By Bisi Lawrence
South Africa no longer surprises us. In the heat of the on-going attempt at ripping us off massively, Jacob Zuma, the country’s President blandly pays us a visit. He was once his country’s representative here. So what else is new? His predecessor in office also preceded him here. It was not entirely coincidental, because Nigeria was one of their closest allies against apartheid when the policy of “apartness” barred the black people from the inalienable rights of humanity—freedom as a human being, and equality as citizens of the same country.
The struggle was fierce and furious with the deprivation of liberty leading to the loss of many lives. Nigeria, having hardly earned her freedom from the same odious stock, totally committed herself to the fray, boldly and relentlessly. This was acknowledged by the African National Congress, ANC, discounting the physical distance between the two countries, to name Nigeria as one of the “front-line states”.
We proved to be more than that in name only. While many nations recognized “apartheid” as the monster that it was, most of them only said so by word of mouth. We put our money where our mouth was. This was exemplified in the instance of the oil sanction and the ban on gun sales which the so-called “world bodies” imposed on the apartheid government, and which the members broke at will. Nothing else seemed available to bring the exponents of “separateness” to heel. One thing remained: sports.
South Africa had always been eager to fit in squarely into the comity of nations as a full-fledged nation, since her independence from Britain in 1948. One of the steps adopted for the ascent was sports. It had become a nation to be reckoned with in cricket, tennis, rugby and swimming in the international arena. This Achilles heel was somehow discovered by the Nigeria Olympic Committee, under the chairmanship of Sir Adetokunboh Ademola, who played the card for all it was worth. Already, at that time, Africa could boast of staunch anti-apartheid members like Kenya, Liberia, Ghana, Sierra Leone and other African and West African countries within the fold of the Supreme Council for Sports in Africa. This was not just an international, but a “supranational’ body whose word was law.
And so, that was how Nigeria, with the support of all the African nations took a decision to boycott all South African participation in sports. The decision went further: the Africans, by the same token, also foreswore to participate in any sports competition involving South Africa, or a country that was known to have sporting links with South Africa. To give this the necessary bite, it was first of all important to get South Africa expelled from the Olympic Games Committee. It all seemed a beautiful gesture, but no more than a gesture, all the same.
That was what most people thought until the beginning of the Munich Games in 1972 when Nigeria protested against the participation of South West Africa which later became known as Namibia. The South Africans, having been barred from the Olympic Games, simply filled the ranks of the South West African team with their athletes, but the Africans were not fooled. They simply offered a simple ultimatum: either the South West Africans left or the African nations would. After a prolonged meeting lasting barely hours before the opening of the Games, the South West Africans withdrew.
But a stiffer test lay ahead. This was at the Munich Games, and this time it involved New Zealand which kept sporting links with South Africa. A towering confrontation rose with the arrival of the New Zealanders in the village. They expected the opposition of the Africans but were ready to contain it. Another meeting ensued the following day. The Executive Secretary of the SCSA was A.A. “Anti-apartheid” Ordia of Nigeria.
Eventually, the Canadian government made a direct plea through him to General Olusegun Obasanjo, who was then the Head of State. Ordia chose to conduct the delivery of the request by a telephone with the attachment of a loudspeaker at an open-air press conference, attended by almost all the African sportswriters at the Games. “Anti-apartheid” Ordia lived up to his name. Without actually saying so, he let the Head of State know that it would always be in the minds of the other nations that African nations could not live up to their decisions. Obasanjo did not hesitate. “Come home at once,” he ordered, while the Africans journalists and sportsmen cheered.
All African nations, except one, headed for home. The Montreal Games frightened several other nations apart from South Africa itself, because so many of them had sporting links with African nations through several competitions in a host of disciplines, and also at regional levels like the Commonwealth Games. Competing with South Africa would alienate them from the good graces of other nations, since it would also tend to identify them as supporters of apartheid. The issue was at the very root of the social well-being of the “apartheid” nation as a country.
And that, believe it if you please, led to the unravelling of apartheid. South Africa had to yield.
The master stroke was dealt by Nigeria. The sacrifice of the Montreal Boycott was, to Nigeria, rather severe. The Eagles earned the epithet of “Super” to their name during this period. They were winners and would have been the first generation of a dynasty that could have lasted till this day. They were so good, “Pa” Tiko, their excellent coach, sometimes had to warn them off scoring goals whenever the tally was becoming embarrassing—as it happened in their warm-up match against Canada, the host country, before they were sent home with the contingent. “Pa” Tiko had to bench Thompson Usiyen when he scored the fourth goal—against instructions. That team was so sharp they made it all look easy.
The trail of development was subsequently almost destroyed when South Africa later became embroiled in a diplomatic situation with Nigeria, just before the 1996 Africa Cup of Nations which South Africa was to host that year, and the Head of State, General Abacha simply ordered Nigeria to stay away from the event. The coach had never recovered from the disappointment of Montreal. “Pa” Tiko could not stay with the Eagles. Many of them, including Thompson, also soon faded off.
It was the same stroke of frustration that cast several of the athletes down after Montreal. Modupe Sokoya probably missed the Gold in the long jump, and the Silver in the pentathlon which she had spent two years of intensive training to re-capture from her feat at the Christchurch Commonwealth Games. That was the intervening period between the two Games at which she had reached her peak only to see all her efforts blown away in the wind.
Whatever the merits of the imbroglio with Nigeria could have been at that time, many of us felt that South Africa had approached the matter from a high ground of arrogance, and so we supported the decision of the government. What one felt at that time, and said out loud too, was that South Africa had proved to be ungrateful to Nigeria. I even suggested on this page that, instead of being so temperamental with Nigeria, they should have been busy building a monument to Abraham Ordia, who had fought valiantly against apartheid, or named a street in Pretoria for Modupe Sokoya whose magnificent career had fizzled out for her country’s stand on behalf of South Africa’s freedom.
Of course, the two countries have mended fences to the disadvantage of Nigeria. No surprise. The South Africans have openly defrauded us, and bullied us with insults. It was perhaps more tolerable in the days of the Mandela government or those of Thabo Mbeki, but this man, Jacob Zuma, whose public bridal dance with his fourth or fifth wife has been about the most noticeable achievement he has to his credit so far, simply does not make the honey flow.
He comes here straight from scraping through a vote of no confidence, after sacking two Finance Ministers in a matter of barely as many weeks, to “fix” the mess that a large commercial firm from his country has made. And so he would also “fix” the xenophobia that has his country in thrall, and also “fix” the harm that is daily inflicted on Nigerians in his country, just because they are Nigerians….and what else besides? A two-day trip will not “fix” that.