There is always something confounding about South Africa. When I first heard the word ‘Apartheid’, it was in connection to South Africa. The country was one of the last bastions of slavery in the world. We, as Nigerians, massively contributed to fight and end it. When I recently came across the word ‘Xenophobia’ for the first time also, it was in connection to South Africa. This time, the world has turned upside down, and Nigeria amongst others that fought for South Africa’s freedom has become the ‘enemy’ that South Africans must crush for the new kind of freedom they seek.
There is something fundamentally wrong with the Black person. That’s why the race has not achieved much, and its place in the world is still far from the epicentres of human development and advancement. Recent pictures out of South Africa frighten me about the future of the Black person. I experience the world through sport. My faith in the potency and power of sport to transform society is abidingly in tandem with late Nelson Mandela’s who said famously that ‘Sport has the power to change the world’. Sport, to me, has always been the world’s ultimate leveller, a bridge across all human differences. It is also the ultimate healer, effectively dousing the fire of major conflicts, bringing sworn enemies to a roundtable, twisting their hands to agree on a level playing field where enmity can be converted to enduring friendship.
Sport motivated Pierre de Coubertin, in 1896, to birth the modern Olympic Games with the mission to positively engage the youths of the world, build global friendships, eradicate conflicts and wars, and use sport to make the world a better, more peaceful and healthier playground for humans across all races and colour. To go to the Olympic games was the greatest dream of every young athlete. It was the ultimate challenge and reward in sport. Athletes would do anything, give up anything, to be able to earn and wear an Olympic medal around their neck. I was a part of close to one hundred Nigerian athletes, the finest in boxing track and field athletics, weightlifting, wrestling, and football that went to Montreal, Canada, in 1976 with great dreams. But on the eve of the games, we had to prematurely abort our once-in-a-lifetime opportunity in support of the cause of our Black brethren in South Africa.
Nigeria led 24 other Black African countries to boycott the Olympics to make a powerful point in an unjust world. Most of us never had a second chance to go to another Olympics again. The magnitude of the decision to boycott was very apparent to those of us concerned because, in the Nigerian squad, we had some of the best and most prepared athletes in Nigeria’s history to date. In Boxing, Obisia Nwakpa and Davidson Andeh, trained by Archie Moore (former African-American World Middleweight Boxing Champion), were potential Gold/Silver medalists. Charlton Ehizuelen had jumped the longest distances in the world in the triple jump close to the start of the Olympic Games. Trained by Lee Evans (former African-American World record holder and double Olympic Gold medalist) Nigeria’s sprinters were sure-bets for the sprints relays, running some of the best times in the world on the eve of the games.
In Football, the Nigerian team under Yugoslav coach Yelisavic Tiko, had undergone the longest and widest training tour of Europe by any Nigerian national team till date, with an assembly of exceptionally gifted individual football artists (Haruna Ilerika, Thompson Usiyen, Mudashiru Lawal, Adekunle Awesu, Babaotu Mohammed, Emmanuel Okala, Christian Chukwu, Andrew Atuegbu, and so on). We walloped Colombia 3-0, in our last trial match in Montreal five days to the start of the Olympic games. Most of these great athletes never had another opportunity to participate in the Olympic Games again in their lives. Their names are missing in the eternal list of the world’s Olympians forever. For any athlete, it was the ultimate disappointment and sacrifice to give up the Olympics for any reason. Beyond the personal pain of the sacrifice we had to make by giving up a lifetime ambition and ‘wasting’ all our years of preparation, the boycott of the Olympic Games by the 25 African countries, led by Nigeria, was a big statement and the biggest blow to the Olympic movement.
To date, Montreal ’76 remains the most politically effective and financially disastrous Olympic games in history. We accepted to be a part of this to support the cause of South Africans, Blacks that we considered our brothers and sisters suffering excruciating mental and physical pain through oppression, suppression, segregation, domination, discrimination and enslavement in a system called Apartheid. The deployment of sport to bring to an end this ugliest of chapters in human history was so effective that it marked the beginning of the end of Apartheid in South Africa. In less than two decades after Montreal ’76, our Black brethren were finally freed from the shackles of enslavement in their own land. So, the fact is that Nigerians and several other Black African athletes made huge sacrifices through sport and were major instruments in the demise of the brutal government and regime in South Africa.
In 1993, shortly after freedom came to the country, I was a member of the Nigerian sports delegation that visited to see the shape of an emergent new South Africa under late Nelson Mandela who had become the country’s first Black President. Nigeria was a very important player in fighting for the freedom of South Africa. It was the country with the largest population of Black people on earth; a major source of Black slaves that built the West for 400 years; a country with the human and natural resources that could reposition the Black person as an economic and political superpower in the world. Those are what the great ‘Madiba’ (a man not known for flippancy, but revered all over the world for his humility, wisdom and integrity) saw when he said of Nigeria in words that I have quoted in this column twice in the past three weeks, and have become an eternal reminder: ‘the world will never respect Africa until Nigeria earns that respect. The Black people of the world are looking up to Nigeria to be a source of pride and confidence. Every Nigerian citizen should be made to understand this truth’.
That was some 24 years ago. 24 years are ‘yesterday’ in the life of any nation. So, only 24 years later, this is the same country, Nigeria, whose citizens, South Africans have turned against and are now brutalising by vandalizing their property, looting their shops, destroying their businesses and killing their people in what is now being described as Xenophobic attacks! It is preposterous. If there are criminal gangs amongst the Nigerians that have settled down in South Africa, why not deal with them as criminals? If there are miscreants from Nigeria that are infecting South African youths with their poor habits and loose morals, why not deal with them using the instrumentality of the law? If there are economic saboteurs threatening the stability of South Africa, why not deal with them in accordance with the law? What not to do is to forget the price same Nigeria had paid for South Africa’s freedom, to forget the sacrifices the same people made, and to start a destruction and killing spree of their African brethren for any reason.
I saw pictures of uninformed South Africans who may have quickly forgotten the pain of their Apartheid pregnancy after the baby’s successful delivery, are now so blind to their past they want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg because they are in new pain! My admonition to my brethren in South Africa is tarry a little while and THINK! In this present state of madness, their actions are great damages to the Black race. Their actions will be confirmation of everything demeaning and derogatory often said about the Black race by the rest of humanity. When some of us that paid a heavy prize for South Africa’s freedom through sport see what is going on there now, we are filled with trepidation, disappointment and anger.