South African judge opens new inquiry into rugby racism after 'cover-up' claim

A retired South African judge has opened an inquiry into deeply divisive allegations of racism in the Springbok rugby team.

Edwin King's investigation was prompted by the resignation of the team's official spokesman, Mark Keohane, who dismissed as a cover-up an earlier inquiry into allegations that a white player had refused to share a room with his black team mate.

The case has fascinated South Africa and opened old wounds in a country where sport has been regarded as a major unifying symbol after the end of apartheid a decade ago.

The former president Nelson Mandela, who was due to meet the Springboks' management team, has been urged to defer the meeting until the inquiry is completed. Mr Mandela told rugby authorities not to tolerate racism.

The Springbok lock Geo Cronje, 23, was initially cleared of racism by an internal inquiry after reports that he had refused to share a room at a training camp with a mixed-race team mate, Quinton Davids, 28. Both players were subsequently dropped from the team for the forthcoming World Cup in Australia.

The scandal, however, refused to die and returned with a vengeance after Mr Keohane launched a broadside at rugby authorities, accusing them of covering up Mr Cronje's alleged racism. The former rugby spokesman said he would not be part of an organisation "in which prejudice is tolerated, wished away and excused".

He detailed other instances of alleged racism among the Springboks in a lengthy document which will form the basis of the new independent inquiry by Mr King. The retired judge is highly regarded after chairing the investigation in 2000 into the match-fixing scandal which ended the career of South Africa's cricket hero, Hansie Cronje.

Mr King said yesterday he hoped that his inquiry would help clear the air.

"I am hoping that this will be a cathartic experience for the players, that they can get these issues out in the open before they leave for the World Cup," Mr King said.

The inquiry, which is being conducted behind closed doors, was carrying out "housekeeping duties" before calling witnesses, he said.

He confirmed that the inquiry would focus on the allegations documented by Mr Keohane.

"The focus and framework of the investigation is to look into allegations of racial prejudice, particularly in the World Cup squad, and to do so in reference to what was contained in the report by Mark Keohane," he said.

The divisiveness of the row is illustrated in the letters and opinion columns of South African newspapers, with white readersagainst the decision to drop Geo Cronje from the World Cup team while black readers show no sympathy for the white player.