The politics of race permeates every aspect of South African life, including sports. A detailed study of race and sports is not an objective of this website.

The political history falls roughly into these areas :

1. The policies of the national governing bodies like the 1899 South African Amateur Swimming Union, which does  not mention racial issues at all; the Cape Town based (coloured?) 1966 SA Swimming Federation (SAASwiF) and its successor SAASA (1975), which then became the Amateur Swimming Association of South Africa (ASAASA).

2. The Sports Boycott 1961 - 1991 which prevented South African teams from competing in international competitions like the Olympic Games and FINA World Championships, although it did not prevent South Africans from swimming in the United States.

3. The Post -1992 era, where politics continues to play a part, through quotas and "transformation".

When a group white English men set up the South African Amateur Swimming Union in 1899, they did it to regulate their own, private, activities - which were mainly playing water polo, with a bit of swimming - there was only one swimming Championships at the first nationals. Their constitution was written in English, which was their common language, and it makes no mention of Afrikaans, women or blacks - probably because it never occurred to do so. Over time they would allow women, but they never allowed an Afrikaner to be President, nor did they ever have any black members. The did so in the midst of a war - the Cape Colony and it motherland great Britain, had declared was against the neighbouring republics of the Orange free State and the ZAR (Transvaa) only a few weeks earlier, and many of their members were going north on active service. After the war they happily expanded their affiliations to include the new territories - Pretoria, the Orange River Colony (ORC), Natal and then Rhodesia, which drew in competitors from as far north as Ndola and Kitwe. No official links seem to have existed with the Portuguese in neighbouring Mozambique, although South West Africa soon joined as province. 

The politics of race and gender played little part in this process of development. The best swimmers were selected to compete in Springbok colours at the Empire Games and Olympic Games - where they met with some success, and for the 1952 Games an  Springbok water polo team was selected, for the first time. 

But the realities of realpolitik of the South African power struggle meant that the ANC and PAC were mobilising world opinion as a weapon in their battle for supremacy in South African - and the sportmen were deemed acceptable collateral damage - if not actual cannon fodder. So the amateur sports administrators became pawns in a war they had little power to influence, because they were essentially law-abiding citizens, who could or would not break the law by having multi-racial sports events, however iniquitous such laws might be. In the end, they simply capitulated, handing control of their sports to the new government-sponsored national governing bodies.

In the aftermath of the 1994 elections all control of sporting bodies passed directly into the hands of the government - who appointed new leaders for every sporting code. Control of aquatic sports was given as a reward to Sam Ramsamy, an ANC stalwart and architect of the international sporting boycott against the swimming. Today he is not only a vice-president of FINA, but also a member of the International Olympic Committee. 

The new national governing body, known as Swimming South Africa (following the British naming convention for sporting bodies) is funded by the government,  with objetcives aimed at achieving "transformation" in aquatic sports.  Amongst other things, this means teams must represent the demographic makeup of South African society, in practice - teams, and administrations, must be largely black. The Swimming South Africa Constitution states : ‘Transformation’ shall mean the strategic process throughout SSA structures to re-dress the previous inequalities and to cater for the needs of the majority of the populace. 

Click here to read the governments Transformation Strategy.

The effect of these policies has been the introduction of quotas, which has a siginificant effect on water polo in particlar, where teams are required to have a minimum number of black players to be eligible to compete in championships.  As a result players have left South Africa to compete for other countries - see the article on former national team captain Sarah Harris - now playing for Austraila. 

In 2008 an article was published in the Sunday Times, which resulte in a Commision of Enquiry into Swimming in South Africa.

Fear Factor Sinks Swimmers

While South Africa struggles to come to terms with its worst Olympic performance in 72 years damning claims have emerged of racism, threats, assault and victimisation by top swimming officials before and during the Games.

In the firing line are head coach Dirk Lange and Rushdee Warley, manager of the team in Beijing. Allegations against the pair, which paint a picture of a culture of fear in SA swimming, include:

Swimmer Shaun Harris claimed this week that Lange, a German national, hit him in the face at the world short-course championships in Manchester earlier this year and warned him:“ Now shut up, I’ll knock you the f**k down.”

At a meet in Japan in 2007, Neil Versfeld claims Lange responded to a question from himabout Olympic trial dates by saying, “Neil, you’re f****d, you’re not going to Olympics.”

Lange is accused of standing by and smiling while Roland Schoeman and Gerhard Zandberg had a stand-up row at the pre-Olympic camp in South Korea, when Ryk Neethling had to step in.

In his soon-to-be released autobiography, Neethling lashes out at Lange and criticises his intimidation tactics. He says their relationship was so bad he once refused to have a private meeting with Lange because he believed things would get physical.

Lange’s relationship with SA’s US-based swimmers is known to be at rock-bottom.

Warley has been accused of racism, once when Lange allegedly told Harris the manager didn’t like him because he was “white and Afrikaans”.

In the other instance, Jean-Marie Neethling claims she was warned by Warley not to speak Afrikaans after doing so at this year’s world junior championships in Rio de Janeiro —because it was “the racist language”.

Warley was accused by Harris of twice telling him to “f**k off” when he first asked for a swimsuit at a hotel during the short-course championships. After haggling, Harris was allegedly told: “Take the f*****g thing and f**k off.”

Suzaan van Biljon was reduced to tears after Warley apparently screamed at her over a breach of protocol in Beijing. She has since been called to a disciplinary hearing.

Lize-Marie Retief was scolded for having a “God power” tattoo (actually a cokie-pen drawing).

Two groups of swimmers separately complained to the chef de mission in Beijing about treatment meted out to them by Warley; and Four swimmers, among them Melissa Corfe, had a frantic run around to secure Chinese visas in South Korea because Warley apparently hadn’t cross-checked their accreditation numbers with their passports.

Former Olympic coach Wayne Riddin spoke angrily about the Swimming South Africa (SSA) administration.“

Every kid wants to swim their heart out for SA, but their morale is low because of the administrators. They’re so scared that they duck away from management,” said Riddin, head coach of the Seals club, which had four swimmers in Beijing.

“I’m prepared to put my career on the line by speaking out because SSA has stuffed things up these past four years.“

Dirk and Rushdee have to go. Things can’t go on this way.”

Riddin expects little to be done in the wake of the Games fiasco, citing many examples where problems had been brought to SSA’s attention, only to be ignored.

“Dirk was my coach, we had a good relationship,” said a despondent Harris. “I want peace, but I have to stand up for the swimmers.”

Speaking from the US on Friday, Neethling said: “It’s time something is done. The atmosphere is terrible.”

There’s also unhappiness over Lange’s role in Beijing. Despite being head coach of the SA team, he was accredited by Eurosport, for whom he did commentary. Lange cleared this with SSA on the basis that it would allow one extra coach to travel with the team, but this was extraordinary, given that his chief job was to coach South Africa in Beijing.

When the allegations were put to Lange, he defended each one. He said his Eurosport work never kept him away from his team duties.

“I attended every swim session and was always on pool deck,” he said. “All the swimmers know how it works. ”

He never spent time with the US-based relay swimmers because they had their own coach, Rick DeMont.

 Referring to the pool deck argument in South Korea, Lange claims to have stopped it himself— which conflicts with other versions, including Neethling’s.

“I made sure the argument stopped. I spoke to Roland and Gerhard. This thing could happen in any sport. They later shook hands ... I don’t know why it’s become such a big story. (I thought) the argument in Korea was managed pretty well .” Asked about Harris’s assault allegation he said: “I have no idea . I can’t remember. I deny it.”

He said he couldn’t be expected to remember an altercation with Versfeld that occurred 15months ago, saying they enjoyed a “good relationship”

.Lange claimed the media was picking on him and defended the Beijing Games as a“successful” one for the swimmers. “There were a lot of Africa records. Why are you coming after me?”

He said he never spoke to Neethling because the swimmer flew in separately, from the US.

“He is a guy who must come to me ... I can’t run to everyone. You should ask him (Ryk) about the official warning he got from Sascoc in Korea.

”(This was denied on Friday by Sascoc official Hajeera Kajee, Team SA’s chef de mission in Beijing).

Asked about the poisonous atmosphere within local swimming, Lange said: “It may be the view of some guys, but guys who work with me say we have a good relationship. With people like Ryk, understand I am always attacking him, but it’s based on performance.

”There is speculation that his contract, which runs until the end of 2008, won’t be renewed. But Lange said negotiations were at a sensitive stage.

Warley denied ever swearing and refuted claims of racism made by Jean- Marie Neethling and Harris. “Against Afrikaans? That’s beyond my comprehension. My kids attend a school that is predominantly Afrikaans.”

He said Van Biljon was in breach of Sascoc protocol for wearing the wrong outfit and he pointed this out to her coach, Karoly von Toros. He says he admonished her for “being rude” and denied screaming at her.

 Despite Harris claiming Warley had been in their presence when Lange allegedly hit him, Warley said he hadn’t seen the incident or heard any swearing.

Warley conceded that the atmosphere in SA swimming was “an issue” and that some things, including the strained relationship between Neethling and Lange, had led to unhappiness.

“I have a working relationship with Roland Schoeman, Ryk and Lyndon Ferns. I can’t answer the issues surrounding Dirk. I spoke to Ryk in South Korea, but I wasn’t there to witness the pool deck episode.”

As for the technical glitches and the complaints about him in Beijing, Warley said these were promptly dealt with to everyone’s satisfaction. “But I must stress: the wild allegations are unfounded.”

On Friday, Kajee said the gripes about Warley were less complaints than “challenges”. She refused to discuss the matter regarding Van Biljon, saying, “We’ll deal with it, but I won’t discuss it with you.”

Warley said plans were afoot for an Olympic swimming de-briefing at the end of next week.

Astonishingly, there is no intention to include a single swimmer.


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