South Africans told to ignore race laws on the playing field

Racially mixed sport is gradually cropping up on the playing fields of South Africa. As a result of international pressure to end South African apartheid -- pressure that has barred South Africa from many world sporting contests -- a senior Cabinet minister is urging sports administrators to ignore the nation's laws that prohibit sports play between races.

Mixed play here usually means an all-black team plays competitively against an all-white team, but there are a few teams that include whites, blacks, and Coloreds (people of mixed race).

Although the government's expressed belief is that sports clubs should be racially exclusive, in practice even this is changing. Some golf clubs, for example, allow blacks to play regularly as "visitors," but do not allow them full membership.

Now a group of Colored golfers has challenged government policy, demanding full membership privileges at the socially exclusive Royal Cape golf Club in Cape Town. The group has played at the club on a regular basis for a long time.

After delivering their ultimatum, the Colored golfers received a quick, frosty letter from the club's captain. It said: "I regret to inform you that in view of prevailing circumstances beyond our control, the committee and I are at present unable to contemplate opening membership of this club to all races."

The golfers' rebuke came at an embarrassing moment for South African sports administators -- who had been telling the world at every convenient opportunity that racial discrimination in sport in South Africa has disappeared.

In fact, shortly before the incident, the chairman of the South African Olympic Committee, Rudolf Opperman, had gone on BBC television saying, "It is high time that the world realizes that South Africa has done away with discrimination in sport." This was the same message that the touring "Springbok" rugby team had been trying to put across in New Zealand and the United States.

So the lofty Royal Cape found itself in the middle of a bitter controversy.

Many jibes came from supporters of the South African Council of Sport, who said the club's attitude proved again that the racially mixed sport that does take place is just "window dressing."

The bluc claimed its lawyers were certain that it would break apartheid laws if it allowed blacks in, and that breaking the law might cost the club its license to exist.

Some other equally exclusive and expensive clubs in other centers concurred.

But the chairman of another golf club in Cape Town, Raymond Ackermann, a leading businessman, charged that the Royal Cape was simply "hiding behind the law" to keep the club exclusively white. His club had blacks as full members for three years, he said, and there never had been any problems with the law.

Support for this view came from a surprising source. Dr. Gerrit Viljoen, minister of national education, who is also responsible for sporting matters, said there was no reason the clubs should not accept black members. He indicated the clubs should regard themselves as exempt from the race laws that technically prevent race-mixing.

What's more, he promised that these laws would be changed anyway.

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