White people in South Africa – most white people – have never wanted to connect sport and society in South Africa, preferring to have an opinion that sports and society were separated. This is how they argued and defended their white privilege and apartheid favouritism during the apartheid era.
When defending themselves and apartheid sport, whites said that South Africa should be allowed to play international sport with the rest of the world, that they didn’t do any wrong by playing sport in apartheid South Africa. And they never called out the social, economic and racial injustices in South Africa. They never did. They claimed they had to obey the laws of the government and the country.
White sports people played sport with those who supported and enacted apartheid’s horrendous laws, never denouncing apartheid as cruel and inhumane.
For white sportsmen like Gary Player, Joost van der Westhuizen and Ernie Els, their profiles as world class sportsmen were built on foundations of them being white and privileged and favoured in South Africa, a country that fiercely looked after the white group and viciously humiliated the majority blacks with oppression and exploitation.
At least three of South Africa’s world class white sportsmen Gary Player, Joost van der Westhuizen and Ernie Els, represent white male superiority in sport. Playing golf in the 1950’s and 1960’s with Papwa Sewgolum, one of South Africa’s greatest black golfers, Player never could make himself believe in black golf talent. When Papwa Sewgolum beat him in the Natal Open golf tournament in the late 50’s, Player very quickly chose to check Sewgolum’s score card, thinking he ‘might have cheated to win’. Player didn’t stop white golf officials from handing Sewgolum his championship trophy through the window, on a rainy day in Durban, because only whites were allowed into the club house.
Talented Springbok rugby player Joost van der Westhuizen played his international rugby in white-dominated Springbok teams and got to show his rugby prowess in post-apartheid sports competition. Joost never ever spoke out and questioned the white domination of players in the men’s Springbok team. For white players like van der Westhuizen, the Springbok men’s team belonged to and was owned by white players. That was white people’s ownership and heritage. Actually, when critical questions were raised by society about lack of black Springbok players, Joost van der Westhuizen was one of those white players who believed ‘black players had to prove themselves’.
Champion golfer Ernie Els got to represent a free and democratic South Africa on the on the international golf courses but Els never spoke out against apartheid’s legacy of structural economic and racial inequalities.
All three white sportsmen never publicly supported the African national Congress (ANC), the country’s liberation organisation and political winner in national elections but they would did endorse Nelson Mandela.
Springbok great Joost van der Westhuizen has passed away, never having called for an end to white Springbok teams and for black players to be represented in Springbok rugby team. Then there’s the other two of Gary Player and Ernie Els; still living and putting their views out there.
The world of humanity and freedom and justice has attacked and called out USA President Donald trump for his sexism, racism, religious prejudice, misogyny. But not SA’s two great white golfers Gary Player and Ernie Els.
They both go along and play golf with Donald Trump, refuse to call out the man for his prejudices, racism, misogyny and say ‘it all seems okay with him while glowing in admiration for him.
Undoubtedly, white sportsmen like Player, van der Westhuizen and Els have performed admirably and claimed exceptional feats on the sports stage. But their protection of whiteness in sport, their blinkered view of the correlation between sports and society, their relationships with people who are known to be racists, misogynists and perpetrators of white domination in sport will forever place them in that gallery of sportspeople who had no critical consciousness, had no heart to talk out against racial and colour injustices in sport and society. Sportsmen such as these white men South Africans will always be known as defending all that existed to preserve whiteness and white hegemony.