Sports and the Liberation Struggle: a Tribute to Sam Ramsamy and others who fought apartheid sport

by E.S. Reddy (Former Director, United Nations Centre against Apartheid).

In South Africa, as nowhere else, sports boycott made a great contribution to liberation. The Indian community can be proud that Indian sportspersons and administrators were in the vanguard of this front of the anti-apartheid struggle.

I would like to extend my congratulations to Sam (Samba) Ramsamy - the principal strategist of the struggle against apartheid sports from the mid-1970s - on his forthcoming 60th birthday on 27 January and take this opportunity to pay tribute to several others who fought apartheid sport at great sacrifice. The issue of discrimination and segregation in sports was first raised during the Indian passive resistance campaign of 1946-48. George Singh, a football star, was among the leaders of that campaign.

A Committee for International Recognition was formed by non-racial sportsmen in 1955 and was succeeded by the South African Sports Association (SASA) in 1958 and the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC) in 1963 - to fight against racism in sport and press for international recognition of the non-racial sports bodies in South Africa. Their leadership was largely from the Indian and Coloured communities as the Africans were not practising many of the codes of sport with international affiliations.

The International Table Tennis Federation recognised the non-racial South African Table Tennis Board (SATTB) in 1956 and expelled the white body from South Africa. The SATTB team was able to participate in the world championships in Stockholm in 1957. The apartheid regime then began to refuse passports to its teams, making it clear that no one would be allowed to compete internationally except through a white sports body.

International action against apartheid sport began in earnest in 1963. That was the year when Sewsunker "Papwa" Sewgolum, an Indian golf caddie, won the Natal Open Golf Championship (after winning the Dutch Open in 1959 and 1960). He was not allowed inside the clubhouse where whites were celebrating. The photograph of "Papwa" receiving his trophy in heavy rain outside appeared in many newspapers around the world and greatly helped the boycott of apartheid sport. (He was banned from all major tournaments in South Africa after 1963.)

Since SAN-ROC was prevented from sending representatives abroad, the British Anti-Apartheid Movement sent appeals to Olympic Committees and other national sports bodies to exclude apartheid sport from international competition. Abdul Samad Minty, honorary secretary of the Movement, lobbied delegates at the meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Baden in October 1963 on behalf of SAN-ROC. The IOC adopted a proposal by India which led to the exclusion of South Africa from the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. It was formally expelled from the IOC in 1970.

The response of the authorities was repression against the non-racial sports movement. Dennis Brutus, secretary of SASA and later President of SAN-ROC, was refused a passport and served with stringent "banning orders". He managed to escape to Mozambique in 1963 and tried to go to the IOC meeting, but the Portuguese authorities handed him over to South Africa. He was incarcerated on Robben Island and left for Britain on release. John Harris, Chairman of SANROC, was also refused a passport, restricted and then detained. Utterly frustrated, he joined a white armed resistance movement and was executed in 1965. George Singh was served with banning orders in 1964. SAN-ROC was paralysed, until it was revived in London in 1966.

The Vorster regime also began openly to interfere in sports. It issued a Proclamation in February 1965, under the "Group Areas Act", prohibiting any mixed sports or even mixed audiences, except by permit. (Until then, segregation in sport was by "custom", not law). In the few cases when permits were granted, the organisers were required to separate spectators by race, with six-foot wire fences, and provide separate entrances, toilets, canteens etc. In some events, only Coloured people and Indians were allowed.

Because of this blatant intervention and repression by the government, the United Nations General Assembly decided in 1968 to call upon all States and organisations to suspend sporting exchanges with South African bodies which practise apartheid. The UN Special Committee against Apartheid began actively to promote the sports boycott all over the world.

Action by anti-apartheid groups, Afro-Asian countries and the United Nations dealt severe defeats to apartheid sport. Apartheid became a major public issue in countries with which South Africa sought sports exchanges.

A rugby tour of Britain in 1969 proved a disaster because of public demonstrations; the British Government was obliged to prevent a cricket tour in 1970 when Afro-Asian countries threatened to boycott the Commonwealth Games.

Massive demonstrations greeted the South African rugby tour of Australia in 1971. The South African team had to be transported in Australian Air Force planes because of trade union action. More than 700 demonstrators were arrested and many were injured because of police brutality. The State of Queensland declared a state of emergency during the tour, provoking a general strike by the trade unions. The Conservative Government hoped to arouse racist passions and win the next elections, but it was roundly defeated. The Labour Party Government of Gough Whitlam announced a boycott of apartheid sport. A proposed rugby tour of New Zealand was also aborted because of public opposition and a threat by India and African countries to boycott the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch in 1974.

These campaigns strengthened the anti-apartheid movements and provided tremendous publicity to the struggle for freedom in South Africa. But the successes led to new challenges. South Africa remained a member of many international sports federations with the help of its Western friends who enjoyed weighted voting in several codes of sport like tennis. The struggle had to be carried on each of these bodies.

While South African tours of other countries could be disrupted by public action, it was much more difficult to prevent sports administrators in Britain, New Zealand and other countries from organising tours to South Africa.

To overcome the boycotts, South Africa began to send teams abroad with no advance publicity and to spend millions of rand to entice sportsmen and teams from abroad to play in South Africa. It announced "concessions"from time to time, none of which satisfied the Olympic principle of non-discrimination, but were meant to deceive the gullible.

The new situation required SAN-ROC to intensify action with constant vigilance and a multi-pronged strategy. But it had hardly any resources. Dennis Brutus had moved to the United States where he became a professor of English literature and could not give adequate attention to the day- to-day work of SAN-ROC. Fortunately, two important developments took place at this time.

The South African Council on Sport (SACOS) was established in 1973 as a non-racial sports federation, with M. N. Pather as secretary-general. Uncompromising on apartheid, it played a crucial role as a partner of SAN-ROC in reinforcing the international boycott. Its declaration that there could be "no normal sport in an abnormal society" was a powerful antidote to the propaganda of the apartheid regime and the maneuvers of white sports bodies which made false claims of non-discrimination.

Leaders of SACOS suffered persecution but refused to be intimidated. The passport of M. N. Pather was seized when he was preparing to go to New York for consultations at the invitation of the United Nations. The passport of Morgan Naidoo, President of the SA Amateur Swimming Federation, was withdrawn in 1973 to prevent him from attending the meeting of the International Swimming Federation; and he was banned after the apartheid swimming body was expelled by ISF.

Secondly, Sam Ramsamy - a sportsman, administrator and college lecturer in physical education from Durban - managed to leave for Germany to represent the non-racial sports bodies during the Munich Olympics. After a year of study at Leipzig, he arrived in London in 1974. A founding member of SACOS, he joined SAN-ROC, linking internal and external resistance, became chairman of SAN-ROC in 1976 and executive chairman in 1978. He proved to be ideally suited to lead the campaign in the new stage.

A tireless campaigner, he was adept at bringing people together to work as a team. He established excellent relations with African, Indian, Caribbean and other sports federations, and secured recognition for SACOS from the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa. He maintained close contact with anti-apartheid groups around the world. He also developed personal contacts with many sports editors - and South African correspondents in London - so that the boycott received great attention. Above all, he was in constant consultation with colleagues in South Africa and secured close cooperation between SAN-ROC and the ANC leadership in exile.

New successes were achieved

In 1976, when New Zealand Rugby Federation toured South Africa, soon after the Soweto massacre, the New Zealand Olympic Committee declined even to express regret. African countries then withdrew from the Montreal Olympics. Concerned about possible disruption of Commonwealth Games, the white Commonwealth countries agreed to the "Gleneagles Agreement" of 1977 to discourage competition with South African teams; a similar declaration was adopted by sports ministers of the Council of Europe the next year. There was thus the beginning of action at a governmental level in Western countries and of "third party boycott" (of teams and countries collaborating with apartheid sport).

Sam, who was at the time deputy principal of a large Middle School in London, resigned his job to work full time for SAN-ROC at great personal sacrifice. He also had to face attacks and threats from the friends of apartheid: but he and his wife, Helga, never wavered. He accepted my invitation in 1978 to work for three months as a consultant to the United Nations. While performing this assignment, he was able to establish contact with United Nations bodies and many governments. I was in constant communication with him since then and was greatly impressed by his ability as an organiser of public action, as well as his diplomacy in persuading governments and sports federations to lend support.

A United Nations committee began in 1978 to draft an international convention against apartheid sport which would provide for action against those continuing to play with South Africa. Its task proved extremely difficult. Many governments which supported boycott of apartheid sport were concerned that the "third party boycott" might disrupt international sport. The Soviet Union, for instance, was concerned about the effect on the Moscow Olympics.

Intense negotiations had to be carried on for several years. Sam, because of his personal friendship with leaders of many national Olympic Committees and his knowledge of their concerns, was of great help to the UN Committee. The Convention was finally approved in 1985 and was signed by many countries. Meanwhile, on my suggestion, the UN Special Committee against Apartheid initiated in 1980 a "Register of Sports Contacts with South Africa", listing all sportsmen who participated in events in South Africa. Though the United Nations did not recommend specific action against these violators of the boycott, several governments prohibited them from entering or playing in their countries. Those who profited from apartheid, and showed contempt for the majority of the South African people, they said, would not be allowed to make money in their countries.

I can now disclose that Sam Ramsamy provided us the lists of sportsmen and sports administrators, publicised the UN Registers, contacted many government and sports bodies to secure action against collaborators and persuaded scores of listed sportsmen to undertake not to play in South Africa again. As revulsion against apartheid spread around the world, more countries began to take action against those on the Registers. Hundreds of city councils and local authorities in Britain and other Western countries denied them use of their sports facilities.

The Special Committee also decided, on the suggestion of Sam, to commend sportsmen, sports administrators and others who made significant contributions to the boycott of apartheid sports. Most of the citations were, in fact, given on his recommendation. Meanwhile, there was effective public action in every country with which South Africa hoped to maintain sports contacts. In this respect, I must make special mention of the contribution of many Indians - notably Kader Asmal in Ireland, Hanif Bhamjee in Wales, and Jasmat Dhiraj and Bobby Naidoo in London.

International boycott of apartheid sport was nearly complete in the 1980's - South Africa was expelled from most international sports bodies. The International Olympic Committee adopted a declaration against "apartheid in sport" in June 21, 1988, for the total isolation of apartheid sport. Sam was an honoured guest at meetings of the IOC.

The time had come, however, to prepare for the possibilities which opened up for a negotiated settlement in South Africa. As the sports bodies from South Africa began to approach the ANC and undertake meaningful measures, Sam maintained close contact with the ANC headquarters in Lusaka to avoid any appearance of differences. When a black sports body, NOCSA, emerged in South Africa, he encouraged international support to it. As a result, SAN-ROC was able to ensure a smooth transition from boycott to cooperation for non-racial sport.

Sam was always firm that it was not enough to have mixed sports bodies or teams. The sports bodies must undertake to devote resources to provide facilities and training to the majority of the people who had, for too long, suffered from discrimination. That has been one of his main concerns as head of the national Olympic committee.

As South Africa proceeds to develop sport on truly non-racial lines, I hope that the Ministry of Sport and the Olympic Committee will find ways to publicise the long struggle that had to be waged and honour the fighters against apartheid sport who deserve a place in the hall of fame.