The story behind the story of PMB

2009-03-26 00:00

Sport, Space and Segregation by Christopher Merrett charts the complicated path that sport and recreation have played in shaping Pietermaritzburg as we know it today.

This important, historical recollection rewinds to a time when cricket in this city was seen as an Englishman's sport, right through to the world war periods when colonialists saw the importance of recreation in the lives of black workers to the tumultuous apartheid era and its impact on social relations between races in the city.

The book covers, in depth, the plight of native sports, particular soccer and cricket, but also reflects on the impact politics had on sporting institutions such as the Comrades Marathon, which was inaugurated by war veterans in 1921. There is also particular emphasis placed on the various acts put in place by the government which severely limited playing fields for blacks and Indians, as they were not allowed anywhere near the unmistakably British Alexandra Park Oval for a long time.

By no means does the book focus only on recreation. The plight of Indian settlers in the city is also dealt with, as Merrett reveals the "deep-seated" paranoia with which Indians were viewed by the authorities.

There is also reference to the oft-forgotten plight of the coloured population, who seem always to have fallen on a rather debatable middle ground as far as racial segregation was concerned.

The almost comical naivety of authorities in the twenties also shines through, as their reasons for justifying a centrally located shebeen clearly illustrate how they viewed the level of African intelligence.

The impact of apartheid, especially the Group Areas Act, ensured the whole country was effectively divided, unequally, into areas for different races to dwell in. This had a severe impact on sporting matters and, while facilities such as Jan Smuts Stadium were built for the white population, other races were made to feel "like visitors in our own city".

Multiracial sporting clubs were marginalised, as apartheid took a firm grip on life in South Africa.

There is a fascinating case study involving a long-established local cricket club which was multiracial at this most politically unstable of times. Aurora Cricket Club's fight against the system received support from several news agencies.

Merrett's educational, highly engaging book is a must-read for not only those with a passion for sports in the city, but also those who have not yet been exposed to the story behind the story of Pietermaritzburg.

* There is a launch today of Sport, Space and Segregation: Politics and Society in Pietermaritzburg by Christopher Merrett, published by the University of KwaZulu-Natal Press, at 5.30 pm for 6 pm at The Oval in Alexandra Park.

* Inquiries: Susan Elliott at elliotts@ukzn.ac.za or 033 260 5226.

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