Shades of Gray


Sports Illustrated article May 16, 1983

Swirling Shades Of Gray

By permitting some integration in sports, as in this soccer game in Soweto, South Africa has created an illusion of progress where little change exists

The only way South Africa gets back into the Olympics is through the bush, with AK-47s.

Every time we clear the high jump, they put the pegs a notch higher.

Over the past 10 years, in newspapers throughout the U.S. and Western Europe, certain low-key advertisements have been appearing. Paid for by the South African government, they usually feature a bland message offering "information regarding progress and development in South Africa." A picture shows black and white athletes in competition together. It is captioned THE CHANGING FACE OF SOUTH AFRICA. If you respond to the invitation from the Minister (Information) of the South African Embassy in Washington, D.C., you might receive some South African government bulletins, such as No. 8/82, which is entitled Multiracial Sport Is Taken for Granted. This publication makes the claim, among others, that sport in South Africa is "multiracial" at all levels and that sports clubs are free to admit players and spectators "regardless of race, religion or politics." The clear inference is that the world is no longer justified in excluding South Africa from its great sporting occasions.

For more than a quarter century South African sport has been one long, drawn-out war, at its ugliest internationally in the violent demonstrations that have taken place from Scotland to New Zealand. It's a war that started with a shot that was scarcely heard around the world when, in 1956, the International Table Tennis Federation expelled the all-white South African Table Tennis Union but that, in 1964, led to the barring of South Africa from the Tokyo Olympics and suspension from FIFA, which governs international soccer.

By the late '70s, South Africa's sporting isolation was virtually complete, and for obvious reasons. Whatever sins and excesses were committed by other nations, South Africa, uniquely, had enshrined race discrimination in its constitution, which disenfranchised 80% of its population and bound those citizens in a cruel net of apartheid laws that, as a byproduct, made normal sport impossible.

Slowly, though, and principally in the past four years, the government claims that, in the matter of sport at least, it has set its house in order. Most recently, early in 1982, it amended two keystones of apartheid, the Group Areas Act and the Liquor Act, insofar as they applied to sporting events. The first reform meant, for instance, that a white soccer team could go into a black township to play a game against blacks without needing a permit. The second made it possible for players of different races to have a drink together after the game and to use the same locker rooms and toilets. Combined with earlier easing of government policy, these acts allowed teams themselves to be mixed racially.

Substantial reforms, you might think, but to many South Africans they have been merely cosmetic. The dissenters charge that underneath, South African sport is still the mirror of an evil regime, but a mirror the government has distorted to confuse outsiders into believing that, while things aren't perfect, they are getting better and that South Africa deserves encouragement, not boycotts. And in one respect the opponents of the regime are right. Once in the country the outsider finds, at first anyway, that his preconceptions are tossed into a whirligig of motion and color that resolves itself into a gray, mazy pattern, like a TV with the tube blown.

Because of all you have read, because the name of the place has become a symbol, you go first to Soweto. It's still very hot this Saturday afternoon in the southern hemisphere's late summer, so as you head west out of Johannesburg, past worked-out gold mines and through a kind of DMZ of empty, scrubby country, there's no sign of the great pall of smoke that, you have been told, hangs for much of the year over South Western Townships, a.k.a. Soweto, where, officially, a million and a half blacks live and, unofficially, many thousands more reside. Each tiny gray matchbox of a house sprouts a stovepipe to carry away the smoke of winter fuel. In most of Soweto there's no electricity.

But the streets are electric enough. Streaming down the dirt road that leads to Orlando Stadium are thousands of fans heading for the big soccer game, the local Orlando Pirates vs. the Iwisa Kaizer Chiefs for the Champion of Champions—their Super Bowl championship for all South Africa. On this afternoon Orlando is their Disney World. Joyfully they chant and sing the Orlando club song, Baba Monomzana Sivulele Singene (Sesame, Open the Door). It takes some effort to recall that the stadium is near the school where 10,000 black students demonstrated in 1976 and triggered more than a year of riots that left, it's thought, more than 600 people dead—no official figures were released.

By game time more than 55,000 people will be crammed into the stadium (capacity: 45,000), with thousands more left outside. Drums beat, not to the joyful samba rhythm of Brazilian soccer drums, but with the kind of menace that put 19th-century explorers off their campfire suppers. Entirely African, also, are the dancers. No cheerleaders these, throwing high kicks. These girls shuffle rhythmically in the dust, wishing, with their feet, a hard time on the Chiefs.

Which is what they got: The Pirates were 2-1 winners after a fast, skillful game. To the visitor, though, it wasn't just the caliber of the match that made the afternoon fascinating. The two players at the heart of the Pirates' defense, Stewart Lilley and Mike Lambert, were white. Another white kept goal for the Chiefs. The referee was white, as was one of the coaches.

And in that vast black assembly, there were more than a handful of white fans. One of them, Paul Miller from Jo'burg, claimed, "I'm here every week." He was somewhat breathless, having just detached himself from a dancing group of black Pirates supporters who were celebrating the win. "The world has got to look at this thing!" he gasped. "This is real multiracial! All those various councils on world sport that keep us out are a load of——!"

After the big game on Saturday, of course, Miller would have had no reason to return to Soweto the following day. Had he done so, he would have seen two local black amateur sides playing in explosions of dust on a dirt strip less than 30 yards wide, cut out of an arid slope. One of the forwards came to the sideline limping and, engaged in conversation, showed only a bitter interest in Saturday's Pirates-Chiefs game. "That's all special," he said. "Those men are special pros, the whites help them. We have nothing. No training facilities, nothing." His voice rose angrily. "Look at it! Look at it!" he shouted, pointing at the scabby patch of earth. In a more normal voice he said, "The people here are crying." He didn't want to give his name.

Inevitably you are drawn to a pleasant, carefully spoken man, George Thabe, who is the president of the black South African National Football (i.e., soccer) Association.

He too is a worried man. He has just had word of an unpleasant incident down in Western Cape Province. There, on its way to play a black side, a colored (i.e., of mixed race) soccer team from Glenville had been turned back at a roadblock outside the black township of Nyanga, where the game was to take place. The police action was apparently illegal under the recent amendment to the Group Areas Act, of course, but that fact was of little comfort to the Glenville team when it met the rural Cape cops. "Nothing like this has happened for three years," Thabe insisted. Seated in his Johannesburg office, he was furious as well as worried. His association—indeed he himself—is a symbol of the government's new sporting look, of its new multiracialism." Here he is, a black man at the head of one of the nation's most important sports bodies, directing a sport that could claim to be the most successfully integrated in South Africa. "In 1978," he said in a later conversation, "we decided that the only criterion for both players and officials should be performance. We were way ahead of the government. I should have been put in jail for some of the things I did before the government amended the law."

It was not only the Glenville incident, though, that worried Thabe. It was also the criticism, not from the government but from a group he refers to darkly as "those people," who, he says, "tell us to do nothing, boycott everything, polarize everybody, stop playing segregated sport. Well, we did stop the segregation in our sport, and now they're saying that's useless. They are politicians who are using sport as a tool. We say that sport is strong enough to bring change on its own. And there are results to show."

To discover just who "those people" are, you visit a house situated on the lower slopes of Devil's Peak in Woodstock, a colored section of Cape Town that overlooks the dockyards. Here a small, voluble man named Frank van der Horst offers you a soda and pink cookies and gives his views on Thabe and others like him who are involved in the promotion of multiracial sport—a weasel phrase, in van der Horst's opinion.

He is the newly elected president of the antigovernment South African Council on Sport—"those people"—hereinafter referred to as SACOS, and he does not mince words. "My organization," he says, "regards Thabe as a collaborator. He's part of the apparatus, a paid agent of the government. He plays right into their hands. The white racist soccer bodies struck a deal with Thabe and Co. He has been totally corrupted."

Twelve years ago, the government established what it called "umbrella" bodies to govern each sport with which, in its own words, "sports organizations of all population groups could affiliate...." In soccer, for instance, the umbrella is the Football Council of South Africa, under which are gathered the Football Association of South Africa, a white body; Thabe's South African National Football Association, which is for blacks; and the South African Football Association, an organization for colored athletes. If all that is confusing, then, in the opinion of SACOS, it is meant to be so. SACOS was formed in 1973 as an alternative.

"Prior to SACOS," says van der Horst, "organizations had to be content to negotiate with white bodies and affiliate with them. What the whites were looking for were stooges to parade for outside consumption. The aim of the government is to fragmentize the whole country, and that includes sports."

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