Inaugural conference probes decolonisation of sport in South Africa

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SENIOR ACADEMICS and former athletics stars gathered at a two-day South African Sport Historical Studies Conference, the first of its kind, to probe the topic of ‘Decolonising Sport Historical Themes’, at Stellenbosch University at the weekend.

“This conference is taking place at a time in our country’s history where discourse on decolonisation is a guiding principle,” said Dr Francois Cleophas of the Department of Sport Science, who organised the conference, together with the SU Museum. “It is a discourse, however, that does not always include sports studies. The aim of this conference, therefore, was to address this gap, and it was appropriate that it took place in Stellenbosch with its controversial past.”

Dr Francois Cleophas, Andrew September and Shaun Vester.


‘Cornerstone in history’

Professor Annette Hofmann, the president of the International Society for the History of Physical Education lauded the event as a “cornerstone in history” that will hopefully lay the foundation for future conferences in sport history. “South Africa has a rich sport history to be discovered and to be researched on. The findings should be spread to a wider audience. Only through the knowledge of our histories we can understand and accept each other and work on common future aims.”

The conference was opened by the Head of the Department of Sport Science Dr Heinrich Grobbelaar, who struck a cautionary note on the interpretation and complex nature of decolonisation.

Dr Heinrich Grobbelaar.

This was followed by the keynote address of Emeritus Professor André Odendaal, well-known cricket history writer and leading academic and researcher at the University of the Western Cape, who highlighted the importance of reflecting on ‘writing a post-colonial history of a colonial game’.

Odendaal has a historical relationship with Stellenbosch University. In 1976, he was the chairperson of the SU Student Representative Council, where he strongly expressed his dismay at the non-involvement of fellow students and staff in the events of the day. He chose to pursue his sports career under the banner of the SACOS.

Cricket & Conquest

Odendaal has authored numerous publications about cricket and black South African history – his book The Story of an African Game remains a focal point for all South African cricket history writers and was highly-acclaimed by former president Nelson Mandela.

Emeritus Professor André Odendaal delivered the keynote address.

His latest publication is titled Cricket & Conquest: The History of South African Cricket Retold (1795-1914), which he co-authored with Krish Reddy, Christopher Merrett and Jonty Winch.

Themes at the conferences included: ‘The demise of a vibrant school sport programme in a post-Apartheid South Africa’ by Dr Omar Esau; ‘A Tale of Two Sports Fields: Contested Spaces, Histories and Identities at Play in Rural South Africa’ by Dr Tarminder Kaur; ‘From Carriers to Climbers: The Cape Province Mountain Club, 1930s to 1960s – An Untold Story’ by Dr Farieda Khan; ‘Sprinting a political life’ by Terrence Smith; ‘Community sports in Simon’s Town over the centuries’ by Cathrynne Salter-Jansen; and ‘Honouring SACOS athletes in a post-colonial society’ by Clement du Plessis.

Dr Omar Esau.

‘We should valorise our achievements’

Clement du Plessis, academic, and publisher of the website, Athletics Clipboard, in his presentation, challenged his audience to consider what is possibly wrong with decolonising everything that requires remedying in South Africa. “What remedial steps do we take? When does South Africa normalise itself; does it want to?”

Du Plessis said that although South Africa had been colonised, it was not necessary to “decolonise our athletic achievements because our attempts to be the best under oppressive conditions were genuine”.

He said: “Instead of ‘Decolonising Sport Historical Themes’, we should valorise our achievements and place it in the pantheon of South African athletics.”

Bedrock of the development of sport’

Dr Omar Esau, from the Stellenbosch University’s Department of Curriculum Studies argued the demise of a vibrant school sport programme in a post-apartheid South Africa.

Dr Tarminder Kaur.

He focused on chess and drew parallels that were prevalent in other school sport programmes.

“School sport forms the bedrock of the development of sport in any nation,” said Dr Esau. “It was initially purely organised by educators as part of their derelict duties. Playing sport at school, however, was the window into the outside world. How many elite athletes initially honed their skills in an inter-school competition?”

Dr Tarminder Kaur of the University of the Free State’s Institute of Reconciliation and Social Justice discussed how the past and present social divides shaped rural sporting life by drawing from the fieldwork she conducted in Rawsonville, in the Western Cape. Through storied renderings of sporting spaces, relationships, organisation and practices, she showed “how historically constructed social divides, racial and class stereotypes, and their associations with specific sport activities configured layers of identity-politics that still serve as ‘logics’ for how sports are accessed in rural South Africa today”.

‘Sectarianism in Black sporting history’

Dr Farieda Khan.

Private researcher Dr Farieda Khan recounted and analysed the history of the largely unknown Cape Province Mountain Club.

“The history of the Club is not only the story of its struggle to establish mountaineering as a formal sporting activity in Cape Town, it is also the story of the impact of sectarianism in Black sporting history – an ugly facet of South Africa’s sport history until the 1960s. Thus the development of the Club suffered, not only as a result of the racism which barred Blacks from membership of the exclusively White Mountain Club of South Africa, but also from the aggressive Coloured nationalism which prevailed before and during the early years of the Club and which, together with the sectarianism rampant in the field of sport, stunted the development of mountaineering in Cape Town.”

Terrence Smith.

The athletics stars who presented their life stories included South African Council on Sport (Sacos) athletes André Alexander, Andrew September, Shaun Vester, Robin April and Terrence Smith.

Sacos was the anti-apartheid sports movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

Smith recalled the politically turbulent years while being a civil engineering student at the University of Cape Town between 1974-1977.

‘Lonely existence’

“Being one of only two black students in a class that started with 120 students, and then the only black student out of about 40 to graduate in the minimum four years, meant that it was a lonely existence as I could not rely on the predominately racist lecturers, fellow classmates and tutors for support. I practised my politics initially in the black consciousness movement while at university and contributed to sport as an executive member of SACOS Western Cape. While at UCT, I refused to take part in any sporting activity and boycotted the graduation ceremony in protest of the permit system which all black students were subjected to.”

Cathrynne Salter-Jansen.

Cathrynne Salter-Jansen, the curator of the Simon’s Town Museum, spoke about how sport died away in a once vibrant community in Simon’s Town: “This diversity of sport and sporting traditions began to die away after the departure of the Royal Navy from Simon’s Town in 1957, and became considerably more noticeable with the subsequent destruction of the community by the Group Areas Act in 1967. The social and sporting life of Simon’s Town has never again reached the pinnacle of decades past.

Professor Odendaal wrapped up the conference with a push for the conference papers to be published in a book.

  • Here is the complete list of speakers at the inaugural South African Sport Historical Studies Conference: Dr Heinrich Grobbelaar, Prof Andre Odendaal, Dr Francois Cleophas, Prof William Pick, Dr Omar Esau, Ms Sigi Howes, Prof Nuraan Davids, Dr Farieda Khan, Dr Tarminder Kaur, Mr Charles Beukes, Ms Cathy Salter-Jansen, Mrs Najwa Hendrickse, Dr Gustav Venter, Mr Wouter De Wet, Prof Albert Grundlingh, Dr Lloyd Hill, Prof Nuraan Davids, Mr Roderick Willis, Dr Wilbur Kraak, Mr Karel Julius, Dr Hendrik Snyders, Mr Terrence Smith, Mr Andrew September, Mr Andre Alexander, Mr Shaun Verster, Dr Gustav Venter, Mr Dewald Steyn, Mr Cameron Donkin, Mr Robin April and Clement du Plessis.

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