Mandela in middle as SA tackles rugby old guard

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Nelson Mandela delighted white South Africans when he donned a Springbok shirt. But now he is embroiled in a row over racism in rugby which may end with his appearance in court. Mary Braid in Cape Town reports.

Three years ago President Mandela thrilled white South Africa by appearing in a Springbok rugby shirt. Embracing the old regime's national game - rugby is a quasi-religious institution for Afrikaners - was an inspired gesture in the campaign to achieve racial reconciliation.

Those were the early days of naive hope and great expectations when, with hindsight, gestures were mistaken for substance. That the road to reconciliation is proving long and hard was confirmed this week by the fact that President Mandela has been subpoenaed to give evidence in a court battle between the government and rugby's old guard.

At the centre of the dispute is the management of a game in which, four years after the arrival of black majority rule, players, organisers and fans remain almost exclusively white.

Cricket, the other great white South African sport, has taken itself to the townships to pull in blacks. When it comes to racial transformation, rugby is miles behind, dogged by accusations of racism. The cause was not helped when Andre Markgraaff, the national coach, was sacked last year for calling black rugby officials "kaffirs".

Mr Mandela says he is quite happy to testify. But many will see his summons as proof of the arrogance and obstinacy of Louis Luyt, the South African Rugby Football Union (Sarfu) president. For years he has dominated the game and his grip on the sport remains absolute.

Mr Luyt, who made his fortune in fertiliser, recently quashed an internal Sarfu revolt against him. He also humiliated the leader of the rebellion, a Coloured (mixed-race) rugby official, Brian van Rooyen. Mr van Rooyen then took his allegations of racism and financial mismanagement to the government.

Mr Luyt ignored all government appeals for the rugby union to co-operate with an investigation and instructed provincial unions not to comply with requests for information. Now he is in court challenging the government's right to appoint a commission to investigate. The case got off to a bitter start when Mr Luyt accused Steve Tshwete, the sports minister, of conducting a vendetta against him. He also said Mr Mandela had allowed himself to be used when he rubber-stamped the formation of the commission.

Mr Luyt's lawyers argued that since Sarfu received no money from the state, the way it conducted its business was a private matter. The government's lawyers disagreed. They insisted rugby was a crucial factor in rebuilding South Africa and that if Sarfu was seen as a private concern, the government would have to review its use of the national flag and use of the Springbok name.

Yesterday, Joel Netshitenzhe, the President's spokesman, said there might still be an appeal against the "somewhat extraordinary" decision to subpoena Mr Mandela to appear in court next month. There are concerns that a precedent could be set which would restrict the President's constitutional powers. Anyone would be able to challenge his decisions and he would spend all his time in court.

Outside the court-room the battle goes on. A few days ago Mluleki George, the National Sports Council president, called for an international boycott of rugby if Sarfu did not come up with more racially representative teams. The national team now boasts one coloured member.

"This is not a threat," he said. "But a warning about how serious the situation in rugby has become. If we [the NSC] do not see a change this season we will be forced to take drastic steps- and that means calling for a stop to any international rugby teams coming to play in South Africa. It is an extreme measure but we and the underprivileged communities cannot wait for ever for change."

patriot call

President Nelson Mandela opened his last full parliamentary session yesterday with a call to all South Africans, especially whites, to perform voluntary community service in order to give back to society what they had gained.

He went on to call for a "new patriotism" to fight crime and unemployment.