The reviews of John Carlin’s book Playing the enemy, which I have yet to read, are amazing. The Independent Book Review by Raymond Whitaker has a witty sub text: Mandela tries – and converts, which through rugby lingo, goes to the heart of the book. Whitaker says that “the photograph on the cover shows a moment that even those who have never been to South Africa, or witnessed a rugby match, would recognise as iconic. Nelson Mandela, the black revolutionary who emerged from 27 years in prison to become president, is handing the rugby World Cup to François Pienaar, a blonde giant who might have been chosen by Central Casting to represent white Afrikaner domination. Both men are wearing the Springbok rugby shirt, once a hated symbol of that domination.”
Then there is the USA Today review by Bob Minzesheimer: “If you have any doubts about the political genius of Nelson Mandela, read John Carlin’s engrossing book inspired by a rugby game. When whites ruled South Africa, rugby — think football without helmets and pads — was their national sport, a secular religion and metaphor for apartheid’s brutality.”
The reviewer, points out that “It’s easy to overestimate the political influence of sports, which often is fleeting, despite all the drama and emotion. Carlin avoids that.” A movie I believe may be in the offing, but I hope this book-movie provides space for debate and recognition for those who consistently campaigned through sports (as a part of people’s culture) against Apartheid policies in sports and in society. Here we must acknowledge the stirling work inside the country of the South African Council on Sports (SACOS) which enjoyed great international recognition fighting racial oppression and exploitation. Some of its top leaders include Hassan Howa, Frank Van der Horst, Colin Clarke, Mr. Don Kali, M.N. Pather, and M.Morgan, Norman Middleton, and thousands of others who denied themselves the chance to play and administer sports at the highest level possible nationally (if society was just) and at international levels because of Apartheid.
Campaigning under the slogan NO NORMAL SPORTS IN AN ABNORMAL SOCIETY, Howa lead the way to isolate South Africa from all the sports codes, politically and culturally.
Internationally they worked closely with SANROC (South African Non racial Olympic Committee) where Sam Ramsammy was a courageous leader. Others in the Anti Apartheid movement, played their role and very few remember that the poet Dennis Brutus was one of the early anti apartheid sports campaigners, having served a time in Robben Island as well. There are many others, women especially who were not in leadership, who played a role.
So when Carlin writes about the rugby he knows that many people will not necessarily celebrate the joy and miracles, etc. that Mandela symbolizes for some. (And here I am not talking of the usual racist antagonists, but critics from the left!). Carlin’s interview with the late Strini Moodley attests to this community of critics, and for the importance of their views I will reproduce a snippet here-under.
One comrade and leader of the sports movement that was particularly strong in our schools was the late Reggie Feldman (also a teacher and principal of a high school). I recall one day a radio presenter friend asked me to approach him for an interview on a radio station about his views, and he was reluctant, in fact refused to go on, because he believed that the media will not be free to hear his views. I respected him for his role in the struggle, although I did not understand and did not agree with him about not engaging the media, albeit biased.
Finally, I believe it was easier to campaign to isolate South African racist sport than to build a truly non racial sports movement and society. SACOS had its faults and its critics, about its tactics and even strategies, especially around the political programme of many of its leaders who were aligned to the Non European Unity Movement, but one thing is certain: they were the only expression of politcs (public) in some communities and used sports creatively as both expression of human potential and joy and a weapon against racism. I recall in a long school bus journey from Joburg to CapeTown to run in the school sports meeting. In the bus with us, was Mr. N. Rathinasamy, was the first president of SANROC and a founder member of SACOS. He was the president of the South African Senior Schools Sport Association for many years, sharing leadership in the schools sports movement with Mr. R.A. both, now late, and were school principals– talking to us, about non racism: there is no such a thing as races. There is only one race – the human race!
(excerpt of the interview I mentioned ealier)
Has Mandela crossed that boundary on occasion that you just marked out there?
I’d have to think about that. I can’t remember the occasion but I suspect there was a time when I thought now he’s wrong. I can’t remember the time. But there must have been instances where he did cross the barrier.
I want to gauge your response to a couple of incidents when Mandela made waves, mainly in particular the Rugby World Cup … when he turned up wearing Francois Pienaar’s jersey …
… I’m not a rugby fan, so I wasn’t watching, but somebody told me about it or I saw it subsequently on a news broadcast. And I thought, well, what can I say? At a time when the leader of the country needed to be embracing black people, and putting his heart out to black people for all they’d been through, here he was doing this — in a game which was closed to the black community, first of all, and which very few black people supported.
But then I thought well, here’s this old man … he’d do a thing like that. It didn’t surprise me. It didn’t shock me. I felt that, again, we are doing something that is sending the wrong signal to both white and black people, but it was done, and there was nothing more one could do or say about it. I had hoped that what would subsequently happen is to see some kind of reciprocation from the white community, and it just reinforced my belief and my analysis that rather than have it reciprocated, he eventually gets taken to court, and is forced to be subjected to the most harshest examination. Now, those two things just in my mind are so inconceivable, so mutually exclusive, the man bends over backwards to reconcile. Not just with the sport, but the people who love the sport, who are primarily white, and those same people then take him and place him in a court and subject him to cross examination over the same issue of rugby. I just think well, there they go. Slapping him in the face again. I wonder if he is going to learn a lesson from it.
You say you are not a rugby man, but … you are a political man … the Springbok rugby team, the Springbok jersey–these were symbols of apartheid repression …
And there was Mandela wearing that jersey.
… if you want to know about the political aspect of it, I think Nelson simply demonstrated how he was caught in a time warp. Even though he was released from Robben Island, he was still living in the ’50s. It was a slap in the face for black people in terms of a political statement, that you take something like the Springbok emblem, and the Springbok rugby jersey on top of that, wear it, and black people must have felt appalled that this could be done. Politically, I think it was the worst thing that he could have done, in terms of representing black people. From the point of view of what everybody is now calling the rainbow nation, I suppose, ja. You know, who’s in the rainbow nation? What have we got, about 13% whites and add another five or six percent black people into that, and that’s your rainbow nation. Because at least 80% of people in this country don’t know the meaning of the word rainbow, because they’re still struggling to survive–living in poverty, homeless, jobless.