Rugby boss forces Mandela into court

Click to follow
The Independent Online
THE BITTER relations between the South African government and national rugby boss Dr Louis Luyt plummeted to new depths yesterday when an angry President Nelson Mandela became the first head of state forced to defend his political actions in court.

Before taking the witness stand at Pretoria High Court, President Mandela said his blood boiled at being forced into the chamber by the controversial Dr Luyt to be grilled about his decision to set up a commission to investigate alleged racism, graft and nepotism in rugby, the game Dr Luyt has been accused of operating like a personal fiefdom.

Before taking the stand, the president said he had grave reservations about the unprecedented order for him to appear in court because it might open floodgates by which all presidential decisions might be challenged and government undermined.

The summons to the president, which has shocked many legal experts, was issued by Judge William de Villiers. The president's advisers argue that the judge is right-wing and reactionary, pointing out that he opposed the admission of blacks to the Pretoria Bar Council until the early 1980s and was conservative in apartheid era political trials..

Yesterday, Dr Luyt and President Mandela shook hands and chatted during intervals. But the heady early days of the new democracy when rugby proved a unifying force were long gone and there was no mistaking the underlying animosity.

Dr Luyt has accused sports minister Steve Tshwete of conducting a vendetta against him and is arguing in court that President Mandela did not properly consider the arguments for a commission but simply rubber stamped Mr Tshwete's decision. He is also insisting that his South African Rugby Football Union (Sarfu) is a private association and should be free from government interference.

Yesterday President Mandela insisted that he alone had made the decision to form a commission and that a sport which had played such a huge role in nation building could not be seen as a private matter, particularly when a cloud of suspicion hung over those who ran it. He said that Sarfu could not be left to regulate itself when internal democracy seemed lacking. "The feeling is that Louis is a pitiless dictator," South Africa's first democratically elected president told the court. "No one can stand up to him."

President Mandela said he had risked his political future after his release by promoting "the game of the enemy" - rugby is a near religion to Afrikaners. Once he said Dr Luyt had played a "critical" role in transforming rugby. Now little was being done to bring rugby to the townships.

"I would never have imagined that Louis would be so insensitive, ungrateful and disrespectful to say when I gave my affidavit [submitted earlier to the court] I was lying," said the president, standing just feet from Dr Luyt.

Fink Haysom, President Mandela's legal adviser, said he could find no precedent within or outside South Africa for a president being called to court in this manner. He said he was appalled that President Mandela's written affidavit was being questioned. It was tantamount to saying the president was lying under oath.

The president's supporters, who packed the court, regarded the entire proceeding as disrespectful and a little humiliating to Mr Mandela.

The president said he was attending out of respect for the administration of justice. But it was clear he was keen to demonstrate openness. But why, he asked Judge Villiers, was Dr Luyt resisting transparency. "It gives the message he is hiding something," he said.