IN a cleverly constructed and astute piece of writing (Weekend Witness, 26 May 2007), Edward Griffiths examined the controversy over Luke Watson’s engineered selection for the Springbok rugby squad. He looked at the subsequent furore from the standpoint of every likely interest group and showed that what they all had in common was a belief that South Africa is different. But Griffiths ended his article by failing to come to the logical conclusion of his own argument. To follow his format − ja well, the distinctive history of South African sport certainly makes it very different.

Instead of accepting this, he adopted an admonitory tone, telling South Africans to pull up their socks and behave like everyone else. But the basic problem throughout the debate on South African sport is that its history is little understood and poorly regarded. Where it is grudgingly brought into the equation it is quickly tossed aside as an archaic irrelevance, particularly where rugby is concerned. It is worth bearing in mind that on Monday mornings not so long ago in police cells around the country political detainees were beaten up because the police rugby team had lost their match the previous Saturday afternoon. Rugby above all sports was an integral part of the apartheid system. It is a past it cannot entirely escape, something the public chose to forget recently when rounding on an upright man like South African Rugby President Oregan Hoskins, who knows the history only too well.

Over the next fortnight sporting attention will turn to the Comrades Marathon. Little has been said about a far more serious case of political interference than that of Luke Watson, one that affects thousands of athletes. Last year the ANC Youth League − a movement currently renowned for loud-mouthed, dictatorial rhetoric, the ability of its leaders to cosy up to crooked financiers with deep and generous pockets, and its admiration for the tyrant Mugabe − barked a command and the marathon’s organisers snapped to attention. There was little public debate, just acceptance that the marathon would no longer be held on Soweto Day. The Luke Watson decision can be explained by the history of the rugby politics of the Eastern Cape. But the political correctness accepted by the Comrades Marathon Association is entirely without historical justification.

Since the mid-1970s the Comrades Marathon has cultivated a squeaky-clean image that is not entirely consistent with its history. Yes, it was one of the first beacons of hope and an emblem of what South African sport might become once democratic institutions were established. But for 55 years it kept women and black runners out of the competition on various spurious grounds. In the 1920s and 30s two women ran the distance, unofficially and very successfully, to considerable public acclaim; the second of them coincidentally named Watson. While it is true that women were discriminated against by athletics bodies throughout the world, their official admittance by the Comrades trailed international trends by a good decade.

The case of black runners is even more interesting. Mixed long-distance running on the open road could not be regulated even by the most deranged architects of apartheid law, for whom control of recreational space was a constant headache. The only real obstacle was separate amenities legislation. A way could have been found around that; defiance, for instance. Yet Collegians Harriers voted in a referendum in the mid-1970s to maintain a whites-only event even though it was clear that major change was in the offing if the necessary courage and foresight were applied. The reason for inaction was simple: segregation was customary and politically correct in the eyes of participants and organisers. In 1981 the latter linked the race to the Republic Festival celebrations, a decision condemned by the Natal Witness. Twenty runners, including the greatest of them all, Bruce Fordyce, wore black armbands in protest and had their names and numbers recorded by officials at the finish in Pietermaritzburg. The only possible reason for this was collusion with the security police.

Of course this history is decades old. But the moral of the story is that sports administrators in South Africa have a tradition of deferring to political agendas. Last year the CMA wound back the clock by giving way over Soweto Day. Apparently other sporting events will take place on the public holiday that the ANCYL has illegitimately appropriated, but there has been remarkably little interest shown in the fact that the ultra-marathon was either specially targeted or its custodians proved particularly irresolute in their response.

More remarkable amid the excitement around Watson has been the passage through the House of Assembly of legislation that will grant the government further opportunity to dabble in the administration of sport. There is a strong chance that this infringes the Olympic Charter, in particular rules 1 and 24 that outlaw both discrimination of any sort and political pressure. As serious is the potential national divisiveness that could arise. Government spokespersons have suggested that under the new law failure of South African teams to reflect the prescribed demographic representation will result in withdrawal of their national accreditation. The disastrous effect of this on nation building can only be imagined.

So the essential question remains: why has protest concentrated on the unorthodox selection of one individual when far greater dangers to the independence of sports administration are clearly evident? Ja well, South African sport is indeed different.

This article was first published in The Witness on 5 June 2007 and entitled ‘Comrades’s ignoble tradition’.


THE current crisis in South African rugby caused by allegations of racism, an early exit from the World Cup, bizarre training methods, a clear out of top brass, and now investigations into financial irregularities, has generated enormous media interest. In amongst the debate the issue of racial quotas has re-emerged in the guise of targets, and the same has happened in cricket after the introduction of franchises.

Quotas in sport raise complex issues: when placed in historical context plausible cases can be made for both sides of the argument. There are certainly strong reasons to oppose quotas. Heavy-handed government intervention is to be deplored in an activity that has traditionally been regarded as voluntary and is governed on the field of play by rules designed to be scrupulously fair. The interests of sport would seem to be best served by broadening opportunity and spreading resources, so that natural ability can emerge from a common and equitable background.

Most significant of all, one should call into question the whole notion of race and argue that it is a social construct employed in the past for socio-political engineering purposes that had a disastrous effect on the South African nation. Its use now is no more justified than it was in the apartheid era. Indeed, there is good reason to accuse those who play the race card of wanting to introduce a form of neo-apartheid simply as a means to acquire power and opportunity for themselves. The liberation movement contained its fair share of those who were, or became, opportunists and have not been shy to behave in ways reminiscent of the white regime. Those who support quotas argue that they are necessary for redress during a transition period. But who is to say when normality has been achieved, and how is this to be judged? What is a normal, acceptable South African rugby or cricket team?

But the argument against quotas falls foul of a number of uncomfortable facts. Professional sport makes capital and large profits out of national and local patriotism. During the late 1990s international and even provincial sports administrators proudly spoke of marketing and branding sport, turning it into big business, an area in which governments claim justifiable regulatory concern. And furthermore, what happens within the boundary or touch lines cannot be divorced from the nature of surrounding society. Sport is not a detached, apolitical activity and politicians, perhaps unfortunately, can claim a legitimate interest in it.

South African sport brought down the quota system upon itself. In 1991 it interpreted the blandishments of the ANC as an invitation to pretend that the boycott was an unfortunate historical interlude and to resume international tours ‘as normal’ with unseemly haste. This suited the ANC of the time in terms of its political agenda, which required an appropriate symbolic reward for those whites who accepted the inevitability of change. But once it had formed a government, its agenda changed. Sport was now to become a factor in nation building, a dubious proposition in an infant and precarious democracy and a policy whose implications were lost on politically naive sports administrators and supporters.

Many of them accepted as true the much disputed idea that sport both brings together and unites people. If this collective identification with national teams is indeed so powerful and important, then it follows as a matter of course that there will be demands from politicians that the selectors take into account racial symbolism. This has certainly been a line pursued by both post-liberation ministers of sport, Steve Tshwete and Ngconde Balfour.

Many of those who had been involved in non-racial sport waited patiently, with varying motives, for change to occur. It happened neither on the field nor in the boardroom to the degree anticipated. Furthermore, this inertia was accompanied by an injudicious triumphalism that was at times strident and always unwise. It involved, amongst other misjudgements, continued censorship through silence of that part of the history of the game that did not involve white dominance. This practice is now thankfully being challenged by a range of new publications. Quotas, irrational though they might seem in sport, are a logical consequence of failure to think more deeply about the history of South Africa and an ignorance and arrogance about past and present. There is also some evidence to suggest that a number of black players who have emerged at provincial level could well have been ignored had it not been for quotas; and that the loss of white sportsmen and women to other countries has been grossly overstated.

Some of those involved in sport like to think of themselves as engaged in a pure activity exempt from the pressures of society around them. Keep politics and politicians (but never entrepreneurs) out of sport, is the perennial cry. Yet administrators, players and supporters are all avid in their use of national identity, colours and symbols, even claiming that a crushing win over some luckless opponent (in South Africa it is never an honourable, sporting defeat) somehow binds us together. Such zealotry is usually accompanied by shrill sports journalism. Healthy, participative recreation governed by fair rules and codes of morality has become a multi-million Rand enterprise run by ruthless businessmen, employing cynical players and watched by often overwrought spectators. An unholy alliance of commercialism and nationalism with a touch of the circus has provided politicians with every excuse to meddle.

This article was first published in The Witness on 17 February 2004 and entitled ‘Are racial quotas in sport an inevitable fact of life?’