SA rugby heads for boycott over race row

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The Independent Online
PRESSURE is mounting for the resignation today of South Africa's rugby supremo, Louis Luyt, 24 hours before an ultimatum runs out for him to stand down or face an international boycott which could cripple the sport.

"Big Louis", the bluff, controversial president of the South African Rugby Football Union (Sarfu), is accused of presiding over a game tarnished by racism, nepotism, mismanagement and financial irregularities. He resisted attempts by President Nelson Mandela to launch an inquiry into the allegations against rugby, which Mr Luyt's critics claim he runs as if it were his fiefdom. Four years ago rugby, a near-religion for many Afrikaners and often an excuse for displays of racism and right-wing political sentiment during the apartheid era, was heralded by Mr Mandela as a sport which yet had the power to help rebuild the nation.

Today there are no black players in the national team and only five non- whites among more than 100 players in the Super 12 competition. The rugby establishment is accused of doing nothing to take the game to the townships. Racism allegations were not helped by the resignation last year of Andre Markgraaff the national coach, after he was recorded referring to black rugby officials as "kaffirs". Last month, a South African player was sent home from a tour of New Zealand after calling a black South African female fan a "kaffir".

The National Sport Council issued its boycott threat last month after Mr Mandela was forced to defend his political decision in court, when Sarfu challenged his right to launch an inquiry. The Sports Council accused Mr Luyt of "humiliating" the President and demanded his resignation, along with his entire executive. A successful boycott would make the South African rugby team pariahs again.

Neither the Sports Council nor Mr Luyt is budging. Yesterday the Natal Rugby Union called for him to take voluntary redundancy for the good of the game.

Mluleki George, the Sports Council president, suggested Mr Luyt's resignation alone might be sufficient to avert the boycott but warned that if he did not go, a ban on international games would come into operation by the end of the month. The first casualty would be the Irish tour due this month.

Yesterday the Sports Council was lobbying the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) to back the boycott, already blessed by the Sports Minister, Steve Tshwete, and is believed to have the support of Mr Mandela's cabinet, which might soon be notifying foreign governments that their rugby teams are not welcome in South Africa.

Cosatu yesterday called for the resignation of William de Villiers, the judge who ordered Mr Mandela to appear in court and who ruled two weeks ago that the government had no right to investigate Sarfu.

He has yet to give his reasons for the ruling. A Cosatu spokesman criticised the judge for calling the President to court and said he was treating Mr Mandela and the country with contempt by delaying the reasons for his judgment. Rugby experts and sponsors, who have also called on Mr Luyt to go, say disaster looms and not just in South Africa. Australian and New Zealand rugby officials said the dispute between Sarfu and the government could force cancellation of this year's lucrative Tri-nations series.

Yesterday a phone conference between rugby officials from all three countries was cancelled at the last minute. "We decided ... to wait and see how things unfold," said Dick McGruther, the Australian Rugby Union (ARU) chairman. "It's a South African problem that we are confident they will be able to resolve and we wanted to allow them that opportunity before we get involved."

He said the ARU would discuss the matter with the Australian government before deciding what further action to take. During the court case, sponsors warned that even if Mr Luyt won the legal battle he would lose the wider war.

Mr Luyt, it seems, is the last to accept the inevitable. The rugby writer Barry Glasspool said yesterday that even by his own stubborn standards, Mr Luyt's stand was "breathtaking". Glasspool said it was inconceivable the NSC would back down now. Whatever Mr Luyt believed, "rugby cannot operate without harmonious relations with the government and the Sports Council".