A winning solution

The African National Congress has deftly turned certain defeat into a minor triumph with its right turn on a renewed sports boycott. Now, once again, the governing bodies of South Africa's sporting community are in a state of public gratitude to the movement, and give or take an armband here and a sticker there, will be more or less calling the ANC's tune. The alternative would have been disastrous for everyone concerned. Persisting with the call for a resuscitated moratorium would have had precisely the opposite effect to that intended.

Once again the victims of apartheid would have been hurt while those the boycott was intended to knock would have been no more than irritated and new divisions would have been fostered where unity was beginning to take root. In all likelihood the South African team would have proceeded to Barcelona, and the All Blacks and Wallabies would have made their way here, while the Cameroon tour would have been scotched – making the millions of soccer fans double victims. Within the National Olympic Committee of South Africa (Nocsa) and the South African Rugby Football Union (SARFU) it was not only the white, "establishment" officials who were opposing the re-imposition of the moratorium.

The ANC supporters were pushing pretty hard too, as were their counterparts in the South African Football Association (Safa). And neither the rugby football unions of New Zealand and Australia nor the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were showing much sign of bowing to the ANC 's dictates. The chances of an embarrassing and messy defeat were high. Within the ANC NEC those like Steve Tshwete and Mluleki George, who were vested with responsibility for the sporting arena, were keenly aware of the dilemma. This became even sharper when Cameroon president Paul Biya took the rhetoric a little too literally and to the surprise of the ANC called off the tour. That made the situation untenable: the black soccer fans suffering and, in all likelihood, the white rugby fans getting their way.

Nelson Mandela intervened, the Cameroon tour was back on track and the boycott was effectively over. What the ANC needed to do was to salvage some political kudos out of the confusion, which is what Wednesday's press conference was all about. The Olympics, the soccer, rugby and cricket tours will all go ahead, subject to a set of conditions – already agreed to by Nocsa and Safa ­ but no further tours will be arranged until the ANC gives the go-ahead.

Among the ANC's conditions are that the sports bodies "voice their unqualified support for a democratically-elected constitution making body", that "all sports people will wear stickers and armbands saying 'Peace and Democracy' at all sports events and functions" and that touring teams will visit Boipatong to "express solidarity with the victims of the massacre". There will also be advertisements from the sports bodies supporting peace and democracy, a flame for peace and democracy at the FNB stadium and individual statements from the players and athletes themselves while it is hard to imagine the likes of prospective Springbok prop and former AWB commander Piet Bester wearing his ''Peace and Democracy" sticker in the serum, or Tom Petranoff, who abandoned his own country to settle in State of Emergency South Africa four years ago, wearing an ANC-inspired armband around his javelin-throwing biceps, the movement is likely to get its way, more or less.

Springbok cricket captain Kepler Wessels said he was sure his men would have "no problem making a gesture for peace which we support'', while high jumper Charmaine Weavers is said: "I believe in peace and democracy – if that is what it takes to participate, I would gladly do so". In any event the IOC rules permit only the display of black armbands, and not those with political slogans, so the athletes might be spared the trouble. The initial response from the government, its allies, as well as the far left, suggests a state of profound irritation that once again it has been the ANC which has determined the pace and content of South Africa's sporting fortunes.

The hardline South African Council on Sport accused the ANC and its sporting allies of "double standards", adding:  “We cannot find words to express adequately our condemnation of the actions of those individuals who betrayed our sports struggle". Sports Minister Piet Marais – a wiser man than his predecessor Louis Pienaar – has kept quiet, but Pik Botha could not be restrained and issued a piqued statement which noted that the ANC's qualified approval for international sports contacts had been made because "it realised it had no real support for its call for a re­ introduction of the moratorium".

The Citizen thundered "blackmail" in its editorial, saying the ANC "had no right to extract any pledges from any sports body and no sports body should have surrendered to this blackmail by the ANC". SARFU has yet to state its mind on the conditions (though the Transvaal and Northern Transvaal unions have given them a firm no), but the other sports bodies know what it takes to play the game and have been only too happy to comply. In the end the compromise reached is one in which most of the key parties concerned the sportsmen and women, the administrators, the millions of fans and the ANC – come out winners.

This article originally appeared in the Weekly Mail.

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Gavin Evans
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