Rugby Union: Progress is painful for S Africans: Steve Bale on the hard struggle in the Republic to achieve integration

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The Independent Online
WITH only one non-white - Chester Williams - in New Zealand with the Springboks, the idea of rugby as a means of empowering black people in South Africa would seem faintly ludicrous were it not that it did exactly that for the political prisoners on Robben Island during the apartheid years.

A BBC film tonight - Spirit of the Island: On The Line, BBC2 8.0 - will show how Steve Tshwete, now the Minister of Sport, so organised his fellow-convicts that they earned the grudging respect of warders whose official mission was to break their spirit.

In the new South Africa, Tshwete wants non-whites to use the Afrikaner's game as their own means of liberation. But, as Richard Taylor's film shows, black rugby's progress away from the ghetto of the townships is proving agonisingly slow.

Harlequins, of Port Elizabeth, are an exception, but their experience reveals the intense difficulty under which those from beyond the former Establishment labour. They are a success, the only club from the old non-white organisation to have made it into Premier League rugby in South Africa.

They have black, white and mixed-race players and Jean Alberts, their white prop, said: 'Harlequins won't be seen as a coloured club in seven to eight years' time. It will just be seen as a normal rugby club.' For now, though, Harlequins are not normal. They are the only club in the top division of the Eastern Province League who cannot find a sponsor.

This form of discrimination exists throughout non-white rugby. Even the much-vaunted development of this sector is a matter of dispute between the government and the rugby union, each of which wants the other to put up the funds for a schools' programme.

Tshwete says: 'It's useless to talk about merit selection when you are not backing that merit selection with a visible, vibrant development programme which is ensuring that these people who have been disadvantaged throughout the years are being brought up.'