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South African rugby star shines spotlight on the sport’s racist past

South African rugby player Ashwin Willemse (in green jersey) playing against New Zealand’s All Blacks in 2003. Kim Ludbrook/EPA

When an indignant South African rugby pundit Ashwin Willemse recently walked off a live television broadcast he not only became the news – he also cast the spotlight on South African sport’s racist past.

Willemse is a black former rugby player, who was a star wing in the national Springbok team. He was named South African Rugby Player of the Year, Young Player of the Year and the Players’ Player of the Year at the end of his 2003 debut season. He was also in the squad that won the rugby World Cup in 2007, retiring after that tournament.

For the past nine years Willemse has been a technical analyst on the pay TV channel Supersport. He has been working with fellow pundits, Naas Botha and Nick Mallett, for the last six years. Both men played rugby for South Africa when teams consisted of white players only, due to apartheid laws.

The Supersport incident happened after the recent match between two Super rugby franchises, South Africa’s Lions and Australia’s Brumbies. After an ad break Willemse said live on air:

I’ve worked hard to earn my respect in this game. I’m not going to be patronised by two individuals who played in the apartheid era, in the era of segregation. I won’t be undermined.

Next he put his notes down and said:

I’m not going to work with people who undermine other people. You can sit and laugh about it. It’s fine, I don’t mind being ridiculous. I’m happy people can see this.

He then walked off the set.

Supersport issued a statement after the incident. But it failed to shed any light on what had triggered Willemse’s anger. He hasn’t provided any clarification either.

A few days later the sports channel announced that the three men have been pulled off air. An independent mediator would now try and resolve the issue.

Neither Supersport statements has stopped the incident sparking a heated debate in the country – testament to how acutely painful the issue of race remains 24 years after the end of apartheid.

Willemse touched a very sensitive nerve: the incident has its roots in South African sport history where white supremacy was manifest from the earliest historical accounts.

The history of race in sport

Racism permeated all sports. But rugby was where the greatest pain was felt, no doubt because Afrikaners misguidedly claimed it as their sport.

Racism in rugby pre-dated apartheid. In 1911 the South African Coloured Football Rugby Board (representing all black players and administrators at the time) wrote to the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) about a possible tour. When the New Zealanders asked the official South African Rugby Board (white) about the credentials of the coloured union, the curt reply was:

We do not have any dealings with them.

New Zealand went on to reject the tour proposal saying that they would only host teams affiliated with the whites-only South African Rugby Board.

Racism became even more entrenched after the National Party electoral victory in 1948, and the state’s dedicated efforts to institutionalise apartheid. Resistance to this was to grow for the next four decades.

In 1963 black sports activist Dennis Brutus invited the president of the white South African National Olympic Committee, General HB Klopper, to be a guest speaker at a meeting that would consider the formation of a South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee.

Klopper answered simply that the only meetings he attended on a Sunday were church meetings.

Forced into exile, Brutus and other committee members were vilified by the security branch.

The banning of political organisations and key individuals as well as oppressive apartheid laws had a devastating impact on sport – institutions were destroyed as were established black sport traditions. Politically involved black sports leaders were banned or dismissed from their employment.

And the racism was directed at black players in other countries too. In 1965, then prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd announced that Maoris would not be welcome as part of a visiting New Zealand rugby team. As a result the tour was cancelled.

The situation didn’t improve under the next prime minister, John Vorster who took over in 1966. The reaction to the cancelled tour was so great that he initially tried to review the exclusion of Maoris. But hardliners in the parliamentary caucus of his National Party were up in arms.

To manage the backlash, he went on to drive South Africa into even greater isolation by sacrificing its international participation in cricket. He took the decision in 1968 to deny the English cricket team entry to South Africa because of the inclusion of the South African-born black player, Basil D'Oliveira. This led to South Africa being expelled from international cricket two years later.

Attempts at reform

As international isolation and opprobrium intensified, the National Party set about trying to “reform” apartheid in a vain attempt to make it more acceptable. In the sports arena this led to a farcical “multi-national” sports policy which was implemented in the 1970s. In effect sports people, classified as different “races”, were still kept apart.

Opposition to apartheid – both internally and internationally – gained momentum during the 1970s and 1980s. As a result sports isolation intensified.

When FW de Klerk took over as Minister of Sport in 1979, he expressed his dissatisfaction with the organised opposition the multi-national sports policy. He said later in his autobiography:

My responsibility for sport and recreation from 1979 to 1980 landed me, almost immediately, at the centre of political controversy caused by the intense debate on how we should respond to our growing isolation in international sport.

De Klerk’s solution was:

Sport should be totally depoliticised and the state’s role should be limited to assistance and financial support, without any conditions with racial connotations. I managed to persuade the cabinet and the caucus to agree to this proposal.

Dismantling of apartheid

After the unbanning of South Africa’s liberation movements in 1990, signalling the dismantling of apartheid, the sports boycott started unravelling. Many South African teams got readmitted to international controlling sports bodies.

But even since the official start of democracy with the country’s first inclusive election in 1994, the policy of apartheid has remained in place in many ways – particularly economically. For example, South Africa is the most unequal society in the world with inequality delineated primarily by race. Apartheid’s racial divide between black and white remain largely untouched, and racism remains a daily reality.

So, Willemse’s claim of white patronage goes back a long way. And his anger reflects the fact that a great deal hasn’t been redressed, let alone properly reversed.

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