AN unexpected victory by the South African cricket team over Australia, the World Cup favorites, in Sydney Wednesday had an explosive impact here and elevated the country's long-awaited return to international sports competition to a major political event.
"This goes far beyond cricket," said African National Congress (ANC) sports mediator Steve Tshwete as he embraced South African captain Kepler Wessels and his teammate Peter Kirsten, the batting heroes of South Africa's nine-wicket victory over Australia.
South Africa's triumphant win over Australia was the country's first game in World Cup cricket in more than two decades. But it also marked a political victory of sorts for President Frederik de Klerk.
The Star, South Africa's biggest-circulation daily, carried a front-page color photograph of Mr. Tshwete, a black South African, and Mr. Wessels, a white Afrikaner, embracing each other - both clearly overcome with emotion.
"I am not normally an over-emotional person," Tshwete told the Star's reporter in Sydney. "But I cried three times today.
"I never had tears on Robben Island," said Tshwete, referring to his 10-year incarceration in the country's notorious Alcatraz-style political prison. "But I cried tonight."
Mr. De Klerk interrupted a Cabinet meeting to send a telegram to Wessels congratulating him on his team's spectacular victory.
The president captured the mood of a nation which had been glued to television sets from the early hours of Wednesday morning. Crowds gathered around sets in the lobbies of hotels and applauded in unison as the South Africans drew closer to victory.
"The Cabinet and I, together with the whole of South Africa, confirm our 'yes' for our cricket team," said De Klerk in a reference to the March 17 referendum in which he is seeking a majority of whites to support him in his political reforms aimed at extending full political rights to the black majority.
De Klerk has been emphasizing in recent speeches that breakthroughs in international sport and economic sanctions would be reversed if the right-wing Conservative Party won the election.
"Heartiest congratulations on a glorious victory," De Klerk said in the telegram. "We are proud of you. Your victory is victory for all of us after years of isolation and rejection."
The main news broadcast on state-run television Wednesday ran the cricket victory as the leading news item.
It savored every frame of the victory and showed De Klerk in a lengthy telephone conversation with Wessels and South African cricket administrator Ali Bacher, a former national captain who has been a leading figure in the racial integration of cricket.
Dr. Bacher thanked De Klerk for his support in the integration of sport and congratulated him on the political initiatives he had taken. "This is the greatest moment in South African cricket," he said.
Although cricket is a marginal sport among black South Africans, the main daily newspaper read by blacks, the Sowetan, carried a front-page picture of Tshwete and the white cricketers embracing each other.
There were no black South Africans on the winning side in Sydney Wednesday but the touring team includes mixed-race "colored" player Omar Henry and a couple of South African Indian players.
Part of the deal leading to South Africa's reentry into world sport was that the traditional "Springbok" emblem - the country's national antelope in a jumping pose - would not be displayed. The players would wear a temporary set of colors and would not play under the South African flag, which is seen by blacks as an all-white symbol.
Television news interviewed legislators outside Parliament in Cape Town. Members of the ruling National Party and liberal Democratic Party were spontaneous in their praise for the South Africans. A mixed-race deputy Minister, Abe Williams, could not contain his joy.
But members of the right-wing Conservative Party, the official opposition in the white assembly, were bitter that the South Africans could not play under the national symbols and colors.
South African newspapers cleared their front pages yesterday to capture the emotional scenes on and off the field in Sydney as black South African mediators and the white cricketers embraced each other, cried, and proclaimed the nine-wicket victory as a breakthrough for the country as a whole.
"It was a day to savour," crowed the usually subdued financial daily Business Day. "Whatever the outcome of the World Cup adventure, the triumphant return of South African cricket to the international scene will long be remembered," the editorial said.
It was also announced Wednesday - after months of uncertainty - that South African athletes would compete in the Olympics in Barcelona, Spain, in July and in the Africa Unity athletics in Dakar, Senegal, and in South Africa in April.
South Africa returns to international auto-racing this weekend after more than a decade of isolation when the 1992 Formula One Grand Prix season opens at Kyalami, Johannesburg.