“Against the Trend of History’: Apartheid’s Distinct History through the Lens of Sport

In lay conversations surrounding the state of a society, sport is often relegated to the margins. Indeed, we are more likely to describe societies in the context of their politics, economy, geography, language, before we discuss the sporting culture thereof. Yet, all things considered, this second-tier status is an unjust reflection on the societal impact of sports even on the grandest scale! For example, the evolution of Black civil rights in the USA owe is in complete without the groundbreaking work of boxer Jack Johnson, Jackie Robinson, Tommie Smith and John Carlos as it is without Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr, and Malcolm X. In 1969, El Salvador and Honduras engaged in a two-week war sparked by the latter’s defeat during a World Cup qualifying match. These two examples just reiterate how sports either provide a window into societal issues or become the very battleground upon which said issues are addressed.

Modern South Africa’s troubled history isn’t exempt from a distinct narrative that can be told through sports. From the onset, the European settlers viewed sport as critical to their ‘civilizing mission.’ Consider, for example, the case of the Orange Free State Football Association, an-all Black South African team that traveled to Britain in 1899 ‘to show the British public how far they are advanced in the beloved game of ‘soccer’ football.’ (Odendaal, P18.) Sport thus became a status symbol in which proximity to ‘whiteness’ in comportment was desirable. It is then no surprise that such prominent figures in the Black community as Sol Plaatjie and Nelson Mandela developed a reputation in cricket and boxing respectively in the earlier part of the 20th century.

Mandela in his earlier incarnations as a heavyweight boxer
Mandela in his earlier incarnations as a heavyweight boxer

That sport had layered socio-political implications is, as we established in the beginning, a phenomenon not particularly unique or definitive to South Africa. What is interesting, however, is how this larger-than-life unifying force became to one of the defining pillars of the Apartheid philosophy. In ‘Sport and Apartheid’ Merrett explains at length how such sport segregation, supported by such legislation as the Group Areas Act and Urban Areas Act, served to patch the divide between the British and the Boer by pushing for a nationalistic White agenda in opposition to the Black Africans (Merrett, p1.) From the implementation of Apartheid in 1948 until 1967, the notion that there would be no racial mixing was reinforced time and again, with one member of parliament going as far as describing the ‘international recognition of non-racial sport as a declaration of war’ Merrett, P2.) So committed was the Apartheid regime to maintaining their racist status qu0- even in sport- that they were willing to risk global isolation! It was not until 1967, under the Vorster regime, that South Africa began to loosen its stance against multi-racialism in sport. If for nothing else, Vorster was committed to reintegrating South Africa into the global community through sports.

Despite progress in this regard, as evidenced by 1971 unveiling of the policy of multi-nationalism in sport as well as mixed football being included in the 1973 South African Games, the rest of the world was not immediately won over. In just about every other sector of society, Apartheid’s ugly policies reigned supreme and the international community reasoned that ‘reform in the area of sport was unacceptable without more fundamental political change’ (Merrett, p7.) Even if sports itself was largely free from the clamping jaws of segregationist policies, it was still indirectly subjected to them through school segregation which meant Black African students still had no access to the educational resources that may have privileged certain sports. As such, the rest of the world held fast to its isolation of South Africa- sports and across the board. It was not until the 1990s, with pending and subsequent independence that the country was reintegrated into the global sporting arena.

And what a reintegration it was! But we'll get to that soon ;)
And what a reintegration it was! But we’ll get to that soon 😉
This map of Africa, cutting out South Africa, circulated on social media after the xenophobic attacks earlier this year. It speaks to the concept of 'South African Exceptionalism
This map of Africa, cutting out South Africa, circulated on social media after the xenophobic attacks earlier this year. It speaks to the concept of ‘South African Exceptionalism

From where we stand, there are several critical take-aways from the readings on Apartheid-era sport. Recently, South Africa has been dogged with xenophobic attacks especially targeting groups of African immigrants. At first glance, this seems bizarre, given the rich heritage of Pan-African nationalism in the country and the efforts of their African neighbors in the fight against apartheid. However, three factors- all touched on in ‘Sport and Apartheid’ play a huge role in these ‘Afrophobic attacks.’ First, Merrett described the segregation as emphasizing ‘the otherness of Black South Africans, but also encouraged their polarization one from another.” Thus, due to seeds planted by Apartheid, Black South Africa inherited a heightened sense of tribalism, and xenophobia against African immigrants is a descendant of aforementioned culture. Secondly, decades of isolation from the international system may have skewed the skewed the citizens’ perception of their place on the international scene, thus creating a sense of South African exceptionalism. I spoke to an uncle who is from Zimbabwe but has lived in South Africa for the past 20 years, and he explained how, on several occasions, Black South Africans would say to him “Wena muAfrican?’ (‘You are an African’- unlike them, South Africans’) Finally, the Apartheid machine that kept Black Africans out of places of opportunity- both literally and figuratively- has largely been maintained, despite the end of Apartheid. Many of the schools remain segregated, the Black Africans still largely live in the townships designated by the Group Areas and Native Land Acts, and the economy remains very much in the hands of the white South Africans. The xenophobic attacks may be misguided, but they have been born largely out of the economic frustration of poor Black South Africans remnant of Apartheid era socio-politics.

it is also worth doing that we draw parallels between segregated South Africa and Jim Crow USA. Indeed, some pundits have described the two countries as ‘long lost cousins’ in their treatment of their Black population (Attrige, 1998, P227.) Let us take a quick moment to break down one short verse from Merrett.

  • ‘the emergence of a Black sporting hero could have challenged and undermined the fundamental beliefs required to sustain apartheid ideology”- similar conversations around white supremacy occurred around Jackie Robinson and Jack Johnson
  • “Sportspersons who questioned white hegemony were labelled agitators and subversives”- Mohammed Ali comes to mind.

Thus, the idea of using sport to enforce racial separation, and the fear of the reverse in the mind of racial perpetrators, are both an unoriginal concept and a ubiquitous one.