Athletics and Apartheid: The Evolution of Integrated Sports in South Africa

By Danilewitz, Justin | Harvard International Review, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview
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Athletics and Apartheid: The Evolution of Integrated Sports in South Africa

Danilewitz, Justin, Harvard International Review

JUSTIN DANILEWITZ, Staff Writer, Harvard International Review

In 1995, Johannesburg's Ellis Park Stadium hosted what was arguably the most significant sporting event in South African history. It was only the third occasion for which the rugby-playing nations of the world had assembled for the Rugby World Cup, and the South African team participating in the tournament had reached the final round. The fifteen men on the team now prepared to play the most important match of their lives before a home crowd of 60,000 fans.

The final match pitted two rival rugby-playing nations against each another--the South African Springboks and the New Zealand All Blacks. During the apartheid years, the All Blacks had drawn fire for continuing competition with the Springboks despite international boycotts on South African sports. This criticism intensified with the All Blacks' practice of keeping their non-white players off the team on trips to South Africa, apparently in deference to the South African rugby elite. The policies of the South African Rugby Board mirrored the country's political climate by denying non-white South Africans membership on the board and by refusing to include non-whites on national teams playing in overseas tours. Now, on the eve of the Rugby World Cup Final, it was fitting that South Africa's official re-entry into international rugby competition would culminate in a final pairing with the All Blacks. The match-up evoked a sense of poetic symbolism that was lost on few rugby aficionados.

The organizers of the historic match realized its dramatic potential and produced pre- and post-match frills befitting the occasion. The current President, who had been imprisoned by the apartheid regime for twenty-seven years, now walked onto the perfectly-manicured field wearing the captain's green number seven jersey as a show of support. Entering what had for so long been the exclusive domain of Afrikanerdom, President Nelson Mandela joined the citizens of the new South Africa in wishing their team good luck. The head of state proceeded to shake the hands of each of the South African players gathered on the sideline before him in the ultimate display of national unity and reconciliation. In the land of contrasts, that sunny August afternoon conferred its own new meaning upon the phrase.

To be sure, not everyone was caught up in the euphoric swell of new, liberal South African patriotism. Here and there, amidst the sea of faces, could be found the odd stalwarts who refused to unfurl the newly adopted national flag, preferring to hoist the old one instead. These, however, were powerless acts of mini-rebellion, displays of a minority's hopeless nostalgia. These differences aside, when the referees' whistle signaled the start of play, history and politics were forgotten for the next eighty minutes.

In most countries, sport provides a haven from the trials of daily political life. Until the 1995 Rugby World Cup, however, South Africans had never enjoyed a distinction between their country's sports and politics because sports had always been infused with political strife. Thus, on Robben Island, the notorious island prison camp that housed apartheid's most closely guarded political prisoners, Nelson Mandela included, the small soccer teams were divided along political lines with the African National Congress (ANC) and the Pan-African Congress (PAC) fielding opposing teams.

Long before the institutionalization of apartheid, South Africans of all races had cherished a vibrant sporting tradition, but unlike other countries, participants and spectators came to be determined by their racial group identification. Aside from a little-known tradition of black rugby which is more than a century old, soccer has historically garnered the most black support, while whites have tended to support rugby and cricket. This divide was due to the Victorian social hierarchies of English colonists and later on, to the far superior facilities available exclusively for white recreational and professional athletes.

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