It was an unexpected trip when a languorous new hip-hop song transported me back to a short-sleeved winter afternoon in 1986.
We were playing rugby at the Longdale Rugby Stadium, now the Bill Jardine Stadium, between Johannesburg and Soweto. The ref, a wiry Chinese man named Satch, blew sharply on his whistle, telling our team’s hooker to put down the ball rather than throw it into the line-out.
I was a lock forward for the Bosmont Pumas and we were playing another team in the then Transvaal Independent Rugby Football Union’s first division.
As our team’s main line-out jumper, one of the opposition fans had been trying to distract me by yelling “AWB! AWB!”. He was shouting that because I was the only white player on the field.
Of course, I was not a member of the far-right Afrikaner Weerstandsbeweging (AWB, the Afrikaner Resistance Movement). As a left-wing activist, I had started playing rugby in the township during the previous season under the umbrella of the militant, staunchly non-racial South African Council on Sport (Sacos) for political reasons. Apartheid affected all parts of black people’s lives, including sport. It was therefore very much a terrain of struggle against apartheid, one in which I was involved.
The “AWB” shouter was suddenly dead quiet. Satch the ref was scanning the stands. He found his man and pointed at him: “Hey, jy. Fokof! (Hey you, fuck off!)” The guy pretended not to hear at first. “Ja, jy! Fokof! (Yes, you. Fuck off!),” Satch gestured at the exit gate across the field.
Satch was known for his martial arts skills and Mr Shouter wasn’t taking any chances. He got up and the ref let him do the long, painful walk of shame down the stands, around the field and, finally, out of the stadium gate.
“Orraait, gooi in! (Alright, throw in),” he told our hooker, and the game resumed.
Satch proved that afternoon that Sacos wasn’t non-racial in theory only.
The principled, working-class Sacos was behind the sports boycott that got South Africa kicked out of international sport because of its policy of apartheid.
It was a time when white-ruled sports federations tried to lure certain black sportspeople to play with them at their better facilities in an attempt to shake off apartheid South Africa’s pariah status by pretending that “reform” was taking place. Their aim was to sidestep the boycotts.
But Sacos wasn’t falling for that. Its uncompromising mantra of “no normal sport in an abnormal society” made perfect sense because of the decidedly abnormal society South Africans were living in at that time. It was in the brutal grips of a state of emergency. Soldiers were present in the townships outside of the Longdale Stadium. They were also in townships across the country. The regime was at war with its own people.
During the state of emergency in the previous year, 1985, 575 people were killed during political violence, more than half by the police. On 12 June 1986, then president PW Botha reintroduced a state of emergency after a brief lifting. It was now nationwide and the crackdowns were more rigorous and the restrictions more severe. An estimated 26 000 people were detained between June 1986 and June 1987.
At the time, there were four rugby organisations in South Africa: the SA Rugby Board (for white people) and its two associates, the Federation (for those deemed as coloured under apartheid) and the Rugby Association (for Africans). The fourth was the Sacos-affiliated, non-racial SA Rugby Union and the state of emergency affected our rugby directly. One of our provincial unions, Central Karoo, had to cancel its matches because 12 of its players were in police detention.
New Frame sports editor Njabulo Ngidi once wrote: “The notion that sport and politics shouldn’t mix is nonsensical and laughable. Sport by its nature is deeply political.”
For good or bad
Sport and politics are often intertwined, for good or bad. Dictators – from Adolf Hitler with the 1936 Olympics to Mobutu Sese Seko hosting the Rumble in the Jungle boxing tournament in 1974 – have abused sport to, as Ngidi explains, “prop up oppressive regimes by hosting major tournaments in a bid to massage their images and pretend that things are normal”.
But it works the other way, too. The boycotts effectively tackled apartheid South Africa where it mattered, on the sports field. Sport helped dismantle an evil system.
It has continued to happen in more recent times. Ivorian footballer Didier Drogba helped stop a civil war in his motherland. In the United States, by kneeling during the national anthem, Colin Kaepernick shone a spotlight on police brutality and racism. And more recently, World Cup-winning football captain Megan Rapinoe bravely tackled her country’s president, Donald Trump, for his racism.
So how did we get transported here?
My hip-hop tune of the moment manages to not only combine music and politics but sport, too. It comes from American artist Rapsody’s new album, Eve. Each of its 16 tracks is named after an influential black woman, including Nina Simone, Michelle Obama and Serena Williams.
“The stories behind the songs on Eve are inspiring, and I wanted to do my part in celebrating these women in the best way I know how,” Rapsody said about her album. “I want to not only help tell these stories but help further each woman’s legacy and spark curiosity in people to learn more about them.”
Lead single and personal favourite Ibtihaj achieved exactly that. It is named for Ibtihaj Muhammad, a fencer who won the bronze medal in the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil at the age of 30. She was the first American Olympian to wear a hijab while participating.
In a time of Islamophobia, often fanned by Trump, that in itself was a noteworthy political statement. But the courageous Muhammad has taken it further and been an outspoken critic of the American president.
In an open letter to Trump on 20 March 2017 – two months after he assumed power – she wrote: “I am the picture of the American Dream – a public school kid, with loving parents who told me that with hard work and perseverance, I could be whatever I wanted to be. By believing in myself and refusing to take no for an answer, I have broken barriers and shattered stereotypes.”
Muhammad is one of an estimated 3.45 million Muslims of all ages living in the US. Muslims made up about 1.1% of the American population in 2017 and, according to the Pew Research Center, this number is rising.
But Muslim Americans are scared.
“The climate of fear and hatred fuelled and perpetuated by your campaign is gaining momentum through your actions in office,” Muhammad wrote to Trump. “Since your election, I have been ‘profiled’ at the airport, accused of looking ‘suspicious’ and, on the streets of New York, I have been told to ‘go back to my country’. This isn’t the America that I know and it isn’t the America that the world looks to for inspiration and leadership.”
At least Muhammad provided inspiration. While Ibtihaj doesn’t tell the fencer’s life story directly, the song is an ode to fearlessness and standing by one’s beliefs:
Strong minded, I should bench way more than I weigh.
So sport and politics do mix. Throw in some seductive beats, and you’ve got a cup winner.