Krish Naidoo’s September 3 article “A pivotal role in mobilising resistance to apartheid era sport” left me perplexed. It was seeing history as a relic fixed in time and I was ambivalent about how to respond to it.
I was unsure whether to respond and then how to respond. To ignore the article was not a choice as it would merely affirm his views about the South African Council on Sport (Sacos) and its role in the liberation struggle.
Naidoo argued that “the failure of Sacos to come to terms with the tectonic shifts is probably the point at which it lost its relevance as the authentic sports wing of the liberation movement.
For fear of losing its identity and, probably, incumbency, Sacos spurned the effort of the National Sports Congress (NSC) to extend Sacos’s reach to sport in the African townships”.
By penning this reply I do not run the risk of a reply, but rather invite it as part of the process of enhancing our democracy where the spirit and practice of dissent is essential.
This is something then and now in short supply as it is easier to be a sycophant than a critical radical committed to the cause of socio-economic justice and nation building.
My approach rather is to acknowledge that the NSC, by means foul or fair, managed to upstage Sacos to become in the later 1989-1990 to become the “powerhouse” in sports movement. In response I will invite the readers to look at the role of the leader of the sports movement by starting with its formation and its programme of action. In NSC News and elsewhere, (vol1. Number1, November 1989) the following was made clear:
– It was aligned to the MDM (mass democratic movement). (It is worth pointing out as an aside that most of its founding members were not new organisations, but long-standing Sacos members and I wonder if we should not be seeing it rather as a breakaway?)
– Its primary mandate was to lay the foundation for a mass based democratic movement within sports to abolish apartheid. (the implied criticism that Sacos was not democratic, unaligned to the political forces of the day and did not learn from the unions).
The NSC policy for sports struggle and transformation was couched around three interrelated concepts: development, unity and preparation.It is around development that they made their most radical claims as I will explore fully. Around unity they claimed that “sports people have not been successfully integrated into our sports movement”. In addition, the NSC asserted that they would unite all sportspersons. Essentially about unity and if Sacos was willing they would work with them (my reading). The last is preparation. The last two were critical for the NSC project.
Whereas Naidoo praises the fact of an irreversible change where “black and white sportspersons and athletes were able to take ownership of their own space without political interference” many of us see the preferring of professionalism, elite sports benefiting the establishment sports organisations. the townships have lost out - again.
The NSC message to white/established sports was subtle and politically astute. Get national sports unity and you guys (mostly), established sports will play at the international level. That was the sub-text. But it was also overtly stated not in this paper but elsewhere.
Krish Naidoo, in 1989 explained the change of strategy from non collaboration and confrontation to negotiation and participation thus:“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”(Finance Week August 31, 1989 as quoted in Booth 2003: 490).
Naidoo develops this further in an article in the popular adult literacy magazine of the time, Learn and Teach entitled “Stop Racist Sport – an interview with Krish Naidoo” (L&T 2, 1990:54-58). Here he details the political opposition of Sacos with its political adherence against double standards and non-collaboration with the enemy.
As he dangles the carrot towards the white/established sports he is quoted thus: “… We are quite confident that within two years we will have addressed these problems. We hope to see our sports people marching hand in hand with the masses with our people towards a non- racial democratic society. Then we shall be saying that conditions are ripe for the sports boycott to be lifted (ibid: 58).”
Two points are worth noting here: one is that the deal-making had begun before the gigantic changes were in place; such as the free political activity for all, full political participation for all and universal democratic elections. Secondly, we must note the short time-line - it was clear that the NSC was an integral part of the ANC’s political campaigning before universal elections were finalised. It was clearly ANC code, or a green light that it would permit a non-racial South African team to participate in the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.The obsession to get South Africa to the Olympics became an obsession and some commentators quote the ANC’s sport spokesperson Steve Tshwete, later to become the first post-apartheid Minister of Sport, stating unequivocally: “the Barcelona Olympics are just around the corner – we cannot afford any political nonsense at this stage of the game” (Booth 1998:184). That explains the rush for creating a “unified” sports structure that did not use race as a criteria ignoring whether those in the trenches of the sports struggle had real issues and grievances to resolve. The unity on the sports field, reflected how skin deep sports unity really was or is.
The question of our times is this: Was the idea of community, schools sports or sports for all sacrificed for the benefit of elite sports? By all accounts the mergers, unity or call it what you want, were a rushed job. Indeed with the benefit of hindsight, we can argue that less sports are played in our townships not more. If they are being played it is despite the government not because of it.
On the mergers Booth D (1997:63) among others argued, it was a sham. He points out that Sacos had warned all, including the NSC that the “between the NSC and establishment sport would produce political amalgamation rather than genuine unification. Amalgamation, Sacos argued, would not produce social transformation. Sacos was right. Sports unity typically consisted of a black ceremonial head and a sprinkling of non-racial personalities among a core of establishment administrators who refused to change even their uniforms and banners.”
He further notes of the NSC leaders thus: “Most lacked the energy, ruthlessness, and moral resolve to tackle equity and justice issues. Some recruits saw the NSC as a fortuitous avenue to self-enrichment in an uncertain and rapidly-changing environment.”
To conclude, I want to quote the African revolutionary Amilcar Cabral who wrote: “We must practice revolutionary democracy … Every responsible member must have the courage of his responsibilities, exacting from others a proper respect for his work and properly respecting the work of others. Hide nothing from the masses of our people. Tell no lies. Expose lies whenever they are told. Mask no difficulties, mistakes, failures. Claim no easy victories ...”
With this spirit, I return to the NSC News that I began with and that I re-read to write this piece. Under development not underdevelopment, the NSC asserted that “We must assist our sports people, especially in the rural areas, in their struggle to obtain sporting facilities”.
A similar point is made under the heading preparation: “to work with communities in their struggle to obtain sporting facilities in areas where they do not exist” In addition, they added: to encourage the development of non-racial sports at primary, secondary and tertiary education institutions.”
Please come and visit our schools and tell me what you see. When I was at school and later, I ran, played football and even table tennis under the auspices of Sacos. Our children do not have this opportunity today. What have their NSC and their allies done to community sports? Cheering for the bokke in France is not enough. There must be sports for all here on the ground: it is for our health as a nation, dammit.
* Hassen Lorgat has worked in trade union movement, civic associations, and anti-apartheid sports movement led by the South African Council on Sports (Sacos) as well as NGOs for the past while. He is active in many international solidarity movements and is currently the manager of Policy and Advocacy for the Bench Marks Foundation. He writes in his personal capacity.
** The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL