Raven Klaasen Played Anti-Apartheid Tennis To Get Freedom To Play At Wimbledon By Cheryl Roberts

14 Jul


As Raven Klaasen Plays A Wimbledon Final We Recall Our Anti-Apartheid Sports Struggle

It was an ecstatic week of international sport. Just when we had recovered from unhappiness of not having Bafana Bafana play in the men’s football world cup, a whirlwind emotional state of sports happiness gripped us as South Africans took to the courts at Wimbledon.

In an historical and defining moment for democratic, post-apartheid South Africa and our South African sports narrative, South Africa’s Raven Klaasen has become the first black tennis player to reach a Wimbledon final; this being done after growing up playing tennis in an anti-apartheid sports family and environment.

For this now grown up anti-apartheid boy tennis player, who had his tennis nurtured in anti-apartheid tennis structures, an anti-apartheid sports environment and anti-apartheid sports family, this sports journey is borne out of an horrendous apartheid system: being born a skin colour that would make you oppressed in apartheid South Africa and take you along the unfolding years of democratic, post-apartheid south African society.

Undoubtedly, opportunities to participate in sport were opened up and became more accessible during democratic South Africa era. Many young black sportspeople have not only been getting onto international sports stages but achieving phenomenally on the international sports stages.

When we celebrate Raven Klaasen becoming the first black South African to reach a Wimbledon final, we do so knowing the struggle of black people to play international sport and represent a democratic country. We applaud, scream with joy and pride and write about this monumental moment because we know how black girls, women, men and boy South Africans have played tennis, still play tennis and have passion for the game. We also know about the talent that surfaced out of black tennis playing communities during apartheid and post-apartheid South Africa and we know about the struggles to get to play professional tennis. That’s why we recall and remember, never forgetting or allowing erasure and marginalisation of our anti-apartheid sports struggle, of black people’s struggles to survive and make at top and elite sports levels and achieve internationally.

Now 35 years old, Raven Klaasen is one of the world’s top men’s doubles players. Raven comes from a tennis playing family. His grandfather played tennis and both his mother Yvonne Klaasen and father Japie Klaasen played competitive tennis. But their tennis environment was not just another tennis club and sports structure.

It was a tennis club, rooted in the community and a national tennis federation that opposed apartheid in society and in sport. This tennis structure was affiliated to the anti-apartheid sports resistance, non-racial South African Council on Sport (SACOS), the organisation that abided by the international moratorium on playing international sport in apartheid South Africa and playing international sport with apartheid South Africa.

When we played sport under SACOS, you played anti-apartheid sport; you didn’t collaborate with apartheid sport. Our sports leaders were principled. They weren’t involved in sport for money, payments and bonuses but for the struggle against apartheid and to achieve a democratic society.

This is the tennis environment that Raven Klaasen comes out of; the tennis environment that his parents chose to play in. It was about the pleasure of playing community sport, the struggle to cope with under-resourced, non-sponsored facilities and resources and the humanity of fighting injustices of apartheid. It was about sacrificing international sport for that day of freedom to dawn. Raven’s parents knew when they introduced their child to tennis, they did so not knowing if and when he would have the chance to play international sport. They knew freedom was coming, but didn’t know how long it would take. They didn’t leave apartheid SA for another country. The tennis-playing Klaasen parents didn’t join apartheid’s multi-national sports structures. They stayed grounded in their anti-apartheid sports environment, despite the few resources and minimal playing facilities.

And then freedom arrived in 1994 and with it came ‘sports unity’ and the playing under one national structure for all sports. But even in post-apartheid tennis, black children and youth playing tennis struggled to break down the  system of inherited privilege. Tennis coaching and academies were exclusive and expensive with only the privileged being able to afford them. Some promising and talented black children went to the national tennis academy in Tshwane, like Raven Klaasen. Some got to play some international tennis here and there as juniors. But they just couldn’t afford to get onto the international circuit fulltime and as professionals and fell out of the system.

Raven Klaasen persevered through the years, also thru the injuries that kept him out of professional action. But he hung in there, never giving up or saying ‘I just can’t make it.’ He played both singles and doubles as a professional tennis player. Today, Raven Klaasen, at 35 years old is playing in his first Wimbledon final and is the first black South African to be there.

Today, and every other day we will recall the struggle against apartheid sport, the struggle to play sport in an apartheid free South Africa, the struggle for freedom and the people who sacrificed their sports for freedom to be attained. We celebrate and acknowledge with pride and admiration, the Klaasen family and Raven Klaasen, the boy tennis player from an anti-apartheid sports environment and anti-apartheid tennis playing family who has become the first black South African toplay in a Wimbledon final.raven

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