Sport is often touted as a metaphor for the values and principles of democratic ideals in society. Indeed, in many respects this is true. In sport there is inclusivity and equality, freedom of assembly and association, diversity, tolerance, accountability and both the players and spectators agree to abide by the rules. Global sporting events are organised within the framework of democratic practices. Whereas the Olympic spirit evokes ideals of fair play, tolerance, respect, integrity and democracy, it is easy to forget the efforts of the pioneers who fought against racism and segregation to secure the gains we celebrate in sport today.
When the imperial powers introduced Western sport cultures during the colonisation of Africa they did not necessarily have the spread of democratic principles in mind. In all the colonies, sport was used for acculturation. In my home country Kenya, the British employed sport as a core tenet of the civilising mission. Sport was an effective tool of imperialism, used to assimilate and turn the colonised into subjects of the crown and to reinforce racial hierarchies. Non-Western sports such as wrestling and stick fighting were systematically eradicated to make room for the Western sport culture as a beacon of civilisation.
In Kenya, the British introduced a tripartite education system for Europeans, Asians and Africans and institutionalised sport in the process of assimilation. Subsequently, the colonial class system became entrenched leading to the rapid creation of new African class formations that upset the existing traditional social order.
Football and athletics evolved into sports for the masses in Africa, particularly in colonies that did not have a significant presence of colonial administrators. They were easy to establish and did not involve technicalities. The Africanisation of football was a widespread phenomenon by the 1930s with the formation of local clubs which served as spaces to galvanise ethnic and national identities.
Sport for the elite
However, in the settler-colonies that drew significant numbers of British upper classes such as South Africa, Kenya, Uganda and the Rhodesias (Zimbabwe and Zambia), the introduction of the ‘Gentlemen’s Sports’, such as cricket, rugby and tennis heralded the emergence of an educated African elite.
The pioneer rugby players in Kenya were sons of chiefs and administrators working for the colony. This selective admission of students to former white-only schools in Kenya in the early sixties paved way for interracial rugby teams. Strathmore College opened its doors in Nairobi and pioneered multi-racial rugby in 1961. East African rugby historian, Paul Okongó recalls that the Daily Nation newspaper reported this development as ‘’an experiment on the rugby pitch”. The news reverberated down south with the Johannesburg Star describing the attempt at multi-racial rugby as, “A Study in Black and White rugby”.
Playing rugby, cricket or tennis guaranteed a select group of Africans the privilege of association with the ruling classes and entry to the new class structure even as independence beckoned. This social engineering was effective and more Africans began to aspire to join previously predominantly white schools as a pathway to a new class identity.
In the early 60s, a wave of independence swept across Africa. 28 former colonies became independent by 1964 and began to rally around national and Pan African identities, raising a unified voice to demand a dignified place in the international community. This collective of newly independent African nations asserted their autonomy by organising and taking part in the first All-African Games held in Congo Brazzaville in 1965.
By 1968, these young nations began to use their numbers to challenge the apartheid regime in South Africa. In 1956 the apartheid government of South Africa legalised segregation in sports, effectively banning interracial sporting activities and from then on selecting only white athletes to represent the country in international events. The International Olympic Committee invited South Africa to the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico following a report that stated reforms had been instituted towards a multiracial policy in its team formations. The invitation was met with condemnation and 31 African states threatened to boycott the Olympics if South Africa was included. This consolidated pressure paid off and the apartheid regime in South Africa was excluded from the Olympic games for the next two decades, marking a crucial turning point in the quest for freedom and democracy.
Africans countries raised their voices again to boycott the 1976 Montreal Games. Marshalled by Tanzania, 22 African nations protested the participation of New Zealand after their rugby team toured apartheid South Africa for a test match earlier that year, in contravention of a United Nations sporting embargo.
Democratization of sport
These moments of solidarity by African nations played a major role in decolonising, transforming and democratising the governance of international sporting events. Therefore, it was a moment of triumph, when Nelson Mandela as the first president of a newly independent South Africa, famously donned a Springbok jersey during the final of the 1995 Rugby World Cup to announce the aspirations of a unified and democratic rainbow nation. In 2019, a multi-racial Springboks team lifted the Rugby World Cup trophy for a second time with Siya Kolisi as its first black captain.
African nations have also made an immense contribution in the democratisation of world football. The game was dominated by European and South American nations until the emergence of independent African nations in the 60s. South Africa became the first African country to host a successful football World Cup in 2010. Morrocco’s recent dream run in the FIFA World cup in Qatar and its achievement as the first African nation to reach the semi-finals holds great promise.
There is much work to be done in deconstructing the colonial ideologies that foster Western discourses of supremacy and perpetuate inequalities in the world. Democracy is about the people and the history of sport is the story of marginalised people fighting for human rights, equality, respect and dignity. From Muhammad Ali to Colin Kaepernick, Arthur Ashe to the William sisters, we must continue to celebrate the athletes that went against the grain and used their privilege to fight for a more just and better world.
This article was originally published in the Zeitgeister, the cultural magazine of the Goethe Institut.