Afrikaaner who runs with ANC ball

June 23, 1995

Easy platitudes about national unity have accompanied the rugby World Cup in South Africa like a theme tune, but when Andre Odendaal says "the excitement and the range of people who have been supporting the Springboks is unprecedented", you take him seriously.

Professor Odendaal, director of the Mayibuye centre for history and culture in South Africa at the University of the Western Cape, speaks as co-author of Beyond the Tryline, a new study of the game's role in South African society.

He says: "Rugby is still of limited interest to much of the population and we are not suddenly going to see seven black players in the team. But when you hear of Johannesburg taxi drivers hooting their horns to celebrated Springbok tries and leading members of the Pan Africa Congress enthusing about rugby you know that something is very different."

Intellectual gifts and sporting talents - he captained Stellenbosch University at cricket before winning a blue at Cambridge - fitted Professor Odendaal for success in the old South Africa. But although an Afrikaaner, he opted for opposition, playing non-racial cricket and joining the ANC-linked United Democratic Front on his return to South Africa in the early 1980s.

"As an undergraduate I started work on a book on the best South African cricketers, including one or two black players. I finished with an examination of the role of racism in the game and my eyes had started opening."

That book, Cricket in Isolation, was followed by doctoral work at Cambridge on early black politics. The decision, on returning, to "cross the line" was deeply personal and traumatic. "Afrikaaners lacked the opportunity, provided by student politics on the liberal English campuses, to get involved in the struggle. Beyers Naude spoke of the 'personal journey' faced by Afrikaaners. Once you took that step a curtain dropped behind you, but it opened up immense new possibilities."

He went to Western Cape, then in deep political turmoil, in 1985 and from 1989 worked on the creation of the Mayibuye centre.

"The idea was that it should be a sort of 'holocaust museum' to recover and record neglected aspects of our history," he says.

Records are often scarce: "This was a society in which 38,311 books were banned between 1962 and 1992 and where people could be imprisoned for four years for scratching Mandela's image on a coffee cup. Documents were dangerous and it was often safer to destroy them."

A core archive is provided by the records of the International Defence and Aid Fund, which assisted prisoners, detainees and their families. Regular publications, conferences and travelling exhibitions spread the message. "The job is one of redefining our own identity."

He hopes to help found a museum on Robben Island, the prison in which Mandela and other opposition leaders were held. "It is hard to think of a more symbolically important piece of national estate," he says.

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