Belly of the beast
A few weeks ago I recalled that it had been 30 years since I had visited South Africa as an investigative journalist with the Nation at a time when a white minority ruled that country with an iron fist, and with full racial segregation institutionalized under a legal system known as apartheid.
I was no sports journalist, but a team of top West Indian cricketers defying international sanctions, including a ban on all sporting connections, going off for an unofficial series in South Africa was far bigger news than cricket.
And so it was that one evening in early January 1983, I was on a British Airways plane bound for London where I would board a South African Airways flight the next day for a 13-hour trip to the city of Johannesburg. There I began the most testing experience of perhaps my entire life.
I was on a mission to use the cricket tour as a “blind” to get behind the battle lines of apartheid or to investigate and report on life for black people in a land where they could not live in the same areas, eat in the same restaurants, drive in the same train cars and buses, bathe on the same beaches, use the same public toilets, be educated in the same schools, and the list goes on, as Whites and even people of mixed race classified as “coloureds”.
It was a tough call and I found myself in South Africa without a clue about how I would be able to fulfil my assignment amid the distinct possibility of ending up being imprisoned by the white arm of the law for my actions. Worse yet was the possibility of finding myself being accused of being a spy by black militants and, as often happened to such people, having my body trapped inside a “necklace” in the form of burning tyre of gasoline.
However, I was to soon discover that many of the journalists and media houses in South Africa respected the common international responsibility of serving their constituencies by being informed by facts rather than prejudice and supposition, and by striving to fairly represent the varied viewpoints and interests in their societies.
I was embraced by fellow journalists of all colours who ensured that I, often presented as one of their own for the purpose, was able to go where I wanted to go to meet and interview whom I wanted and to see what I wanted to see. Daily, I was being sneaked into depressed areas reserved for Blacks only and known as townships.
Coinciding with the 30th anniversary of that assignment was a CNN team flying into Barbados for interviews with me, Tony Cozier, Sir Hilary Beckles, Collis King, Franklyn Stephenson and David Murray, among others.
Last weekend CNN had the international premiere of a documentary about that controversial tour titled Branded A Rebel – Cricket’s Forgotten Men, which is being screened tonight on CBC TV’s Channel 8 just after 9 o’clock.
• Al Gilkes heads a public relations firm. Email [email protected]