in getting racist SA national bodies kicked out of international sport.
This included weightlifting, in which Precious McKenzie played an important part in getting the white body expelled, and the South African Davis Cup tennis team.
One of the things I’ll never forget about Stoke-Mandeville was the reception I received from the Brutuses. Mrs Brutus was overcome with emotion to meet a South African who was still living in South Africa, and one, to boot, who had felt moved enough to join the protest.
She wanted to know everything about what was happening in Cape Town.
It is for this reason I believe so strongly that those who were part of that Struggle – and it doesn’t matter how small these roles might have been – that fight and the nature of that fight against apartheid must never be forgotten.
It was our Struggle. We must not allow people who played apartheid sport – who were happy with a system that banned black South Africans from representing their country – to hijack this Struggle.
It is time to place the contribution of those who believed in and fought for non-racialism in sport and society where it belongs – in the forefront of achievement.
Let us take to heart the words of the great American activist, Malcolm X: ‘Just as a tree without roots is dead, a people without history or cultural roots also becomes a dead people.’
Let us show that we will never be dead people…