Rugby Union: ANC withdraws support for Springboks

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WITH the Springboks' first visit to England in 22 years less than a week away, South African rugby's international reacceptance yesterday lost the blessing of the African National Congress on which it had been based. Without a hasty agreement, it may be condemned to walk straight back into the wilderness whence it so recently came.

The ANC has given its backing to a decision by South Africa's most politically powerful sports body, the National and Olympic Sports Congress, to withdraw support for international rugby tours and the 1995 World Cup, which the International Rugby Board awarded to South Africa in April.

Mluleki George, the Congress president, said yesterday that the decision - which came as a bolt from the blue for the country's rugby fans, virtually all of whom are white - could be reversed if the South African Rugby Union lived up to its promises to develop rugby in the townships.

There is also a lingering suspicion of the symbols of apartheid, evidenced by the springbok emblem itself and the defiantly emotional rendition of the white anthem, Die Stem, before the South Africa-New Zealand game in June. What could it have been that the Springbok team were singing in their huddle at Parc des Princes last Saturday while everyone else was belting out the Marseillaise?

Still, all hope is not lost. 'We are not unreasonable,' George said. 'SARFU must be seen to be involved in a vibrant development programme. If they do that and not deceive us, we will talk to them and the whole thing will come back to normal.' He added that he did not insist that the tour party, who arrive in England from France on Sunday, be brought home but that NOSC would not stop the British Anti-Apartheid Movement from protesting against the tour.

The Rugby Football Union, remembering with horror the public disorder of the 1969-70 tour, has made contingency plans to throw a cordon sanitaire round Twickenham on the day of the Test, 14 November, though last night the Anti-Apartheid Movement in London called upon the RFU to cancel the tour. If the tour was not cancelled, 'we are down the road of protests,' Mike Terry, the movement's secretary, said.

Of that there is no sign. 'The ANC is an organisation of great integrity; they agreed the tour and we are proceeding on that basis,' said Sir Peter Yarranton, who wears two hats as RFU past president and Sports Council chairman. 'I have no reason to suppose we will not be continuing with a successful game.'

But in South Africa one of the few black rugby enthusiasts, the senior ANC official Steve Tshwete, rubbed salt in the already painful wound inflicted on the Springboks by France in Paris last Saturday when he announced his organisation's backing to the NOSC call.

Last night, George told a Johannesburg radio station that he was sensitive to the predicament of English rugby organisers, who have Springboks fixtures arranged in Leicester, Bristol and Leeds leading up to the Test. 'If England send them back we won't regret it,' he said. 'But we won't insist on it.'

The NOSC complains that the SARFU has not lived up to commitments it made to develop rugby in the black communities - an area where the cricket authorities, for example, have displayed considerably more zeal. Significantly, the Indian cricket team arrived in Johannesburg yesterday for a tour which has the unqualified blessing of all.

Whereas relations between Ali Bacher of the South African Cricket Board and the likes of Tshwete, the ANC's de facto shadow sports minister, have been remarkably warm, rugby officials have not helped their cause by a tendency to behave towards black sports officials with crusty hauteur. The response of Danie Craven, South Africa's octogenarian Mr Rugby, to the news of the NOSC boycott offered a case in point. 'I take no notice of what they say,' he said.

Yesterday, SARFU officials more alert to the dangers implicit in the NOSC position attempted to argue that the charges levelled against them were unfair. They said that 6m rand ( pounds 1.3m) had been set aside for rugby development programmes. And they complained, too, that the NOSC had not consulted with them before announcing its new resolution.

Whatever the merits of the SARFU case, the fact is that South Africa's participation in international rugby is once again under threat. And Tshwete, who has successfully acted as mediator in the past between the rugby authorities and the pro-ANC sports bodies, said yesterday that this time he did not envisage stepping in to settle the crisis.

All of which will not play well with South Africa's fanatical white rugby fans, notable among whom is President F W de Klerk, who has engineered himself a trip to England on 14 November on the thin pretexts of a speech in London on the night before and a possible visit to John Major the day after.

South African blacks will not, by and large, be unduly perturbed. Many viewed the country's two big sports results on Saturday as the best of both worlds. The national rugby team lost 29-16 to the French and the national football team, breaking a run of three successive international failures, defeated Congo 1-0 in a World Cup qualifier.