Race row threatens Springbok survival

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The Independent Online
THE NEW South Africa's patience with the country's rugby bosses has snapped. The country's National Sports Council has given the South African Rugby Football Union (Safu) executive - and its chief, Louis Luyt - 14 days to resign or face a ban on international matches and a loss of the famous Springbok emblem.

Bitterness between rugby officials and Nelson Mandela's government has been building for months, but Mr Mandela's humiliation two weeks ago by Mr Luyt was the final straw.

Contesting the government's right to launch an inquiry into mismanagement and racism, Mr Luyt asked a Pretoria High Court judge to summon President Mandela for cross-examination on how he reached his decision.

Bishop Desmond Tutu said he was so angry at the indignities rugby's bosses had heaped on President Mandela by forcing him into court that although he was an avid rugby fan, he may stop watching the game.

In court, President Mandela contested Safu's claim that as a private organisation it should be free from political interference. He said he had staked his political future on promoting "the game of the enemy" after he was released from his 27-year incarceration. He said rugby, which is afforded quasi-religious status by Afrikaners - was a legitimate government concern.

The current bitterness is light years away from the early days of Mr Mandela's presidency when it was thought rugby might play a key part in the nation's healing process by throwing off its racist reputation.

At the weekend, after a heated meeting in Pretoria, the Sports Council gave its resignation ultimatum. It wants to appoint an interim committee to run rugby's affairs. Safu was quick to reject the council's demands, and it now remains to be seen if the council will now go ahead with its threat to cancel all tours to South Africa by international rugby sides, suspend Safu's membership of the council and withdrawn permission to use the springbok emblem.

The Sports Council claims it holds the rights to the emblem. After Mr Mandela's government came to power in 1994, all other sporting bodies traded the springbok - for most South Africans a symbol of the apartheid days - for the protea, the national flower. It was Mr Mandela who resisted calls for the adoption of a new emblem for rugby, despite the fact that the springbok insignia was considered so racially inflammatory.

The council's threats could return South Africa rugby to the international isolation it suffered during apartheid.

The Sports Council has also considered a call to freeze all Safu's assets and the launch of a mass action campaign, backed by unions and churches, to force rugby to toe the line. These drastic steps have been not been put into effect immediately only because some council members said they feared such action could destroy the sport entirely.

"We don't want to kill rugby," said sports council president Mluleki George. "If we withdraw the springbok emblem now and boycott international tours, the game will not survive".