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Mixing sport and politics a catalyst for social cohesion

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Picture: Supplied – Frank van der Horst speaks at the Sport and Liberation conference in Johannesburg, August 1983. The advent of democracy would not have been possible without the political strategy of boycotting apartheid sports, says the writer.

By Saths Cooper

Hulle is sport mal (They are sport crazy) was the response of the head of Robben Island Maximum Security Prison on a Sunday morning “Inspection” in the early 1980s. He was confronted on why he had restored Springbok Radio’s Saturday afternoon “Sports Round-up” that we had asked not to be beamed into our cells.

For one weekend we were not subjected to carefully selected Springbok Radio programmes. There was one irate political prisoner who apparently could not do without these “white” sports results. Despite the agreement that had been reached with all 10 seksies (sections, prison blocks), restoring white sports results suited the apartheid system. The more we were reliant on the Department of Information and other propaganda, the better they were able to exert control.

When we were released from isolation in October 1977, the walls separating each of the 10 sections of Robben Island Maximum Security Prison from one another having been completed early in January 1977, we were flabbergasted to be subjected – when we were locked up in our cells with nowhere to go – to a round-up of white sports results on Saturdays. Especially made worse, with Friday night’s Forces Favourites! Patricia Kerr cooing to apartheid’s “boys on the border” often repeating the stoic Vasbyt! (hang in there), accompanied by love songs. Probably no royalties were paid to many well-loved overseas artists.

We got many rude awakenings on Robben Island, one was that the events unfurling since the watershed June 16, 1976 youth uprisings took most by surprise, even disbelief. The call, made famous by Hassan Howa and those who succeeded him in the South African Council on Sport (Sacos), of “No normal sport in an abnormal society” seemed unthinkable to some.

The 1970s generation of political prisoners strongly felt that we couldn’t evade the boycott and other calls that we were instrumental in fomenting – in accord with the growing anti-apartheid movement globally – as students in the South African Students’ Organisation (SASO), then in the Black People’s Convention (BPC) and other Black Consciousness (BC) formations.

Nearly all of these were banned on October 19, 1977, weeks after Steve Biko’s murder, making up more than half of the organisations to be banned during apartheid. The ANC and PAC in exile were an integral part of the call to boycott and sanction apartheid. Thankfully, the airwaves have been (supposedly) free since the advent of our democracy. That SABC radio station that we loathed has transformed into SAFM, catering to all ages and sectors throughout our still beautiful country. However, the narratives then have been cleverly revised and reinvented, to maintain the old power system, and the gross disparities that are apparent all around us.

Our democracy has created servility and compliance, with contorted arguments being put forward about keeping politics out of sport when sport just continues to impinge on politics. Because so many sports administrators have become accustomed to the privileged positions they enjoy, they have tended to bend over “blackwards” – in the 1970s we would label them “non-White” – with the previous status quo being largely maintained. Similarly, many of us fight one another to get prized boardroom positions in previously (and largely still) exploitative big business. And, we do kill to get into prime public positions, don’t we?

It is tragic that apologism has flourished, while those struggles that were responsible for ushering in democracy, have been dismissed and all but forgotten. A new breed of sports stars is cultivated by Model C and private schools, with sport – remember the old compulsory PE? – almost disappearing in public schools that serve the overwhelming majority. So, when an under-19 captain displays his politics and is disciplined, racism/anti-Semitic claims are trotted out. Let’s tell that to all those who were denied rightful places in national teams, until democracy.

Our memories are sadly short. History, where it’s taught in our schools, still remains profoundly tied to settler colonialism, racism and their justifications. In the late 1980’s, pockets of largely white entitlement collaborated with the apartheid state to promote rebel cricket tours here, although apartheid was declared a crime against humanity and international economic sanctions, sport, cultural and other boycotts of apartheid had firmly taken root across the globe. The advent of democracy would not have been possible without the political strategy of boycotting apartheid sports. So, perhaps, ons is sportmal! This is no excuse for selective perception and ignoring our terrible history and being forced to fritter away our hard-won democracy.

Most acknowledge that rugby steadily began to change. Some may cynically say they followed the money and needed to shed their obstinate exclusion of the majority. We cannot ignore the terrible Louis Luyt’s control of rugby, when then-president Nelson Mandela showed the way, and was prepared to go there himself.

He honoured a subpoena when no court would have forced the head of state to appear on such a frivolity, intended to demean Mandela. The trajectory since then has been somewhat of a beacon to other sporting codes to emulate, not bend over at the least pressure, however loud/strident these may be.

Cricket SA has overly relied on a single advocate’s finding that ignores international human rights consensus, the apartheid impact on our sensibilities and the narratives that bombard us. In this Tower of Babylon, the quest for truth and the restoration of our common humanity become victims, denying apartheid’s legacy that we seriously need to truly leave behind, not hide in new cladding.

Nobel laureate, and Holocaust survivor, Elie Wiesel wrote of “the divine retribution of memory”. We remember, so that we don’t mindlessly repeat the traumatic examples of our horrific past, and abuse our democracy for narrow ends.

All human beings are valuable, however self-important and mighty they appear to be. No form of racism, sexism and narrow sectarianism should prevail in one of the most diverse societies on earth, where all are assured dignity, and where their potential should be enabled to blossom, beyond the grating rhetoric and never-ending narrow narrative.

Apartheid survived for so long because many of us were scared of its consequences. As we enter the 30th anniversary of democracy, the intertwining of sport and politics has and will continue to play an important role as a catalyst for social cohesion in our splintered society. No sector can be exempt from our democratic constitutional imperatives.

Prof Saths Cooper is president of the Pan African Psychology Union, a former leader of the Black Consciousness Movement and a member of the 1970s group of activists.