Among the South Africans whose spirits were lifted by the release of anti-apartheid activist Nelson Mandela after nearly three decades of imprisonment were scores of athletes. Sports heroes like miler Johan Fourie and rugby player Michael Du Plessis, largely unknown outside South Africa, were hoping that the event would hasten an end to their isolation. For 20 years South Africa has been in athletic purgatory, barred from nearly all international competitions, including the Olympics, for clinging to a system that shackles 30 million black and other nonwhite South Africans to white-minority rule.
The new state president, F.W. de Klerk, has promised "an end to white domination," which would mean the dismantling of apartheid. I would like to believe that de Klerk is sincere. I also would like to believe that change in South Africa will come as suddenly as it did in Eastern Europe. But the sad fact is, South African athletes should not start booking flights for Barcelona, site of the 1992 Summer Olympics.
When it comes to South Africa, the world must not be so eager to forgive. The government in Pretoria continues to practice segregation by law, forbidding blacks to vote in national elections and restricting most blacks to impoverished townships. Thus, the international sports community must continue to recognize the symbolic importance of its condemnation of South Africa, as well as dismiss any notion that Mandela's release alone calls for a reappraisal of that position.
In December, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Juan Antonio Samaranch, met with representatives of the South African National Olympic Committee at IOC headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland. It was the first invitation extended to the SANOC since South Africa was expelled from the IOC in 1970 for having failed to adhere to Rule 3 of the Olympic Charter, which prohibits nations from discriminating "on grounds of race, religion or politics."
The South African delegation made its case for readmission to the IOC, and Samaranch acknowledged that change did seem to be taking place. To his credit, though, he refused to waver on the IOC's position that it would not consider South Africa's bid for reinstatement until apartheid is abolished. "That is the condition the African countries are putting on the table, and we must accept those conditions," Samaranch said.
Other voices urging a continued ban on South Africa are powerful too. "Simply allowing blacks to compete in sports [South Africa has had integrated national teams since the late 1970s] isn't good enough when they go home and are treated like slaves," says American hurdler Edwin Moses, a two-time Olympic gold medalist.
"We can't expect sport to change society," says Anita DeFrantz, a U.S. representative to the IOC. "Remember, there were times in this country when we had integrated teams, but the athletes couldn't stay in the same hotels. So long as apartheid exists, South Africa isn't welcome."
Sports sanctions may appear trivial compared with the harm done to South Africa's commerce by international economic sanctions. In fact, for many years South Africa has used sports as a means of disguising its cultural inequities. Private interests there have repeatedly tried to put a happy face on apartheid by offering world-class athletes exorbitant paydays to compete before "integrated" crowds. Most American athletes have ignored the offers. Unfortunately, many have not. Obviously, they think the principles embodied in the IOC charter do not apply to them.
There's no need to remind one athlete of the horrors of apartheid. Middle-distance runner Sidney Maree, a two-time member of the U.S. Olympic team, grew up in the South African township of Atteridgeville, just outside Pretoria—a place, he says, where "everybody was sad." Maree, an American citizen since 1984, recalls that as children he and his friends lived in fear of even mentioning Mandela's name. "You never knew who was with you," he says. "The government was very generous with silver."
"Sports crazy" is how Maree describes the citizens of South Africa. "Their isolation from the rest of the world has made them hungry for international competition," he says. Maree has often wondered what it would be like to compete against his former countrymen. But readmitting South Africa into international competition would, he says, only allow the nation's conservative wing to "tell the world that things are normal when they are not normal at all."
It would be wonderful to welcome South African athletes, black, colored and white, to an Olympics. But we should not minimize the suffering of 30 million nonwhite South Africans by opening our arms to that nation with thoughtless haste.