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New allegations surface as Springboks face World Cup
Andrew Malone in Cape Town
Sunday September 7, 2003
The move was designed to promote harmony and togetherness in preparation for the battle ahead. But attempts to get a white South African rugby player to share a room with a black colleague were yesterday at the centre of a furious row about whether the so-called rainbow nation can ever heal the scars of apartheid.
Amid allegations of racism in a team once hailed by Nelson Mandela as an inspiration for South Africans of all colours, a retired judge will this week begin to investigate claims that have shattered the myth of national unity four weeks before South Africa competes in the rugby World Cup.
The row erupted after Geo Cronje, a 20-stone white Afrikaner, refused to sleep in the same room as Quinton Davids, a black player, when both were selected for the squad and ordered to report to the team's pre-tournament camp. The players were to be together for four weeks of intensive training ahead of their bid to reclaim the title almost 10 years after Mandela sang with the South African team as they celebrated winning the 1995 competition.
Cronje, who was reportedly unhappy about sharing a toilet and shower with a black player, moved into the room of a white team-mate. Another of the seven black players in the 30-man squad moved in with Davids, apparently in a show of solidarity, and complaints were made to the coaches.
The scandal was given fresh impetus yesterday by disclosures that some senior white rugby officials tried to cover up the row. According to camp insiders, Cronje was offered counselling and eventually moved back in with Davids after repeated requests by coaches and a telephone call from his father.
Despite officials stressing that Cronje simply wanted to share a room with a friend and there was no racist intent, Mark Keohane, the team's communications director, quit last week. 'I could no longer be part of a squad in which prejudice is tolerated, wished away and excused,' he said.
Keohane, a former detective, is an outspoken campaigner for greater racial integration for the sport. He has submitted a dossier to the inquiry outlining other allegations of racism. The Cronje incident became public only after the player moved out of his allocated room. After details were leaked to a newspaper, management had to act, suspending both players pending an internal inquiry.
This inquiry announced last week there was 'inconclusive evidence' of racism. But neither Davids nor Cronje was picked for the final squad that will travel to Australia for the first match next month. The rest of the team departed for a five-day training session at a secret location in the African bush.
They emerged last week tired and angry. In a strategy designed to show team unity, all 30 players faced the press. All denied racial tensions between black and white members of the squad.
Joost van der Westhuizen, a white veteran of the 1995 triumph, dismissed suggestions there should be more black players in the national side. 'Look, it's not about percentages,' he told The Observer . 'This team has been chosen on merit.'
Some 13 black players have been selected for South Africa in the decade since 1992, compared with 121 white. It is estimated there are 120,000 black rugby players and 180,000 white.
Ashwin Willemse, 21, a black player, was equally dismissive. 'What is racism?' he said. 'If I don't like you, does that mean I'm a racist? What's not killing you is making you stronger. We have all come out stronger as human beings because of it.'
The inclusion of Chester Williams, a black winger, in the 1995 competition was hailed as a triumph of reconciliation for a sport regarded by black people as a symbol of white oppression. Yet he has finally confirmed widespread suspicions of racism in the game. He revealed how James Small, a white South African winger, had called him 'a fucking kaffir' and demanded to know why 'you want to play our game'.
In his recently published autobiography, Williams, who retired two years ago, also claims he was used as a propaganda tool by the white rugby authorities to promote the notion of racial harmony.
'The marketing men conveniently branded me a product of development and a sign of change. Nothing could be more of a lie. I wasn't a pioneer. All I ever wanted - and it was all I wanted to be - was a rugby player. It is my prayer that the next generation of South African black rugby players will be granted this. We have a right to play this wonderful game and we know how to play it.'
The incident has ignited a debate about how far the nation has developed since Mandela became the country's first black leader in 1994.
Some in the white community have still to become accustomed to having a black government. Faced with rampant crime and fears that their high standard of living is under threat, they regard rugby as a symbol of Afrikaner sporting prowess and a constant in their rapidly changing world.
However, with unemployment at 80 per cent in some black townships, most South Africans are impatient at the rate of change.
Gideon Sams, the recently appointed black manager of the South African team, reportedly upset some white players when he banned Afrikaans prayers before international matches last year. He stressed last week that any problems in rugby were a reflection of wider issues between black and white people. 'In the hearts of some older people you will find doubters about integration. They ask themselves: should I have blacks in my churches or in my schools? It's unfair to blame rugby.'
Andy Capostagno, writing in the Mail and Guardian yesterday, was more blunt. 'The ideals of the Rainbow Nation are in tatters not because of few muddied oaths with funny shaped balls, but because a decade of free and fair governance has taught us one important lesson: we actually don't like each other very much.
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