How racial politics barred SA athletes from the international spotlight


This is the first chapter of a three-part series about former star athlete Johan Landsman of the Belhar-based Titans Amateur Athletics Club who had the opportunity to showcase his talent on the global stage in later years.

MUCH has been written on this website about sport and apartheid, the opportunity or the lack of genuine national and international competition.

Black and white people in South Africa had been denied participation together on the world stage and in their own country.

Johan Landsman of Titans and later Maties achieved his goal of being the best 1500m athlete in the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

Black and white athletes were reduced to participating under their own respective athletics banners; the one for whites being the South African Amateur Athletics Union (SAAAU) and the one for blacks being the South African Amateur Athletics Board (SAAAB).

Unity Movement

Truth be told, the SAAAB was essentially a coloured athletics fraternity which had its influence in the Unity Movement, an anti-apartheid political movement which also had its tentacles in the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union (WPSSSU) and the national schools body, the South African Senior Schools Sports Association (SASSSA). SASSSA was an affiliate of the South African Council on Sport (Sacos), the controlling anti-apartheid sports body.

Politics was top of the agenda in the SAAAU and in SAAAB. Yet, many white supporters (and a sprinkling of black and coloured supporters referred to as sell outs) said that politics and sport shouldn’t mix when the issue of politics in sport had its roots in the policy of the whites’ only National Party government of the day – the party who legislated apartheid between 1948-1994.

This is the first SAAAB Track and Field team which was selected in 1985.

(Read the Basil D’Oliveira story whose potential selection by England for the scheduled 1968–69 tour of apartheid-era South Africa caused the D’Oliveira affair and eventually led to SA’s international sporting isolation)


Sacos vehemently opposed the separation of politics and sport, just like the East and West had done, but for different political reasons. Think America’s boycott of the Moscow Games in 1980. Think Russia’s boycott of the Los Angeles Games in 1984.

The ‘off-shoots’ of the previous government, Afriforum are now (2017) mouthing that there should be no political interference in sport.

Sport and politics do mix, here and abroad, of that there can be no question.

Between 1960 and 1970, Humphrey Khosi won 10 SA titles at the SA non-white championships.

The SAAAU had been backed by the white ruling National Party and supported to the hilt by the white corporate world, national television, national radio and the national print media.

Athletes under the SAAAU had the best facilities in the leafy suburbs where they lived whether it was Potchefstroom or Coetzenburg in Stellenbosch, an area seen as the bastion of Afrikanerdom.

Privileged suburbs

Theirs was so exclusive that they lived in their own white privileged suburbs where the roads were wider and the schools and universities top class. Bigger, better and well kept. Blacks were on the outskirts of society and hemmed into four different homelands, each with its own puppet president; essentially the lackeys of the white South African Prime Minister.

There was a third athletics association and it was called the African Amateur Athletics and Cycling Union as early as 1963 AND had in its ranks Elliot Shale (sprinter) and Humphrey Khosi in the 880 yards (half mile). Khosi was also the half mile record holder in South Africa in 1963.

He was selected to represent South Africa at the Olympic Games in 1964 (Tokyo) and Mexico (1968), but was not allowed to compete because of South Africa’s apartheid policy.

He toured the United Kingdom with an SA non-white team in 1963 and defeated an international field in Cardiff in a time of 1:50,4 in the 880 yards.

Evette de Klerk was a phenomenal barefooted sprinter.

Between 1962 and 1970, he won 10 SA titles at the SA non-white championships.

Khosi ran a personal best time of 1:47,9 in the 800m in London in 1967 and also impressed with a fine 46,8sec over 400m in 1968. It is widely believed that Khosi was the first athlete to have run the 800m in under 1 minute and 50 seconds (1 minute 48 seconds).

Policy of separation

South Africa did not know about him, and the so-called mass-based organisations (Sacos) knew even less because of the national government policy of separation.

The onset of television in the mid-1970s and the proliferation of sport on television in the 1980s punted the likes of rugby in the north and south (with its own pedantic cultural divide) Jody Scheckter (Formula 1 racing), Johan Kriek (tennis), Gary Player (golf), Greer Stevens (tennis), Evette de Klerk (athletics) and Johan Fourie (athletics).

Johan Landsman in action at the Ravensmead athletics track.

Fourie was the star of the SAAAU. Naas Botha may have had a golden boot, but Fourie was the golden star on the track.

He would flash across TV screens on the programme called Sportfokus/Sports Focus presented by Jan Snyman and Kim Shippey in the 1980’s.

He would run the mile under four minutes and run another mile one hour later in under four minutes. He would achieve running dream miles on his own despite the attention of Henning Gericke and Deon Brummer.

An all-white-affair

Their meetings were an all-white-affair with a few token blacks (inclusive of coloureds) being exploited by the organisers of the day in an attempt to prove to the world that South Africa had integrated sport.

Sitting at his home in Kraaifontein while watching Fourie on TV was Johan Landsman, a tall, thin athlete who harboured ambitions to be the best on the track – a Springbok.

Landsman had taken up the sport aged 20 in 1984 while still a student at the University of the Western Cape. Fourie was at the top of his game in the mid-1980’s.

Fourie, 58, and Landsman 53 hadn’t had the appropriate race conditions on either side of the apartheid divide during the 1980s; Landsman under the SAAAB and Fourie under the SAAAU.

Both had needed international exposure to showcase their talent.

Suezette Arendse was the pride of Western Province.

By virtue of his age, Landsman was able to have a crack at international competition which gave him the opportunity to break Fourie’s South African 1500m record of 3 minutes 33, 87 seconds. Fourie’s time in the 1980’s was comparable to international times.

In 1993 Landsman had set a South African national record of 3:33.56 for 1500m in Zurich, Switzerland. By then he had won the SA title for the third year running, won silver at the African Champs for the second year running, and earned a world ranking of sixth for the 1500m.


Landsman was 29 years old in 1993.

All it had taken for Landsman to show his worth was OPPORTUNITY.

An opportunity denied to thousands of athletes on both sides of the apartheid divide because of the daft policy of apartheid which hurt both white and black sports people internationally.

He believed that there was more than enough talent under Sacos, a body who got much less media exposure than the athletes who had competed under the SAAAU.

“People might differ with me but Martin Saayman was a great talent, I thought that Tessa Hefele was a natural talent. Given the opportunity, she would not only have been one of the best in South Africa, but internationally too,” he says.

Isaac Opperman, Tessa Hefele and Jantjie Marthinus.

Landsman also had high praise for Suezette Arendse and describes her as “the best all-round athlete”.

“On Saturdays, I looked forward to two races – the one was the [senior ladies] 100m in which Suezette participated and the [junior ladies] 800m of Tessa Hefele,” he said.

Better coaching

He believed with better coaching the likes of Arendse and Hefele would also have run on the world stage.

“There was a lot of coaching detail that was lacking such as scientific coaching, nutrition, the use of supplements, recovery periods and, importantly, the lack of structure,” he says.

Landsman says the 3 minutes and 47 seconds that Hennie Moses had run in the 1 500m in 1983 has to be appreciated in the context of the conditions, the era and the political system at the time. Moses’ SAAAB 1500m stood out like a beacon in the 1980’s.

Hennie Moses was a terrific talent in the 1500m.

“He was worthy of the time, a great talent. Those three [Arendse, Hefele and Moses] had the talent to be in the top ten in the world at the time,” says Landsman.


He also highlighted Jantjie Marthinus, saying that he has no doubt that Marthinus was capable of running 1 minute 43 seconds in the 800m.  Of the other track runners, he cited David Scheepers and his first coach Isaac Opperman, a former Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union track and cross country champion, as athletes who could have strutted the world stage.

“It was depressing for me to know that they did not get the opportunity to be international athletes,” says Landsman.

To be continued next week.

2 thoughts on “How racial politics barred SA athletes from the international spotlight

  • December 20, 2019 at 3:25 am

    Dear Publisher, You have lovely, awesome information.

    Personally I would love to get more information about the SAAAB, SASSSA & SACOS athletes as I came on to the Sacos scene late. I think competed under the Sacos banner in 1991 representing soccer, then 1992 I moved over to athletics until 1993. I would like to know more about Owen Machelm, more about Johan Landsman and all the cream of SAAAB, SASSSA & SACOS athletes – and from the Donovan Wrights, please.

  • January 9, 2018 at 12:43 am

    Dear Publisher


    I am in awe of your SACOS knowledge and writing!

    After not seeing my feet due to a huge stomach, I decided on a final comeback, got national colours at age 50, broke 18 SA Transplant records at world champs, ran under the 5km world record, medalled at 800m (silver) and presently training for my first comeback marathon and comrades this 2018 year. Keep writing!


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