A pivotal role in mobilising resistance to apartheid era sport

Former President Nelson Mandela pays a visit to the South African athletes at the Olympic village, on his right is Olympic chief Juan Anonio Samaranch and South African Olympic boss Sam Ramsamy. Picture: File

Former President Nelson Mandela pays a visit to the South African athletes at the Olympic village, on his right is Olympic chief Juan Anonio Samaranch and South African Olympic boss Sam Ramsamy. Picture: File

Published Sep 3, 2023


By Krish Naidoo

The relevance of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos), 50 years after its establishment, must be judged against changes that occurred within the country and abroad which ushered in our democracy in 1994.

After the Sharpeville massacre on March 21, 1960, the state passed the Indemnity Act which indemnified the police force from prosecution for any wrongdoing connected to the massacre. On April 7, 1960, the Unlawful Organisations Act was hurriedly passed to declare any organisation deemed to be a threat to public order to be unlawful. Two days later, the ANC and PAC were banned and political activity was brought to a grinding halt.

The early 1970s witnessed the resurgence of a few people’s organisations, one of which was Sacos. It was formed in March 1973. In its reaction to apartheid, Sacos opposed all racial structures in sport and called for the expulsion of South Africa from the Olympic Games.

To take advantage of the space it created for itself, Sacos evolved from a sports body to an organisation whose agenda was expanded to include broader social issues such as the refusal to use sports facilities at segregated universities, not playing sport in the homelands, acting against its members who defected to multiracial sports organisations and prohibition against attending private white schools.

Sacos’s rallying cry was that there could be no normal sport in an abnormal society. To distinguish itself from racist white sport, Sacos passed the Double Standards Resolution which effectively meant that as long as apartheid existed, there was no basis for it to play sport with established white sports organisations or allow established white sport to represent South Africa internationally. In essence, Sacos adopted boycott and non-collaboration as a strategy and not as a tactic. By the early 1980s, Sacos was firmly entrenched as the authentic sports wing of the Liberation Movement, locally and internationally.

The courage of the men and women who formed Sacos, in a repressive and security-controlled environment, and who sustained the sports struggle for a decade, stands as a testament to the organisation’s relevance.

Sacos did not operate in a vacuum. The political developments in the 1980s were dramatic. The formation of the United Democratic Front and Cosatu opened the way for a surge of civic and workers’ resistance to the status quo. In 1987, the emergence of the National Sports Congress and the ANC-led Conference in Amsterdam to map out a “Culture in another South Africa” extended the resistance to the sports and cultural fronts.

Internationally, the end of the Cold War in 1990 seriously threatened South Africa’s regional hegemony and simultaneously put the spotlight on the country’s raison d’être as an apartheid state.

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. While the NSC was unifying the independent African, white, coloured and Indian soccer bodies, Sacos allowed the Double Standards Resolution to preclude it from participating. And when the NSC stopped the racist Gatting cricket tour in 1989 through people power, Sacos was again relegated to a spectator by its Double Standards Resolution.

Sacos should have followed the wisdom of German philosopher and revolutionary socialist Karl Marx who once said: “Philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.” Or Sacos should have drawn a lesson from former president Thabo Mbeki’s theory of dualism. Mindful that whites and blacks co-existed across a parallel and unequal divide, the objective, according to Mbeki, was to spearhead change to break down that wall and unite sport. This required active engagement to confront established white sport. Confrontation eventually saw the parallel existence in sport change course and find a meeting point. Black and white sportspersons and athletes were able to take ownership of their own space without political interference. And the process of change was irreversible. The parallels met, the divide was bridged and the dignity of African, coloured and Indian sportspersons, competitors and supporters was restored. Through this period, Sacos chose to exist in a sanctimonious bubble.

Revered sports leader Dr Sam Ramsamy, when assessing various contributions to the sports struggle in his biography, concluded that “each person is entitled to his own truth”. Sacos should be complimented for its contribution until the early 1980s. Whether it had the strategic foresight to harness the tumultuous developments since then and remain relevant today is an open question.

Krish Naidoo was a founding member of the National Sports Congress

The views expressed do not necessarily reflect the views of Independent Media or IOL