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Then and now – the struggle for the liberation of sports in South Africa


Hassen Lorgat has worked in trade unions, civic associations, the anti-apartheid sports movement led by Sacos, as well as NGOs, for many years. Outside work he campaigns on a number of causes and is involved in the World Social Forum Platforms and the battle against unjust mining and extractivism. He is currently the manager of Policy and Advocacy for the Bench Marks Foundation. He writes in his personal capacity.

In July 2023, the South African Council on Sport turned 50 years old. Today, it no longer exists as an active organisation with codes of sports, but its role as the liberation wing of sports during the liberation struggle lives on.

Over the past few years, many activists have gathered around legacy projects, starting with documenting and contacting those who did battle on our sports fields. One of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos) football affiliates, Bluebells United FC, which also turned 50 in July, was featured on the SABC, a channel that ignored them during their struggle for a home ground and for equitable access to sports fields. 

Now, both Sacos and Bells have turned to history as a tool for critical reflection aimed to enhance public debate and community discussions around these legacies.

The Remembering Sacos Committee are the co-conveners of the SACOS@50: A Retrospective Colloquium, which is taking place on 28 and 29 July 2023 in collaboration with the History Workshop at Wits University. Its purpose is to critically reflect on the legacies of the anti-racist sports movement. 

Stolen at the finishing line 

As a child of Sacos, I have decided to participate in the two-day colloquium.

As I reflect on the anniversary, I am particularly interested in how the victory of anti-racist sports was stolen at the finishing line. From about 1973 to 1987, Sacos was undeniably the liberation wing of the anti-racist sports movement. Things began to change nationally from about 1985/86 onwards as the ANC was becoming more visible. Their presence through flags and other symbolism was significant as it showed a greater confidence and boldness by the liberation movement. It was during this time, in 1988, that the National Sports Congress (NSC) was formed. Unlike Sacos, they were directly aligned to the ANC.

Sacos, with its adherence to anti-racist policies, were steadfastly principled in their strategy and tactics. This was epitomised by the ‘double standards resolution’ (DSR), which was first adopted around 1977. The DSR was popularised by Hassan Howa with the slogan “no normal sport in an abnormal society”. 

Simply put, its aim was to stop any collaboration of individuals and teams with an intrusive, racist and repressive state whose control over black lives was almost total. 

This resolution will undoubtedly be a key consideration at the conference but what I want to debunk here is the assertion by detractors of Sacos that it was mainly because of this principled adherence to DSR that we are in this sports mess today. The demise of Sacos in the early 1990s and the phoenix-like rise of the NSC marked the end of mass, participatory community sport in many townships. Whether by design or default, Sacos championed sports for all and community sports. These activists were imbued with the spirit of anti-racism and justice through sport and they gave of themselves, many losing dignity, livelihoods, citizenship and much more.

Sports under apartheid

I went to school under apartheid. I ran in athletics meets organised by the South African Senior Schools Sports Association (Sasssa), a Sacos affiliate. I recall once travelling by bus to an athletics interprovincial event where I sat close to the Transvaal Council of Sports leaders, Reggie Feldman and N Rathinasamy (former Chairman of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, SAN-ROC). Both were school principals and their assertion was: there was only one race, the human race.

Subsequently, we played football and went to political meetings after training, all dirty and dusty – true representatives of our facilities at that time. We played table tennis under the banner of Watta (Western Transvaal Table Tennis Association) and enjoyed the shared spirit of community and abhorrence of our racist rulers!

All this was years before I entered the unions and other civil society groups fighting for social, economic and political justice. Reflecting on the road travelled and not travelled, I cannot help but to disagree deeply with those who assert that Sacos’ adherence to principle/s has resulted in this mess we live in today. Simply put: there is no sporting activity in the townships and the municipalities, government and sports authorities do not know how to respond. It is left to the sports people themselves to organise the rebuilding. 

After Sacos, there were no sports activities or very little sports in the townships: from being participants in the many different sporting codes, we were reduced to watching the professionals – largely white and a sprinkling of blacks who managed to reach the top. Yes, there were shortcomings in Sacos’s strategy and tactics and ways of organising deeper and wider around their principles, but not the principles themselves. This I hope to further explore at the conference. 

In their war against Sacos, the NSC said they would fix all this and bring mass sports to the townships. The failure is not just a failure in service delivery in sports, but the destruction of people, players and administrators who gave voluntarily in the spirit of the amateur.

The NSC presented themselves as being mandated by the UDF-ANC. The NSC knew that for many white South Africans living under apartheid, sports was religion. It has been said that the Afrikaners have three articles of faith: the Dutch Reformed Church, the Nationalist Party and Rugby. 

Some argue that the ANC was using this as a negotiating element, but I tend to go with those who argue that the ANC was trying to show its true leadership. It was showing white South Africans and the world that these once vilified people and their leaders, the ANC, were ready to govern! South Africa was safe in their hands. 

It was akin to a sporting ‘sunset clause’, which was largely understood to protect public servants’ jobs for a fixed period. However, just like the transition in sport, what the sunset clause actually means is ambiguous. In sport there was much ambiguity in these fluid times of “transition”. 

But it was clear who was in the firing line: Sacos was being challenged by the upstart NSC, and the after effects of this victory of the NSC and their allies is what we are dealing with today.

The Invictus moment

Reading the writings on the sports transition during this period, the NSC is shown variously as inept, not strategic, opportunistic and failing to negotiate a deal for black people who played sports. During early 1990, the newly elected secretary of the NSC, Krish Naidoo, criticised Sacos’ non-collaboration and adherence to anti-state politics saying: “We’re past the stage of straight anti-apartheid resistance. We’re building a new non-racial South Africa and there’s a proper way of doing things through consultation. The time has come to sit down and start talking.” 

In addition, Naidoo dangled the carrot of international sports (merit, professionalism) to the well established sports people when he said: “… We are quite confident that within two years we will have addressed these problems [read Sacos, boycotts]. We hope to see our sportspeople marching hand in hand with the masses of our people towards a non-racial democratic society. Then we shall be saying that conditions are ripe for the sports boycott to be lifted.” 

However, in reality the international community did not have time for socioeconomic justice and other issues of redistribution and reconstruction. 

For example, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) delegate Kéba Mbaye, visiting the country in March 1991, confirmed that political rights were not, and never had been, on the IOC’s agenda. The late Senegalese judge and member of both the IOC and the International Court of Justice made it clear when he wrote in his official report: “Democracy is not total” in South Africa “but there are a lot of countries like this”. 

It would appear that pragmatism governed the sporting community during those days and it was focused around professionalised, competitive sports. A programme focused on health, education and sports for all – a more grassroots-oriented approach – requires time,  but unfortunately the pressure for international sports was just too big. 

Our beloved Madiba did not hold himself back. After years of the isolation of racism, international affiliation was seen as recognition of our defeat of apartheid. It is reported that he personally spoke to Prime Minister Michael Manley of Jamaica, to get our boys to play with the Windies and to rejoin the International Cricket Council. 

The movie Invictus, about South Africa’s participation and ultimate victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, has a scene where Madiba had to engage the “NSC radicals” (as described by the movie script) to get them to change their decision regarding the name given to the national rugby team. They knew what the name Springboks meant for those who opposed apartheid and they wanted nothing to do with it. 

In the movie, Madiba says: “But this is not the time to enjoy a moment’s petty revenge. This is the time to build our nation using every single brick available to us – even if that brick comes wrapped in green and gold.”

The NSC leadership opened more doors for established sports. The 1992 Olympics in Barcelona saw the South African athletes make a comeback to the world movement since their last participation in the Tokyo Games in 1960. Boycotts against racist sports had been hugely successful … but things were changing rapidly as unity talks within the various codes were being organised. 

Unity talks or hostile takeovers?

In my cursory research into the websites of a number of these official sporting codes that supposedly now represent all of us – Netball South Africa, Tennis South Africa, Athletics South Africa, SwimSA, South African Football Association, Table Tennis, Cricket SA and Volleyball – I was shocked at the aversion to history. The struggles for justice and participation in sports have been all but rubbed out of history. Only Volleyball and table tennis attempt to describe the struggles that were waged. 

This form of history myth-making or better still, “memoriacide” does not help anyone. It ignores the pains and tribulations that were contained in the struggle to play sport in South Africa. These included the stories and resistance around the seven rebel cricket tours, where according to the UK Guardian English cricketers were said to have been lured for a month-long tour “by pay cheques of £40,000 and £60,000 – a transforming amount for a cricketer in the 1980s”. 

These tours were ridiculed. They were a financial and sporting failure but the South African Breweries (SAB) was praised by the Nats, with former prime minister BJ Vorster describing it as a “triumph for common sense … I haven’t been to many cricket games in the past 10 years but I am enjoying this one. It’s one thing I did not want to miss”. Vorster’s excitement reflects the fact that the so-called rebel tours were the main internal thrust by the apartheid government to break the boycott and sanctions movement. The popular sports targeted included cricket, football, and rugby. 

The former director of the United Nations Centre against Apartheid, ES Reddy, observed that even though the All Blacks tour of 1976 took place “soon after the Soweto massacre, the New Zealand Olympic Committee declined even to express regret”. 

It was only after threats by African countries to withdraw from the Montreal Olympics that Commonwealth countries signed the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement, which discouraged the international community from having sporting contacts with racist South Africa.

Looking back we can also see that the histories of the individuals who represented our stories are missing … the healing stories of Papwa Sewgolum, Basil D’Oliveira, Precious McKenzie and the hundreds of men and women who had to step aside so white athletes could excel in a small pool. 

Take for example the role of political prisoner and later exiled activist Dennis Brutus and Peter Hain from the Stop the Seventy Tour (STST). Their initial goal was to prevent an all-white South African cricket team from touring in Britain in the summer of 1970, but they ended up disrupting a Springbok rugby tour as a dry run. 

With the benefit of hindsight, we can say that at the end of the 1990s Sacos was outplayed. The NSC, on the other hand, dressed as a winner, proved unable to control the unity process and handed over the advantage that had been with the oppressed to the other side. 

When the moratorium against playing with apartheid sport was lifted, playing international sports was seen as a “gift” without any conditionalities to the “historically privileged” sports organisations and players. They were now freed of all obligations towards contributing to the true development of a level playing field.

But history is only a great teacher if it does not marginalise the stories of poor and working people. History must include the little actions of unknown people that led to these great or momentous occasions. The masses brought about the shift from apartheid through fighting, dying, organising and refusing to play with racism, and in conditions where the development of some people was deliberately arrested and contained. 

Today all the sports organisations have a lot to do but they can start by recognising that the right to play international sport was a product of struggle and that redress and reconstruction in sports and society remains on the agenda. An open discussion must be held about the role of sports as a part of culture, as being one that must include all, and not only those at the top. DM


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  • Rod H MacLeod says:

    There is a thread running through this that shows some anger, frustration and maybe a little jealousy that the NSC seems to have trumped SACOS in getting the political kudos for the re-introduction of SA Sport to the world arena. Mr Lorgat, the work of SACOS was never diminished in the eyes of South Africans. Applause is the aim of the weak, but merely a spur for the noble. Keep moving forward.

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