I think that my first political statement as a schoolboy was to refuse to eat Outspan oranges because they were from Apartheid South Africa. At college I got interested in South African politics, in SANROC which challenged the world of football, cricket, rugby, tennis and the Olympic movement to dissasociate from that evil regime.
In late 1993, after Nelson Mandela was freed from 27 years in prison, I wrote, or in fact sent a fax, to The Sowetan, the daily newspaper asking if I could come over and see what was happening in the new Rainbow Nation and in particular education and sport.
An invitation came from the DET, The Department of Education and Training via a sportswriter with the paper. SAA South African Airways offered me a dirt cheap flight and upgraded me to business class and I arrived at Joburg Airport and was met by half a dozen guys in tribal dress. They were members of one of the then five education departments, black, white, African, coloured and Indian.
The DET was from the black education department and what an interesting two week journey I was to experience. To add to that, two days earlier I had met Sir Stanley Matthews, my boyhood hero, over a cup of tea. He had been leaving The Potteries every English winter for his apartment in the sunshine outside Johannesburg, and he put me in touch with his many friends there.
He had coached a team of players from Soweto called Stans Men and taken thmy around the country, but due to the laws was not allowed to stay in the same accommodation. He had even raised the funds to fly them to Brazil, but under pressure from FIFA, the football authorities in Brazil were discouraged from arranging official matches when they arrived.
on one trip I was taken to Wombats, a resort where there was an education conference. I gave a speech about sport in the West and most there had never travelled outside their country.
A delegate from Eastern Cape flew me down to Port Elizabeth and we visitedthe local Eastern Cape rugby HQ and stadium and then a local football stadium and a coaching session. Then through the countryside first to Rhodes University in Grahamstown,130 km away, the oldest in the province, and named after Cecil Rhodes. It has a thriving arts and cultural festival. Then to three days in Ft. Beaufort which used to be pioneer country and lots of fighting and the only Martello Tower anywhere away from the coast.
The area was part of Ciskei, one of the Bantustans, or homelands that had been established by the Nationalist Party. Off to Mandela's former school, Healdstown Comprehensive and then to University of Ft. Hare in Alice and a meeting with the provost. His name was Rev. Arnold Stofile and he is now SA's Ambassador to Germany, put was a leader in the political wing of the ANC. and later Minister of Sport. He showed me around the campus, and at the rugby field suggested I might find funds for its upkeep. He was marxist and I said that as a capitalist I would arrange a loan and make some money. Pregnant pause.. then he laughed, Phew !!!
Mandela had been a student there and Stofile showed me the balcony from where he addressed his fellow students. He was thrown out for his activities. Another day we went to a village school and we were entertained by the youngsters dancing and singing on a stage on the dirt floor of the assembley room. The rolling hills of his homeland is where he will be buried this weekend.
The capital of Ciskei was Bisho and I picked up some brochures from the small tourist office and was taken on a tour. Outside the stadium I was shown where the Ciskei Defence Forces killed 28 unarmed marchers and injured hundreds months before. They waned to oust dictator Brigadier Oupa Gqozu. A year after I left the police mutinied, the civil servants all went on strike, the Brigadier was ousted and Ciskei and the other Bantustans returned to South African governance and Bisho remains capital of Eastern Cape Province.
No foreign countries ever recognised these homelands. Bisho was like a Ruritanian capita,l like the movie The Mouse That Roared, with Peter Sellars. They built an international airport, brought a passenger jet by road from East London, assembled it, but if they loaded it with passengers it was too heavy to get off the ground of the short runway. It lay rusting and abandoned when I was there.
I was driven to East London and a Christmas Lights party at the City Hall then flown back to Johannesburg. A fellow passenger across the aisle was Archbishop Desmond Tutu who later chaired the Peace and Reconciliation Committee.
Another 3 days trip to Durban the huge Indian Ocean port and beach resort in Kwa Zulu Natal. Visits to dreadful townships and poor sports facilities but with enthusiastic, hard working volunteers. One place was a rubbish strewn wasteland with a sign saying future home of some big sports complex, but I was told that the money had been stolen by politicians. I went to a PSL league match at Kings Park Stadium. When the referee gave a penalty against the Durban City club its president ran onto the field, beratted the official with a stick, and the decision was reversed.
Back in Johannesburg I went to the PSL mens and women's cup finals at FNB Stadium, then the biggest in Africa, and changed beyond recognition for the 2010 FIFA World Cup. I met the SAFA (South African FA), leaders later at their offices and many were later fined and jailed for many financial indiscretions.
It was not until 15 years later that I returned to The Rainbow Nation for three more visits reaching all the way from The Western Cape, Cape Town and Mandela's cell on Robben Island, to the Northern Cape, Free State, Mpulanga, Limpopo with national parks, canyons, ranches, citrus farms, and a fantastic land.
Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu and other such heroes have prevented the bloodbath that many of us predicted. Lots more to do but a better outcome than many African nations to the North. Go visit and explore.