Master of turbulence: Morgan Naidoo and the struggle for non-racial sport

The leading non-racial sports organisation, South African Council On Sport (Sacos) saw the whole affair as premature. Sacos is a name synonymous with the South African anti-apartheid sport struggle.

The opening ceremony of the Barcelona Olympics in 1992.

Published Aug 24, 2023

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By Viroshen Chetty with contributing author Rajen Naidoo

For nearly 20 years, from 1973 to 1992, the global swimming community dealt the all-white South African Amateur Swimming Union (Saasu) the same treatment they had been dishing out to black swimmers: kicking them out of all international swimming competitions.

This interval was framed by two catalytic events, occurring in 1973 and 1992, which would shape the nation’s swimming landscape for years to come.

The first transpired at a gathering in Belgrade, Yugoslavia, in 1973, where the Federation, Internationale de Natation Amateur (Fina), expelled Saasu. According to apartheid-sympathisers, it was a terrible decision that should not have been allowed.

1973

Nestled in Tito’s Yugoslavia, the city of Belgrade braced itself for the first Fina World Championships, seen by many as Fina’s answer to Fifa’s World Cup.

The air at the Tašmajdan Sports and Recreation Center was tense with anticipation. Swimming, recently propelled to global attention by Mark Spitz’s haul of seven goal medals in record-breaking time at the 1972 Munich Olympics, was in sharp focus.

However, the event was buoyed by an undercurrent of tension within the Fina boardrooms – to allow South Africa to compete or to ban it.

Yet, despite the nation’s ostracisation, the decision was not as black and white as the sport itself, where only the clock determines the winner. Saasu, a founding member of Fina with significant international ties, was not going to take it lying down. Saasu’s influence among the Bureau’s voting delegates – as well as its deep pockets – ensured the decision could go either way.

South Africa, in its typical underhanded tactics, barred the black swimming organisation, South African Swimming Federation (Saaswif), from the pivotal Belgrade meeting. Its president, Morgan Naidoo, was denied a passport and slapped with a five-year ban, muting his influential voice. However, Naidoo's foresight ensured Saaswif's silence was deafening in the meeting room. With his trademark meticulousness, he crafted the “Fina Memorandum”, a critical exposé on apartheid sport. The bombshell document discreetly reached every delegate's hands.

Needing a presence in the room, Naidoo asked Sam Ramsamy, a chief delegate of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (San-Roc), who was in Belgrade, to represent them. Naidoo was the one who had introduced Sam Ramsamy to the Fina delegates in the first place, to prepare for events such as this. However, Ramsamy, on the advice of the African bloc members, did not even enter the room.

This left Dr Georg Zorokwa, from the German Democratic Republic (East Germany); Mustapha Larfaoui, from Algeria; and the “Fina Memorandum” to bat for Saaswif.

Ramsamy notes in a letter to Naidoo, “Dr. Zorowka advised that I be a complete nonentity in Belgrade and he will direct all canvassing on our behalf.

“We agreed that if I were seen around with the Bureau members it would certainly prejudice our case.”

The vote was a narrow eight to six, but the resolution was firm. Fina expelled Saasu from its ranks “until such a time as a single, integrated governing body was formed for swimming in South Africa.”

Surprisingly, Ramsamy, decades later, declares in his memoir that he was responsible for getting Saasu kicked out of Fina.

The second catalytic event that framed Saasu’s isolation was the hasty return to international sports at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics – a full two years before South Africa’s inaugural democratic elections. That, said the battle-hardened sports activists, was a terrible compromise that should never have happened.

1992

The Olympic Games, a sporting circus with colourful characters and dazzling athletes, arrived in the storied city of Barcelona, Spain. A tent town for 30 000 athletes mushroomed around the Estadi Olímpic de Montjuïc, Barcelona’s glittering new Olympic stadium.

Among the dignitaries in the stadium’s honour box sat the world’s most famous ex-prisoner, Nelson Mandela. South Africa’s miracle was unfolding under his watch.

Far from the glitz and glamour of the Olympics, negotiations between the ANC, other liberation movements and the apartheid government was steadily heading to its inevitable conclusion. Along the way, there were old wounds to heal, fresh injuries to avert, deals to strike and, of course, horses to trade.

The thrilling possibility of Olympic participation remained a dangling carrot. For South Africa’s white community, passionate about sports, representation at Barcelona ‘92 was a crucial point.

In Barcelona, South Africa’s national team marched under a neutral flag and anthem in the Parade of Nations. They were of a striking racial diversity. They were equal parts black and white athletes – a ratio of 1:1. That was startling, given the historical disadvantages black athletes endured and the sacrifices they made in the fierce sports struggle that played out since the 1950s.

That picture of the South African “zebra” in the Olympic theatre of dreams – a unified black and white team at last – went viral before the days of things going viral. It pumped through thousands of news wires, heated airwaves and ignited the imagination of the world.

Except, everything about that picture was wrong.

At least half the team – all black athletes – did not qualify to compete in Barcelona ‘92 and were merely there as part of the “development” team.

In reality, 97% of South Africa’s competing athletes were white. It was a deliberate and mischievous act to create the illusion of racial parity and hoodwink the media circus and its global audience.

“It was a team that represented not who we were but who we aspired to become,” recalled Ramsamy, South Africa’s National Olympics chief ringleader at the time. It was effectively South Africa’s “Dream Team.”

Not surprisingly, there was strong resistance to this move. “Everyone was against me,” he lamented.

The leading non-racial sports organisation, South African Council On Sport (Sacos) saw the whole affair as premature. Sacos is a name synonymous with the South African anti-apartheid sport struggle.

Sacos, under the visionary leadership of Naidoo, Hassan Howa, MN Pather and others, had established a talent pipeline built around township schools, regional clubs and national school tournaments. They trained administrators, some of whom were given world-class instruction at overseas training academies. They identified emerging talent and, with cap in hand, cajoled black businesses for sponsorship to send the budding stars to development clinics.

But above all, they campaigned tirelessly within the country and globally for non-racial sports in South Africa. They were responsible for doing the unthinkable – bringing white sports in South Africa to its knees, making the Springbok the hated symbol of apartheid sports, and isolating the country from international events, including the Olympics.

“It is too soon,” Sacos cried.

It is important to note that at this time, Ramsamy was the head of the opposition South Africa Amateur Swimming Association (Saasa), which comprised 90% white swimming bodies from Saasu, which had a 90-year history of racial discrimination and was in direct opposition to Sacos.

The switch in allegiances was viewed as a harsh betrayal by Sacos. Sacos president Joe Ebrahim noted: “One cannot avoid the impression that individuals who have not been directly involved in our day-to-day struggles are attempting to prescribe solutions to us.”

COMMENT

The two landmark events in South Africa's sporting history bookends stories of individuals as leaders, and communities participating in sport. Ours is the story of Morgan Naidoo and the sport of swimming. Through the leadership of Naidoo, swimming was organised to serve the black communities during the dark days of apartheid, crafted as a weapon against racist sport and the apartheid government and groomed to create a platform on which historically disadvantaged swimmers could take their rightful place in international sport. This is the story of “Master of Turbulence”.

But the story is underpinned by the political struggles within sport: Naidoo constantly outwitted pro-apartheid sports administrators and racist politicians, and navigated through the blinkered views of international sports organisations. When the apartheid state shut the doors for him to present the case to an international audience, he opened doors for people like Ramsamy in his stead.

Sadly, in his memoirs, Ramsamy fails to record the shoulders he stood upon to reach the heights he has. Ramsamy also fails to appreciate how in what he considered his sporting political masterstroke – marching to Beethoven in Barcelona – he dismantled all the work done by the anti-apartheid sports movement inside the country, led by men like Naidoo.

The effects of those actions, some 30 years ago, collapsed the work of the preceding 30 years in which sport had been build has a powerful tool against apartheid and an organisational force in disadvantaged communities.

This is an edited extract from the book, Master of Turbulence: Morgan Naidoo and the Struggle for Non-Racial Sport, by Chetty and Naidoo.

Related Topics:

South AfricaApartheid