Race harmony is trampled as Springboks lock horns wrangle proves harmony is only skin-deep

A rugby row shows the continuing grip of old white elites in the new South Africa, says Mary Braid
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The Independent Online
If a single moment captured the dreams and aspirations of a new, racially harmonious South Africa, it was Nelson Mandela's presentation of the Rugby World Cup to Francois Pienaar, the national team captain, last year.

The President sported a Springbok shirt bearing Pienaar's number. It was an inspired gesture with which to mark South Africa's triumphant return to international sport. A miracle appeared to take place: rugby, the near- religious obsession of Afrikaners - and therefore a detested symbol of white oppression to blacks - suddenly seemed to have the makings of a truly national game.

Immediately afterwards, however, there was a sour incident which somehow symbolised both what had gone before in South African rugby and what was to come. Louis Luyt, the beefy businessman who heads the South African Rugby Football Union (Sarfu), made a victory speech at the celebration dinner which was considered so gloating and insulting that the defeated All Blacks walked out. Some had to be restrained from hitting him.

Mr Luyt is still in charge, but last week it was announced that when the Springboks tour Argentina, France and Wales next month, Francois Pienaar will be staying at home. The World Cup-winning captain has maintained a dignified silence, but many others have not, believing that his sacking has nothing to do with his current form or commitment.

The decision to drop Pienaar from a squad which includes hooker Henry Tromp, convicted of whipping a black teenager to death, has spawned the bitter joke that men willing to die for their country need not apply, but killers stand a good chance of selection. With Pienaar went the remnants of the euphoria which infused the country for that brief, glorious moment in 1995, and the illusion of overnight racial harmony.

The affair threatens to bring back the bad old days before the World Cup, when rugby still bore all the ugly racist hallmarks of the white tribe which worshipped on its terraces. In July 1992 a one-off match against New Zealand betrayed deep hostility to inevitable political change. Mr Mandela had given his blessing to the game on the condition that Die Stem, the Afrikaner national anthem, was not played and the then South African flag was not displayed. A minute's silence was to be observed for those who died in the township wars. But the fans raised two arrogant fingers to the rules, booing through the minute's silence and, to a man, flaunting apartheid's orange, white and blue flag.

The change of hearts and minds that took place between 1992 and 1995 owed much to both Mr Mandela and Pienaar. Donning the Springbok shirt emphasised the President's genuine desire for reconciliation, a desire shared by the Springbok captain. He encouraged every team member to learn the Xhosa words to Shosholoza, a black miners' song sung daily by Mr Mandela during his years of hard labour on Robben Island, which the Springboks adopted as their team song. Pienaar proved the perfect foil to less enlightened team members like Uli Schmidt, who infamously commented: "I do not think our blacks are made to play rugby. It is just not in their culture."

Pienaar's sacking, it is claimed, is belated revenge for crossing the small, all-white elite, headed by Mr Luyt, which runs South African rugby and has axed many managers, officials and players in the past. His "crime" was to negotiate a better financial deal for the Springboks, and the new coach, Andre Markgraaff, was said to have resented his huge influence within the team.

In the uproar that has followed, a national selector has resigned, a players' mutiny is being threatened and there have been calls for a boycott of the products of rugby's main sponsor, South Africa's largest brewing company.

But the row has uncovered wider concerns: that Luyt and Co, through jealous protection of their power, are hampering black advancement in rugby. It is a complaint heard in boardrooms, universities and courts all over the country as the old privileged elites discover that it is one thing to accept a black president, quite another to relinquish your own powers to blacks. At Witwatersrand University there is a bitter dispute as to whether the next chancellor should be the white heir-apparent, or one of two black academics. And last month more than 100 judges took the unprecedented step of issuing a public statement in opposition to the appointment of the country's first black chief justice.

Pienaar's departure has prompted a challenge to Mr Luyt's power from Brian van Rooyen, one of the sport's few black officials. He is vice-president of the Transvaal Rugby Union, of which Mr Luyt is president as well as heading the Sarfu. "Five years after the black and white rugby unions were merged, the Springbok team still has no black players," Mr van Rooyen says. "There is no development programme, and no money invested in black players. Pienaar was one of the few Springbok players to take development seriously. He is a hero for white, black and Asian kids."

He denies that Mr Luyt is a racist. "He just is not as interested in development as he is in sponsorship and contacts. I want to see a programme which will produce five black Springboks, chosen on merit, by the 1999 World Cup in Wales."

n Pienaar was carried shoulder high from the field at Loftus Versfeld yesterday after helping Transvaal reach next week's Currie Cup final against Natal. Transvaal defeated arch-rivals Northern Transvaal 31-12 in the semi-final. Asked if he would still be available for the Springboks if further injuries occurred, Pienaar said: "That's a tough question to answer at this stage. Obviously I have a contract with the South African Rugby Football Union and I must do what they say."

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