Apartheid: The political influence of sport

There is probably no better argument for the close connection between politics and sport than apartheid South Africa.

Not only were politics and sport intrinsically entwined in the country, but sport was also used as a vehicle to rid the country of the apartheid policy.

For many years — apartheid notwithstanding — South Africa participated in international sport, and several South African athletes achieved excellent results.

All of that changed, though, in 1960 when the then-British Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan, made his famous ”Winds of Change” speech in South Africa.

There had, of course, been protest both internally and externally against the racist sports policies of the South African government before 1960, but as more African countries gained independence from their erstwhile colonial masters in the 1960s, this pressure increased dramatically.

South Africa was formally expelled from the International Olympic Committee in 1970 — ten years after last competing at the showpiece of international sport.

The country was suspended from football’s world body Fifa in 1961. After a visit to the country by the English president of Fifa, Stanley Rous, the suspension was lifted and South African football officials suggested they send an all-white team to the 1966 World Cup in England, and an all-black one to Mexico four years later.

Not surprisingly, this idea was rejected and the suspension reimposed. In 1976, after police shot and killed unarmed school pupils protesting the use of Afrikaans in schools, Fifa expelled the white Football Association of South Africa.

Thereafter the pressure on the South African government increased at all levels — sport being one of them. Internally, protest was led by the non-racial South African Council on Sport (Sacos), while externally it was the exiled South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (San-Roc) that was in the forefront of organising resistance to the racist sports policies of the apartheid government.

The main form of resistance used was an international sports boycott, which became a rallying point for anti-apartheid activists worldwide. Internally, the protest consisted of demonstrations and the refusal to have any contact with those involved in racist sport. Together, these measures comprised the sports struggle.

To counter this pressure, the South African government introduced a number of superficial changes, which allowed sporting contacts between races within strict parameters set down by the government.

As pressure grew for fundamental change in South Africa, sport was increasingly ”normalised” by the government, but within the framework of a racially divided country. Sacos quickly countered these changes by adopting the slogan: ”No normal sport in an abnormal society.”

In an interview with Deutsche Presse-Agentur, former Sacos president Joe Ebrahim acknowledges the role the sports boycott had in finally ridding the country of apartheid. ”It was one of those areas that was auxiliary to the political struggle.

”I don’t think one can place sport in such a high category as to say that it was instrumental in bringing about change, but I think what it did, it focused people’s attention on the fact that we couldn’t live almost a dual life in terms of which in everyday society we were denied basic rights, we were denied the opportunity to exercise our universal rights and then go and play sport as if it was a normal world.

”So from that point of view the political influence in sport played a tremendous role in bringing across to people that society is far broader than simply the question of where you stay and what you are allowed to do etc.

”It also has to deal with interaction between human beings, and you can’t be accepted, to a certain extent, being an equal on the weekend when you play sport but then for the rest of the week you are treated as being unequal.”

Sport thus contributed towards the complete isolation of South Africa, which then in turn contributed towards the unbanning of black political organisations and ultimately towards the first democratic elections in 1994. — Sapa-dpa

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