Mountains capped in white history

The feat of Africa’s first black woman conquering Mount Everest has piqued interest in the sport of mountaineering in South Africa. But restricted access means that the dreams of most black mountaineers will never be fulfilled.

Saray Khumalo’s historical efforts saw her return home to a hero’s welcome. Her words and deeds have encouraged especially black women to emulate her. They also highlighted the slow development of the sport among the majority of the country’s population.

READ MORE: Ain’t no mountain high enough

Sports historians point to anideology focused on exclusion practised during our colonial and apartheid past that all but squashed the idea of mountain climbing being a sport for black people.

The premier organisation for the sport locally is the Mountain Club of South Africa (MCSA), established in 1891.

Though not stipulated in its constitution, the club’s records and minutes from meetings indicate that it initially barred women, Jews and blacks from their activities.


“It was cowardly and clever,” says independent sports historian Farieda Khan.

In her 2018 paper, A century of mountaineering: race, class and the politics of climbing Table Mountain, 1890–1990, Khan explores the history of the sport in Cape Town.

“(Segregation) was never in their constitution. So if you were black, or if you were Jewish, you weren’t allowed to be a member… to join, you had to be nominated by a member, and then there was a vote. And that’s how they blackballed and kept people out,” says Khan.

Attempts by aspirant black mountaineers to participate inthe MCSA throughout the apartheid era was met by “paternalistic” attitudes, more so to manage the number of black climbers, Khan concludes.

Women were allowed into the club shortly after its founding and the first Jewish member was admitted in the 1940s. An attempt to establish a non-racial club in the 1970s was soon quashed, with one of its more outspoken founders, Dave Cheesmond, declared persona non grata.

MCSA president Greg Moseley acknowledges that his organisation reflected the “social norms of the time”.

He confirms that the first black member joined the club in 1986.

“Historically there was never any animosity between coloured climbers and whites. Obviously, there’s a certain percentage of white members of the mountain club who were right wing, because that was the norm of the time. The same way that when you go back to when the club was formed in the 1890s it was definitely a white, male-only club,” adds Moseley. The club now has about 5000 members nationwide, and 2500 members in the Cape.

“More and more people are joining. And we don’t ask people what race they are. We don’t know the demographic section of the Cape Town section of the Mountain Club anymore. It’s predominantly white, no doubt. But that’s a historical thing, not a South African thing. It’s a historical thing in mountaineering worldwide.

“If you go to any mountaineering club in the world it doesn’t represent the demographics of the country it is in. In New Zealand, for instance, the president of the New Zealand Alpine Club said the club doesn’t represent the demographics of New Zealand. Because, and I have to use slightly racist terms here, not many Maoris climb. Same here. Very few black people climb,” Moseley says.

But Khan says black people living at the foot of Cape Town’s Table Mountain used to enjoya close connection to nature and the mountains.

Black residents of District Sixbelow Devil’s Peak, Protea Village near Kirstenbosch National Botanical Garden,and the Bo-Kaapon the slopes of Signal Hill, actively used the mountain for sport and recreation.

That changed when the Group Areas Act and other spatial laws were implemented, and many people were forcibly removed to the far-flung Cape Flats. This meant access to the mountain became a time and money-consuming exercise.

“Before the 1970s, before those adjacent suburbs along the mountain were declared white areas, the Table Mountain chain was never declared a white area. So it was always used by black Capetonians as a leisure space,” she says.

Khan saysfor decades the MCSA benefited from the patronage of colonial and apartheid political leaders,with Cecil John Rhodes, Jan Smuts and former National Party leader CR Swartall having served as honorary presidents. It’s these political connections and a well-heeled membership that eased access for the MCSA and brought in money for it to grow and acquire resources it still benefits from today, she argues.

It is this economic chasm— between those who benefited from colonialism and apartheid, and those who were disadvantaged by it — that remains.

Previously, black mountaineers mostly belonged to the Cape Province Mountain Club or the Western Province Mountain Club.

“Historically black mountain clubs have been incredibly disadvantaged because they could not access members of the governing party to smooth the way for them or have access to white farmers whose land they had to cross, so they could not access those routes [to hike],” Khan explains.

Moseley said the MCSA has, on several occasions, reached out to these clubs for partnerships, but to no avail.

“We’ve put out feelers to combine or having more co-operation. But the two major coloured clubs choose to retain their independence, and I have to respect that.”

Moseley said that although the MCSA spends much time and money on outreach and development, it has no obligation to actively promote the sport of mountaineering through sponsorships or subsidies for those who can’t afford it.

“We do[sponsor]. But very few of the people we take on outreach eventually join the club. I think we probably concentrated on young kids to the detriment of engaging more with late teens. Because one can take [young kids]up the mountain, they really enjoy it, but it stops there. If you can encourage the late teens to come out, they might join. But it’s quite an expensive sport,” he says.

Khan doesn’t believe the MCSA can be blamed for mountaineering being an elite sport. Unlike hiking, it requires expensive equipment, practice on different mountains and leisure time to be outdoors.

“You have to give the mountain club its due. From the early 1990s they have had development and outreach programmes. They put in a lot of money and time into that. But if you look at the bigger picture, it’s a drop in the ocean. The need is so big. If you live on the Cape Flats, you need money for public transport to get to the mountain,” she says.

This, she believes, can be achieved by actively recruiting young black hikers and sharing the benefits of colonial and apartheid privileges.

In the Mail &Guardian May 30 article ‘Ain’t no mountain high enough’ the paper reported that the MCSA gained its first black member in 1996. The first black member joined the club in 1986. The M&G regrets the error

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Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit
Lester Kiewit is a Reporter, Journalist, and Broadcaster.

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