Oh, we are on the verge of everything, as far as I can see. Everything! It is time to go. Enough has happened, it is time, it is time. My god, how I hope it is time.
—MATTHEWS MOTSHWARATEU, 32, South Africa's 10,000-meter champion
The annual track and field championships in South Africa have long been affectionately dubbed "the champs" by track and field buffs in that country, although in recent years they have been underattended, undramatic affairs that international newspapers didn't even bother to cover. However, as the 1991 championships were played out over two immaculate autumn days last week in Pretoria's homey Pilditch Stadium, the attendance blossomed to 25,000, three times what it has been of late, and the press box was full. The mood was fairly festive, yet fraught with tension and an aura of uncertainty that can best be described as suspended disbelief. There was an extraordinary intensity to conversations throughout the meet, and they moved across a range of emotion, from high hope to high anxiety, from pure euphoria to raw fear.
In that, the champs of 1991 reflected precisely the current mood of all South Africa as it charges through yet another period of unrest in its relentlessly volatile history. Against a chilling backdrop that includes rampant bloodshed, massive unemployment, a soaring crime rate and a desperately wounded economy, South Africans of all colors are rushing furiously ahead to abolish the brutal rule of apartheid so that they can be invited back into a world that for three decades has banned or boycotted them in just about every avenue of international activity—from politics to commerce to art to sport. This isolation has strangled trade, starved business, deterred potential foreign investors and virtually erased South African sport from the map. Athletic competitions in the nation have been little more than a series of increasingly tiresome events between the same few athletes, over and over and over again.
Says Andre van Heerden, who publishes several sports magazines in Johannesburg: "Races were boring, tactical things. You could practically write the name on the trophy before the contest began. Spectators were way down—even the national soccer finals didn't draw. There was less money, fewer sponsors. Sport has virtually been lying on its deathbed."
April 28, 1991
Then, suddenly, last week, hope dawned that perhaps the isolation was over, both in sport and in commerce. In Luxembourg, the European Community announced that it had dropped its five year ban on imports of gold coins, iron and steel from South Africa, and, in Barcelona, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) declared that this pariah country, which was last allowed to field an Olympic team in 1960, would in all likelihood be warmly welcomed at the Barcelona Games of '92. In recent weeks, as South Africa seemed increasingly ready to abolish apartheid, officials of the world governing body for track and field, the International Amateur Athletic Federation (IAAF), which in 1976 had expelled South Africa, a founding member, indicated that it was leaning toward readmitting the nation to full membership in time to participate in the World Championships in Tokyo in August.
The 1991 champs in Pretoria were, of course, a county-fair cakewalk by Olympic or IAAF standards. Yet those championships may stand as historic in that they mark the end of the isolation that began when South Africa's invitation to the 1964 Olympics was withdrawn because the country refused to send an integrated team to the Tokyo Games (six years later South Africa was officially banned by the IOC, and by the 1980s South African athletes were banned from competitions worldwide) as well as the beginning of a brave new era in which South African athletes at last will emerge from the iron cocoon of apartheid. Finally, they will be free to compete against opponents from other lands.
Particularly for the few South African athletes who possess world-class ability-over the years, South Africa has won only 52 Olympic medals—the breaking of the isolation will be like being born again. Myrtle Bothma, 25, who is white, is a stunningly talented 400-meter hurdler who, based on her times (her personal best is 53.74, an all-Africa record) was ranked No. 5 in the world in 1989 and No. 8 last year by Track & Field News. She wins most of her races against her compatriots just as she won the national championship last week—by the outrageous margin of more than a full second. Her closest contact with world-class hurdlers has come when she watched from the stands during the last two Olympics and a couple of other international meets. She said grimly last week, "I have suffered from the sanctions. I could have been in the first three places of the races I saw. I have always believed I was a world-beater. Now, I will prove it in Tokyo. I think it's only fair. It's time the world gave us something back."
Others were more starry-eyed over the new challenges ahead. Tshakile Nzminade, 29, a black employee of a mining company who last season was the world's 10th-fastest performer in the 200-meter dash (personal best: 20.31, also an all-Africa record), said, "I will be so proud to find myself lining up next to people I only hear or read about or see on TV. I think I can do well, but just running on the same track with these people will be like winning the race."
And then there was the South African runner who had not only competed but also starred internationally despite the sanctions, the celebrated Zola Budd, now 24, noticeably plumper than when she was a teenage phenomenon and now joyfully married to a wealthy South African liquor dealer, Michael Pieterse. A two-time world cross-country champion and former world-record holder at 5,000 meters, she is gradually regaining world-class form after retiring for a time to recover from her chaotic outcast years in England, where she lived in order to retain her controversial British citizenship and run against international competition, most notably in the 1984 Olympic Games in Los Angeles. Last week she won the 1,500 and the 3,000 in Pretoria, coasting in far ahead of her competition, though with excruciatingly slow times, 4:08.65 and 9:05.72, respectively. Relaxed and agreeable, she was delighted at the prospects ahead: "Running for a South African Olympic team would be the greatest thrill. Barcelona does seem a real possibility now, but if it doesn't happen, I'll still be around for Atlanta in 1996."
The way things have been happening for South Africa—meaning with extraordinary suddenness—it seems the nation won't have to wait until 1996. The startling thing is that none of this was even remotely likely until 14 months ago. That was when newly elected South African president Frederik Wilhelm de Klerk, a previously unremarkable white politician who had never been known as verligte ("enlightened" in Afrikaans), stood up in parliament and electrified his countrymen—and the world—by declaring that black leader Nelson Mandela, a political prisoner for 27 years, would be released, and that Mandela's outlawed antiapartheid party, the fiercely militant African National Congress, would be legalized again. The next day, Feb. 11, 1990, Mandela was set free.
De Klerk then took a much longer leap of liberalism and declared that the national constitution would be rewritten to provide legal equality for all South Africans, without regard to skin color. And he astounded the world again by proclaiming that much of the vast 42-year-old morass of apartheid laws—thousands of small-print pages of regulations, executive orders, circulars, etc.—would be repealed by the South African parliament sometime before it adjourned this June. This meant that the massive infrastructure that has kept virtually all 30 million South African blacks trapped in squalor on 13% of the nation's land, in the so-called homelands or the teeming townships near major cities, while 5½ million whites controlled the richest 87% of the land, suddenly would be eliminated.
When asked by skeptics if anything could happen to prevent the permanent eradication of apartheid, De Klerk has said, "It is an irreversible process."
De Klerk's promises are the basis for the widening movement to lift sanctions against South Africa. The IOC has laid down conditions for readmitting the country into the Olympic movement, including that the parliament really does abolish those laws, as it seems certain to do, on schedule. Also, the IOC insists that South Africa be accepted into the general African Olympic movement (no problem, since black Africa wants its athletes to compete for money in a nonracist South Africa), that it produce a single, multiracial national Olympic Committee (also no major problem) and that its various sports federations unify so there is only one governing body per sport (a problem because, as a result of apartheid, there have long been rival race-based sports bodies in South Africa and in some cases getting them to merge could be difficult).
IOC vice-president Kevan Gosper, who visited South Africa in late March with the first Olympic delegation to enter the country since 1967, says, "Leading South African sports from nearly a quarter century of darkness does not lend itself to a quick fix. There are entrenched positions that are not easily changed. More than 100 sporting federations are involved."
Sam Ramsamy, a South African of Indian descent, is more optimistic, which is saying something, because he used to direct a militant antiapartheid Olympic committee-in-exile in London. He returned home to Johannesburg this year to become the new chairman of the Interim National Olympic Committee of South Africa (INOCSA), a multiracial transitional body set up to form a single national Olympic committee. "There is a willingness from both whites and blacks to form nonracial bodies," Ramsamy says. "By addressing the inequities of the formerly disenfranchised, we can ensure unity within our sports bodies."
Some of the discord among the national sports bodies is based on points of merit, and some is a mere matter of cheap power grabs, but there is a far more serious dispute over South Africa's swift welcome back to world sport. Many black leaders—particularly abroad—believe that it is all happening too soon.
Former U.S. tennis star Arthur Ashe, who has long been outspoken on the issue of apartheid, says, "One downside of getting rid of sanctions is the perception by white South Africans that they can slow down the pace of reform. But 60 apartheid laws are still in effect. And Nelson Mandela still can't vote, that's the bottom line." Harry Edwards, the Berkeley sociologist who is a consultant to Major League Baseball on racial affairs, says, "It shouldn't just happen on the basis of some promises De Klerk put down on paper. He could be out of office in 1992. An ending to apartheid is not just changing some rules in a book. Actual structural changes in team composition, the organization of sport, access to facilities and common training grounds must occur. We should wait for demonstrable evidence. Remember, Jesse Owens was riding on an integrated, international Olympic team in 1936, but when he came back to the U.S., he had to ride in the back of the bus." And Jesse Jackson says, "More sports participation will just serve to put a fresh face on South Africa's moral decay. Sanctions must be used to free countries of their character deficiencies, not to obscure them."
Mandela's ANC publicly supported the IOC's original conditions for South Africa's readmission, as well as a timetable that would give the nation six months to meet them. But the ANC is not entirely sold on what it sees as the IOC's recent rush to recognition, which has been propelled by IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch's desire to have the first "all-nation" Olympics in decades take place in his hometown of Barcelona. Steve Tshwete, the ANC's chief sports liaison, says, "It's all well for the people at the top to say South Africa is going to the Olympics, but integration of sports must begin at the bottom, and this is not something that can be conveniently hurried."
The crux of the matter is simple: If racial unity in sports is to be meaningful, it must be achieved at the level of ordinary athletes. All people in South Africa must have the same facilities, coaches and training conveniences that have long been provided exclusively for whites. Currently, this is far from reality. While integration has been achieved at the highest level of competition, teams of children from all-black schools in the townships and homelands still compete against teams composed of children from the elite all-white schools. After matches, there is little mixing.
And yet the ANC recognizes that the IOC's action, while it is unlikely to directly bring about any broad change in living conditions for black South Africans, is indeed significant. "As for the Americans' militant opinion that no sanctions should be dropped before full civil rights are granted, no, that is not our position," Tshwete says. "We are seeing a coming together of sporting bodies in a mutual desire for nonracial sport in South Africa. The racists even realize where the future lies. This is not a small victory. It means not just two sports bodies are coming together, but two huge streams of humanity are coming together. This strengthens the whole cause for democracy in this country. It does not end on the cricket pitch or the running track, it goes far beyond."
Indeed, the argument that democracy must rule before South Africans may reenter the Olympic movement flies in the face of the fact that the oppressions and atrocities practiced by such governments as those of China, East Germany, Iran, Iraq and Syria were never enough to keep those countries out of the Games. As Dick Pound, an IOC vice-president from Canada, puts it, "We can't put South Africa off until everything there is fair. If we only allowed in countries where everything is fair, we would have a very small Olympic Games." Even Ramsamy says, "Yes, it would be very, very good if South Africa had a society equitable for all. We all want that. But that is an ideal we can only strive for. It would be very good to achieve it, but there are many other societies in the world that have not achieved that either."
The truth is that in South Africa most sports were integrated at the higher levels—for spectators as well as athletes-many years before De Klerk made his noble promises. Gert le Roux, who has worked with the South African Amateur Athletic Union since 1972, recalls, "We have not been allowed to compete outside the country since we were kicked out of the IAAF in 1976, but from the moment we were expelled, we went to work and changed our constitution to open all our clubs to everyone. We did it voluntarily, and we did it completely."
At the Pretoria championships last week, there was a racial mix, but whites, on the track and in the stands, were far more numerous than blacks. Track and field has long been a white sport in South Africa—mainly beloved by Afrikaners. Thus, black and other nonwhite athletes have come to it only lately, in relatively small numbers—except for road and distance running, in which they have excelled. Blacks have also been afforded almost no coaching or facilities worthy of the name.
In South Africa's infamous townships and homelands, mostly filthy areas that were—and still are—South Africa's way of keeping blacks out of sight, out of mind and out of luck, sports programs of any kind were, until a couple of years ago, virtually nonexistent. In Alexandra, a township of half a million blacks stuck away on the northern outskirts of Johannesburg, there is some amazing acreage tucked amid endless square miles of tin shacks and shanties. There are a couple of clean, new tennis courts, a well-kept practice area for cricket and a fairly grassy soccer field. Around the entire facility is a chainlink fence that has been laced with spirals of razor wire. The director of the Alexandra All-Sport Congress, which runs the complex, is Vusi Thabethe, a smiling, cheerful man who does not say cheerful things: "Without the razor wire, everything movable inside would be stolen, and the chain-link fence itself would be stolen, too. But I must tell you, this is the only level soccer pitch in the entire township—89 teams use it. As you can see, we are very proud of all this, but as you can also see, comparing the sporting opportunities of an eight-year-old in a township with those of an eight-year-old in a [white] suburb is definitely a case of apples and bananas. South African sport will still be white South African sport to a large extent for quite a while."
It is common in South Africa to describe the nation as combining the characteristics of both a rich, first-world country and an impoverished, third-world land, a mutation that thrives in the climate of apartheid. Johannesburg's white suburbs, surrounding the mostly black urban center, are clean and lush with flowering trees, shaped shrubs and manicured lawns. In the dry, clear, 6,000-foot-high atmosphere of autumn, those suburbs resemble the serene and elegant environs of Beverly Hills. But more and more residents of the opulent houses are building high walls, and they are spending more and more money on burglar alarms, guard dogs, security services and guns. They are afraid to venture forth on foot after dark in downtown Johannesburg, by day a gleaming patch of skyscrapers not unlike Dallas, because street robberies and muggings have become so common. The national unemployment rate is approaching 35%, a staggering figure and the highest it has been since such statistics have been kept.
Most of these whites have never visited the nearby black townships of Alexandra or Soweto, and they probably never will, because they are afraid. In Soweto, a 26-Square-mile section of 2.5 million blacks who exist among a wide range of living conditions, police report dozens of violent deaths on a normal weekend. Some are domestic murders, some are random street shootings, some occur during robberies or result from encounters with police, and still others are manifestations of centuries-old tribally based rivalries between groups such as Zulus and Xhosas. The weapons used range from spears and machetes to AK-47s. On a bad Saturday night, Soweto's Baragwanath Hospital looks like a MASH unit. The residents of Soweto or Alexandra are not afraid to go into the elegant white neighborhoods; they do it every day—to cook meals, make beds, manicure lawns.
This is the freak world that apartheid has wrought—unequal, unstable, unconscionable. A few people are predicting that a racial apocalypse is inevitable as South Africa's economy gets worse and frustrated, out-of-work blacks realize that there is not going to be any automatic postapartheid reward. Yet others say that once the economy begins to show even a hint of growth, life will become more comfortable for all races.
Amid this uncertainty, last week's hopeful glimpses of a very near future in which South Africa is welcomed back to the worlds of both commerce and sport were encouraging, but with reservations—the very feeling expressed by the runner Motshwarateu: My god, how I hope it is time.