Furor over anthem opens old wounds in S. Africa

August 20, 1992|By Jerelyn Eddings | Jerelyn Eddings,Johannesburg Bureau

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- A national anthem and a banner hoisted in the midst of a sports ceremony have reopened the wounds of apartheid here.

The feud erupted last weekend when white rugby fans defiantly sang the South African national anthem and waved thousands of orange, white and blue South African flags at a rugby match. There had been an agreement between white rugby officials and black political activists that, in the name of reconciliation, the song would not be sung.

The match against New Zealand marked South Africa's return to the world of international rugby, something that sports-mad white South Africans had awaited for years as they sulked about anti-apartheid sanctions.

Rugby, a football-type game, is a mostly white sport in South Africa and is especially popular among Afrikaners, the Dutch-descended whites who run the country. The nation's national rugby team has never included a black player.

To most whites, the African National Congress is to blame for their humiliating years of isolation, and last Saturday's game was a victory over the black organization, which had promoted the international sports boycott as a way to pressure South Africa into making political changes.

To those whites, the singing of the anthem "Die Stem" ("The Voice") was an act of defiance against the ANC, which a few fans underlined with chants of profanity against the ANC.

As if the message wasn't clear enough, the 70,000 white fans chose to sing the anthem during a moment that was set aside to remember the mostly black victims of violence in South Africa.

To blacks, it was the height of insensitivity and a sign that whites haven't changed much after two years of reforms aimed at creating a nonracist South Africa.

"The ordinary Afrikaner was saying, 'To hell with your reconciliation.' That was the message," said Joe Thloloe, managing editor of the Sowetan, the country's largest black newspaper.

"They are dead scared of what is going to happen in this country and they don't want to change anymore."

All this week, radio talk shows have been buzzing and letters columns have been full of comments from white fans who sent the same basic message.

"We have bent backwards far enough. We are sick and tired of power-hungry revolutionaries wiping their dirty feet on our national symbols," said W. J. Grobler, a letter writer to The Citizen, a conservative daily newspaper.

The dispute, with its shades of similarity to the battles over "Dixie" and the Confederate flag in the American South, revealed the deep divisions that remain between black and white South Africans. It showed how far they still have to go toward the new South Africa that reformist politicians here keep talking about.

"The ANC must take note of the fact that not everyone in South Africa will allow themselves to be blackmailed," said Andries Treurnicht, leader of the right-wing Conservative Party, which had encouraged fans not to reject white symbols.

The incident was a tough blow to the ANC, which had sought to use sports to unify South Africans by lifting its long-held opposition to international games.

In return for its support for international competition, the ANC struck a deal with white sports authorities to work towards racial unity in previously segregated sports. Their deal included an agreement that there would be no flags displayed and no anthems sung at the international matches.

The ANC now is threatening to withdraw its support from future games, which probably would lead foreign teams to cancel their scheduled matches with South Africa.

The big test will be this weekend in Cape Town, when South Africa is scheduled to play Australia.

"If the spectators go to the test not to watch rugby but to challenge the new South Africa, the ANC will have no option but to oppose all future tours to and from South Africa," said Steve Tshwete, the ANC's top negotiator on sports issues.

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