The glorious jacaranda trees bloomed across the land in the days just before Bob Foster and Arthur Ashe arrived to compete in South Africa last month. The jacarandas are a wonderful purple, tall and festive, and they parade across the southern spring, so that for a brief time in this bizarre place color is the joy that God meant it to be.
Otherwise, of course, color is the plague of the country, where apartheid is the law, and, more or less, the invidious answer to all things. Like Scott Fitzgerald's very rich, the South Africans are different from you and me. All peoples of the earth are quick to boast that they are uncommonly sports-minded, but the South Africans truly are exceptionally sports-minded. After all, since the black and so-called "Colored" perform all the drudgery, the whites have more time to play. Besides, in a land ruled by King Canute's philosophical heirs, there is yet no TV. So play on. Per capita, Johannesburg has more swimming pools than Los Angeles and, surely, more tennis courts than anywhere. South Africa also has about the highest divorce rate in the world. Idle hands are the devil's workshop. Or, as Arthur Ashe puts it, "Sports is the Achilles' heel of South Africa."
Ashe's declaration may sound presumptuous—that any country could really be vulnerable to silly games—but considering the way South Africans prattle on about their teams and the injustices done them, it may well be that he has chanced upon the underbelly. Maybe history will indeed show that his and Foster's visits affected policy, either by greasing the skids for apartheid, or by giving a patina of respectability to a government that, outside of Rhodesia, cannot otherwise obtain support for its principles.
In any event, the official acceptance of the two black heroes was made in the full understanding that one was almost certain to beat up unmercifully on a white man's skull as thousands of blacks looked on most agreeably, while the other had already introduced the rather uncomfortable suggestion that an H-bomb should be dropped on Jo'burg. It surely was one of the single most vital political decisions in the realm of sports ever made by a government. The dual ploy coming off without incident—Ashe reached the finals of the South African Open and Foster retained his light-heavyweight title without enraging Afrikaners in the outback—may even have affected the ultimate course of the nation. The one man responsible for the athletes' presence, a hawk-nosed Rhodes scholar named Pieter Koornhof, Minister of Mines, Immigration, Sports and Recreation, put his career on the line. That he passed the test now makes it all the more likely that he will emerge as the successor to Prime Minister John Vorster.
December 10, 1973
Ashe met (negotiated?) twice with Koornhof, and after the second t√™te-√†-t√™te the words "inhuman" and "abhorrent" suddenly disappeared from Ashe's departing statement. Presumably some kind of price was paid for their inoperativeness. Similarly Koornhof turned a blind eye when the tennis promoter, Owen Williams, a man as decent as he is capable, had tickets in all sections quietly handed out to blacks so that Ellis Park could be completely, if only technically, integrated. For his part, Ashe accepted this on good faith and did not protest the continued existence of a nonwhite section. Even the seating distinctions at the fight were somewhat diminished too, in that blacks could buy tickets in all price categories and there were no physical separations in the reserved sections.
"There is a concept in economics called comparative advantage," Ashe declared wryly at one point, "when two nations will trade with each other if they both believe they can gain. Now, I know the government is using me, but I'm using it, too."
Foster, as befits an uncomplicated family man with five children who works full-time as a $720-a-month sergeant in the sheriff's office back home in Albuquerque, N. Mex., dealt in somewhat less lofty terms. He elaborated: "My manager said, 'We're getting two hundred thousands dollars.' I said, 'Let's go.' I get my two hundred thousand, do my job, and get out of here." That pithy summation, delivered in advance of the bout, suffices as a postmortem for his 13th title defense. Before 42,000 fans, contributing the richest gate in the division's history, $474,000, Foster beat on his white pay envelope named Pierre Fourie (pronounced Peery Fur-EE) just as he had cashed in on the same poor bloke last August in Albuquerque.
This time, though, Foster too often failed to accept opportunities that his long left leads gave him. "I just couldn't get nothing going together," he said afterward, while graciously volunteering that Fourie was the better fighter, save for his own considerable height advantage. The decision was clear-cut enough, but it did take a strong last three rounds from Foster, and his best tattoo of the evening did not come until late in the 14th round when he caught Fourie with two quick rights and then a telling left.
In the middle going, Fourie had been able to duck under the taller man's left to score regularly with his hooks. He is a limited puncher though, a middleweight proving the Peter Principle, and the anxious white fans were never seriously teased with false hopes. From the time the South African national anthem was played—when all the whites stood and sang The Call of South Africa while all the blacks sat—there was no great effort in discerning who was for whom. Yet it was a rather docile crowd gathered under the starless sky that watched a black man and a white man knock each other about in their mutual sweat—and even in a little bit of the white man's blood.
Foster's fight was restricted to the ring, however, and his unconcern for "politics" led to an increasing disaffection with members of his own race. "Foster stinks," snapped a councilman of Soweto, that hideous squalid urban reservation where the million blacks who service Jo'burg are sequestered. Others murmured an ominous agreement. "We don't want his kind back. Foster is nothing but a kaffir" a Colored salesman said, employing the ultimate insult, the hated indigenous equivalent for "nigger." Blacks had welcomed Foster as "Lost Tribe" in the euphoric days when he first arrived, but by the end of his stay the most charitable assessment of the educated black community was: Well, what could you expect from a bloody cop?
By contrast, Ashe grew in stature with a population that had been generally ignorant of his sport. After he gave a clinic on one of his visits to Soweto, the people christened him Sipho ("A Gift"), draped an amulet around his neck and sounded off three cheers for him. A Colored poet named Don Mattera wrote Anguished Spirit—Ashe. It begins:
I listened deeply when you spoke
About the step-by-step evolution
Of a gradual harvest,
Tendered by the rains of tolerance
Your youthful face,
Hiding a pining, anguished spirit,
And I loved you brother—
Not for your quiet philosophy
But for the rage in your soul,
Trained to be rebuked or summoned...
Purposefully, Ashe solicited every possible view, even chartering a plane to meet with Zulu Chief Gatsha Buthelezi in the bush. Bad weather forced him back, but he met Alan Paton, members of the government, the opposition, all races, clergy, journalists, businessmen, sports figures and, in Cape Town, in something like a mad Fellini parody, the infinitely-publicized man who is, for good reasons, recognized as "the South African Jackie Kennedy."
Smiling and immaculate, the charming Dr. Christiaan Barnard greeted Ashe at the entrance to a multi-racial children's hospital. Barnard led Ashe, his party and a herd of pressmen about the wards, steering the thundering ensemble as if he were some beachfront real-estate salesman. "Ah, here's one just operated on this very morning. See the incision...? And now this little fellow over here, I've had all the blood out of him for 40 minutes.... Oh, one with a hole in his heart? Yes, of course. Come right this way."
More privately, Barnard volunteered to Ashe that he was not in favor of one-man, one-vote. It was a rare honest admission in a land where 99% of the legislature supports apartheid and 99% of the voters that Ashe met assured him that their politics lay, oh, about midway between Wayne Morse and Huey Newton. Apartheid is a much more subtle piece of business than what the world sees of it in those interminable photographs of "Black" and "White" rest-room signs that suggest South Africa is nothing but a nation of public toilets. The Afrikaans govern and are the easy villains, but the English speak with forked tongue. They own the place.
It was not the whites but, oddly, some blacks who resented Ashe, who told him he should not even have come. Once, in Soweto, he was ringed by such a hostile student minority that a look of genuine concern suddenly crossed his face. "There is an hypothesis," says Cliff Drysdale, the sensitive South African player, "that all this must end in violence. If you accept that, then Arthur's visit, Foster's, any dealings with this government, only prolong that agony."
But this springtime the moderates ruled, and in this land of ambiguity the whites greeted the black stars with a warmth that was almost eerie. "Don't ask me to explain human inconsistencies," Ashe said, "but I have seen with my eyes that this place is not a lost cause. I have seen that there is a hope that a better future lies with the young people."
The response to him on the courts was a groundswell, rising as he passed on to the finals. A tournament record of almost 100,000 people who paid a quarter of a million dollars seemed nearly all for Ashe, even when he beat the popular Drysdale in the semis, and especially in the previous round when he thrashed the more typical South African, Bob Hewitt, a man who previously had informed Ashe that all South African blacks were "happy."
But in the finals, with fans packed about the courts and clamoring above billboards, the Wunderkind, Jimmy Connors, dispatched Ashe and history in three straight sets. In the semis, Connors had routed Tom Okker with the best tennis, Okker said, that a man had ever played against him, and while Connors was not quite so consummate in the final, Ashe's serve deserted him much too often for him to keep up with this infectious young player who may very soon become the best in the world.
Ashe did have a set point at 6-5 in the second set, but Connors saved that with a lined backhand cross-court, and then promptly crushed Ashe in the tie breaker, squeezing a sigh from the whole place. The final, perfunctory set was played before a genuinely saddened audience, nearly in silence.
For Foster, his fans—indigent blacks for the most part—would crowd around his hotel and press up against the glass doors, but on his visits to the lobby the champ would deny them any acknowledgment, much less a smile they could cherish. Mostly, he elected to hole up in his suite, buffered by his obese brain trust; Lou Viscusi, his cheerful manager ("Mister Lou"), the classic old-time pot belly with matching big, fat cigar; Bob Goodman, PR man, nearly spherical and pink, suggesting a child's bouncing ball; Maurice Toweel, the promoter, crippled since his infancy, heavy-chested and swarthy, running the show from the side of Foster's bed, squatting there like some giant frog on a lily pad.
In the midst of this rotundity, Foster, shaped like a string pulled tight, groused and grumbled except when the subject of his $200,000 was advanced. Apparently, he would spar with the angel Lucifer in the fires of hell if sufficient front funds could be placed in Mister Lou's escrow account. Foster's major revenues have come by serving as fodder for sundry heavyweights, and he has been required to defend his title for walking-around money in places such as Tampa and Scranton. It is no wonder that for him Jo'burg was just, as they say, a date.
Displaying his sheriff's black leather gloves with the pebbled lead knuckles, he offered his views on South Africa. Well, the food was real good. "I don't know how they treat others around here," he explained. "That's not my business. They treat me like a king."
A few blocks away a man very nearly Foster's age and shade stood in the lobby of a building. He could not go up the stairs to attend a meeting he had organized for Ashe and some black journalists because he had just that day been "banned." That means he cannot be with more than one person at a time. He cannot play doubles in tennis, or play bridge, or go to a college or a library, or leave town, or publish a thought. Effectively, a man who is banned is no longer viable—which is precisely the intention. And it is neat: no trial, no explanation.
"It is amazing how few people realize what South Africa really is," Ashe says. "It is a police state. The greatest, most influential variable here is fear. Wherever I go I see that everybody is afraid."
Even the press, relatively untrammeled till now, fears that censorship is imminent. Informers are legion. Society matrons toss off the phrase "go inside" in the natural, everyday way that the friends of Eddie Coyle talk of "stir." The government police, the wistfully acronymed BOSS (Bureau of Stale Security), are omnipresent. One BOSS policeman stood with the banned man by the stairs, while another went up and infiltrated the meeting. As Ashe spoke in a room heavy with smoke and sweat and passion, he noticed that a little man in the first row could not keep his hands from trembling. Ashe talked of how he hoped his visit could be a first small step, somehow. He cited the progress he was familiar with.
"Sure, and here they would have banned Martin Luther King after two weeks," a man said, under his breath.
"Power, power," the people spoke out loud sometimes.
"Shame, shame," they also said.
The man with the trembling hands rose and talked of their banned colleague downstairs. "Our time is short. Very soon we all may say no more."
The next evening, Ashe had dinner with a wealthy white liberal. A financier, he was brilliant and persuasive, and held the audience in his grip. "A game," he suggested at dessert, "we will have a game." He would play the role of Arthur Ashe upon his return to America, and the others at the dinner table would be members of the press. He would illustrate how Ashe could field questions honestly but to everyone's mutual best advantage. The predictable questions came: Were you surprised? Might you return? And the answers flowed back smoothly. But somebody suggested another: "Mr. Ashe, how can the world believe South Africa is sincerely advancing toward justice if, in the week it shows off Foster and you, it bans a man without trial or even reason?"
The financier grimaced, and was suddenly himself again. "But that is not relevant," he snapped. "What has that man to do with South Africa allowing Arthur Ashe to play here?" The real Arthur Ashe looked again at the man who had been playing Arthur Ashe. "Besides," the businessman said, a cold smile creasing his face, "that man is just a lightweight." Ashe's eyes dropped. The game, as always, was over.
Don Mattera is the name of the lightweight who had been banned from living. It was he who wrote the poem about Ashe. They had met at Ellis Park earlier in the week. At the very time they talked, Mattera's banning order was being processed. He is 37, with a wife and six children, so gentle a man that he berates himself for his own passivity. He is a journalist and a poet, but he lives in a hovel with no plumbing and no electricity. He writes his poetry by candlelight.
Ashe saw him for the last time when he came down from the black journalists' meeting. Mattera was still there by the stairs, waiting with the man from BOSS. He took Ashe's hand, and those of his friends. "Go well, brothers," he said. "Go well." The jacaranda will come to bloom five more times before Don Mattera is allowed to be a person again.
When Ashe and Foster left South Africa last week, almost all the purple petals had fallen to the ground, spring was done and the place was itself again, with just the usual colors.