Opinion | Quick history lesson for South African golfers at Saudi golf league

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Branden Grace of South Africa plays an approach shot on the 15th hole during the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship at TPC Potomac Clubhouse on May 06, 2022 in Potomac, Maryland. Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Branden Grace of South Africa plays an approach shot on the 15th hole during the second round of the Wells Fargo Championship at TPC Potomac Clubhouse on May 06, 2022 in Potomac, Maryland. Photo: Gregory Shamus/Getty Images


On February 2 1990, when FW de Klerk announced the unbanning of the ANC and other organisations, as well as the release of political prisoners, Louis Oosthuizen was only seven years old.

Branden Grace, Charl Schwartzel, Oliver Bekker, Justin Harding and Shaun Norris were even younger, while Hennie du Plessis and JC Ritchie were not born yet.

So the eight golf professionals can be excused for not having much of an understanding of South African history, but I am happy to give them a quick lesson.

In 1981, when Tom Watson won arguably the most prestigious golf tournament, the Masters, he collected a cheque for $60 000 (R936 000 at today’s exchange rate). At the time, it was the biggest payout for a tournament win.

READ: The meteoric rise of Scottie Scheffler

A few months later, five of the world’s leading golfers – Seve Ballesteros, Johnny Miller, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player and Lee Trevino – competed in a golf competition at Sun City, with Miller taking the first prize of $500 000.

In the same year, ANC activist and lawyer Griffiths Mxenge was stabbed 45 times by members of an apartheid death squad in Umlazi in Durban; Joe Gqabi, the ANC representative in Zimbabwe, was assassinated in Harare; while ANC members Anthony Tsotsobe, David Moise and Johannes Shabangu were sentenced to death.

In South Africa, thousands were detained, tortured and imprisoned while protesting against apartheid. And, if I may get personal, I was being arrested almost weekly for playing football in the township without a permit. (This, of course, pales in comparison with the brutality of apartheid that black South Africans felt every day).

I am sure the eight South African professional golfers mentioned above would ask themselves:

What has this got to do with golf?

A lot. There is a direct line that can be drawn between the deaths of Mxenge, Gqabi and many others and the $500 000 Miller received for winning at Sun City.

The atrocities that the apartheid regime committed in South Africa and neighbouring countries were well publicised worldwide. To such an extent, in fact, that a wide-ranging boycott – including sporting contact with South Africa – was organised. Within South Africa, this boycott was spearheaded by the SA Council on Sport (Sacos).

To counter this boycott, South Africa tried desperately to create the (false) impression that everything was normal, hence Sacos’ slogan:

No normal sport in an abnormal society.

One way to try to fool the world into believing that everything was normal was by organising sporting competitions.

The Springboks travelled to New Zealand, where they faced a barrage of demonstrations and a hostile reception. Nedbank, with golfing officials, organised the Nedbank Million Dollar Challenge.

So, in fact, the money that Miller made was directly related to apartheid atrocities, for had there not been apartheid, there would have been no need to pay so much money to the winner of a golf tournament.

But to convince athletes to break the sports boycott, travel to South Africa and play in a competition, huge fees had to be paid. And again, the eight South African professionals mentioned at the beginning of this article would ask themselves: “What has this got to do with us?”

A lot.

When, as numerous sources including the CIA and Amnesty International claim, Saudi Arabian crown prince Mohammed bin Salman ordered the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018, he was allegedly dismembered in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. Saudi Arabia, a bit like apartheid South Africa, became the pariah of the world.

The Saudis’ human rights record since then has not improved much and, just a few months ago, the Middle Eastern country executed 81 people in a single day. This prompted the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, to say she understood that 41 of those executed were Muslims from the Shiite minority who had taken part in the anti-government protests in 2011/12, calling for greater political participation. Another seven were Yemenis and one was a Syrian national.

“Our monitoring indicates that some of those executed were sentenced to death following trials that did not meet fair trial and due process guarantees, and for crimes that did not appear to meet the most serious crimes threshold, as required under international law,” Bachelet said. In other words, Saudi Arabia was and is facing a public image crisis.

And, like apartheid South Africa, they turned towards sports to counter this. And for that, they needed athletes willing to ignore human rights violations, put aside their conscience and accept the huge pay cheques they would receive for doing so.

And with every highly publicised human rights violation that Saudi Arabia commits, these cheques will become bigger.

Not that they are small at the moment. The latest Saudi offering is a golf league with winnings of $225 million. It started on Friday in London in the UK.

Each of the seven tournaments has a prize pool of $25 million, while the eighth and final tournament is double that. The winner of each of the first seven tournaments takes home $4 million, while the last-placed will pocket $125 000. And there is a further $5 million for the top three teams at each event.

That, of course, goes a long way towards explaining why eight South Africans are among the 48 players who have signed up and are willing to be used for public relations purposes by a country with an atrocious human rights record. They should please not turn around one day and say they did not know!

Auf Der Heyde was a Sacos activist, executive member of the Kwazakhele Soccer Board and president of the Sacos-affiliated Grahamstown Soccer Association


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