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Southern Africa Report Archive

Long-time SAR contributor, Bruce Kidd, reflects back on the anti-apartheid struggle on the sporting front in his review of Mihir Bose's recent book, Sporting Colours.

vol 10 no 5

Review: Sporting colours
review by Bruce Kidd

Printable Version
Southern Africa Report

SAR, Vol 10, No 5, July 1995
Page 27



Bruce Kidd, director of physical and health education at the University of Toronto, has had a long involvement in the struggle against apartheid in sports.

Sporting Colours: Sport and Politics in South Africa, by Mihir Bose (London: Robson, 1994), xii and 256 pages, including index.

In the four years since athletic teams representing the `real South Africa' (in Sam Ramsamy's insistent phrase) have begun to compete in international sports, perhaps no event signalled the end of the old white supremacist ways and the beginnings of the new non-racial ones as the very first `coming out', the 1991 cricket tour in India.

The announcement of the tour caught the entire sporting world by surprise. Less than two years previously the Mass Democratic Movement had shut down white cricket czar Ali Bacher's last opportunistic attempt at a `rebel tour', and brought an end to his cosmetically staged coaching program in the townships. It seemed hardly likely that the new South Africa would first emerge in a sport where the leading association had been so thoroughly discredited.

The touring cricket eleven was the first in South African history to be racially integrated, and it played against an opponent white South Africa had never deigned to play. During all the years of the international boycott, apologists for apartheid continually harped on the need for selection on the basis of merit, and the importance of `bridge-building' through sports, ignoring the fact that white South Africa had always denied black South Africans a place on `representative' teams. It had never wanted to play India, Pakistan or the West Indies, often very best in cricket, and tried to stop other opponents from including athletes of colour on their teams.

Moreover, it was the ANC which made the tour to India happen, even though it was still a long way from achieving formal political power. In a dramatic demonstration of the long-banned organization's ability to control the agenda for change and its willingness to take risks to advance it, ANC leader Nelson Mandela and sports chief Steve Tshwete made the calls to the international community to bring down the longstanding moratorium and start the normalization of South African sports.

The leadership of the tour was racially mixed as well, heralding the sweeping organizational changes the ANC and their allies in the anti-apartheid sports movement were bringing to South African sports. The new, non-racial cricket organization which undertook the tour had been forged in a merger between the white cricket union and the long-suffering non-racial cricket board, setting a model for similar `unity' federations in other sports.

The stunning turnaround in South African cricket provides the narrative framework for British-based cricket writer Mihir Bose's popular account of the long struggle against apartheid sport. It is a victors' tale, of justice, courage and persistence triumphing over brutal oppression and hypocrisy. Bose tells it well, integrating portraits and personal reflections of the major players, including Dennis Brutus, Ramsamy, Mululeki George, Ngonde Balfour, Tswhete and Bacher with his account.

In explaining the gradual success of the anti-apartheid organizations, first to isolate white South Africa in sport, and then to achieve sport unification under a non-racial banner, Bose gives the greatest weight to actors and events within South Africa.

He is convinced that the international boycott would never have garnered support had it not been for the arrogant stupidity of the white sports officials. During the days of petty apartheid, so many of their counterparts in the leading sports organizations around the world seemed ready to turn a blind eye to apartheid, he suggests, that misrepresentation and the promise of cosmetic change might have carried them through. But they stuck to their guns so fiercely that it became impossible for anyone to defend them.

In 1970, for example, at a meeting of the International Olympic Committee, white South African Olympic leader Frank Braun attacked the critics of apartheid so aggressively that even his friends like IOC president Avery Brundage were unable to prevent South Africa's expulsion. The tide turned in cricket that same year when South African president John Vorster warned that Basil D'Oliveira, a South African black who had been forced to emigrate to England to play the game at the top level, would not be allowed to enter the country if he was named to the English team for a forthcoming tour. The announcement put the South African sports establishment on the defensive for good.

Likewise, Bose gives the greatest credit for the creation of the new, non-racial sports organizations and their entry into international competition, to sports-loving ANC veterans like Balfour, Tswhete, and George working within South Africa. It was their fierce desire to improve sporting opportunities for blacks, even under the conditions of apartheid, which led them to go beyond the strategy of `no normal sport in an abnormal society' and the complete boycott of all South African sport which activists pursued during the 1970s and 1980s. To do this, they devised a `two-track strategy', seeking to develop international links for the non-racial sports movement alongside the anti-apartheid boycott. They shrewdly took over the empty `bridge-building' rhetoric of the white apologists and tried to give it substance within their own activities. When the ANC was unbanned and the `pillars of apartheid' came down, they hit the ground running and have been able to control the direction of development ever since.

Bose does acknowledge the international campaign - especially the contributions of the African and socialist governments and the anti-apartheid organizations - and the extra-sport economic and military factors, but he ascribes considerably less attention to them than I feel is appropriate. A more complete account would devote more attention to the mounting pressure these factors produced.

While it is gratifying to read about such a clear triumph - Sporting Colours has little of the tension and raw anger of earlier books on this subject, most of which were written by activists caught up in the uncertainties of difficult struggle - it is far too early to bring closure on the perplexing strategic issues of the long campaign. Bose alludes to some of the strategic dilemmas which divided activists like Brutus and Ramsamy along the way, but neither delineates nor discusses them, as if they can be forgotten in the celebration of victory. In his analysis of the last few years, he suggests that there was little risk to the `two-track' strategy initiated by the young activists in the late 1980s, with nary a word about the doubts many others held at the time. But I still wonder if they could have achieved the differential boycott, especially after the collapse of the Soviet Union, whose solidarity had ensured the isolation of the white South African sports organizations for so many years, and the pervasive liberalism of western countries.

Fortunately, the apartheid regime began to unravel about the same time, so the `two-track' strategy was never put to the test - i.e. the anti-apartheid movement never had to call upon the IOC and countries like Canada to recognize and significantly assist the non-racial bodies while maintaining the boycott against the white South African sports establishment. Nevertheless, the `two-track' strategy did accelerate the timetable for ending the moratorium, because it had many activists thinking and dreaming about international contacts, and those decisions about timing have in turn significantly shaped the new balance of power in South African sport and the extent and rate of genuine democratization. Bose is largely silent about these questions. Sporting Colours is thus unable to provide a full assessment of the final stages of the campaign.

Finally, Bose writes as if women do not exist, despite the fact that they played important roles in every aspect of the struggle, and in cricket, do most of the coaching of youth in large townships like Soweto. (One of these coaches is shown in the book's photographs, but is not named.) He describes Arthur Ashe as `the first great black player to emerge in modern international tennis', forgetting about Wimbleton champion Althea Gibson a generation earlier, and jars readers with non-inclusive (i.e. sexist) language throughout.

Despite these shortcomings, Sporting Colours is a well-written, insightful account of an important aspect of the anti-apartheid struggle. It is an excellent source for younger sports fans who want to know why the sportsworld made white South Africa a pariah for so long.

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