Just having tea this morning in Illinois, US, checking out the early rounds at Wimbledon on ESPN, one of the American all-day sports TV channels. Turns out it is 40 years since a black man won Wimbledon for the first and so far the only time — Arthur Ashe in 1975. Yay Arthur.
Three of the commentators at the ESPN desk were Chris Evert, LZ Granderson and Pam Shriver. In commemorating Ashe’s achievement, Evert said that she was with Ashe in South Africa in 1975 — both were playing in the South African Open tennis tournament. He was such a gentleman, she said. While in South Africa he conducted clinics for black kids during the day and played matches in the evenings. He must have been exhausted from all that, which maybe explains why he played well but lost in the final, she said. He met with Nelson Mandela on that trip, she said.
LZ Granderson then picked up Evert’s imaginary thread and ran a little further with it. Mandela was considered a terrorist in 1975, said Granderson. He wasn’t the jovial quotable lovable Mandela of later years, so it was even more remarkable that Ashe visited him. It shows what an exceptional person Ashe was, that he combined politics with his sport.
What? In 1975, hardliner John Vorster was prime minister, it was the year before the Soweto Uprising, South Africa still had no television. For most of the year Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was banned and Mandela and his comrades were still being forced into slave labour in the Robben Island limestone quarry. How could Arthur Ashe have visited Mandela in 1975?
Well, sports fans, Evert is losing to the truth in straight sets, here. She herself was certainly in apartheid South Africa — on several occasions. There’s a YouTube video of her, then only 15 years old, with Jimmy Connors playing in the South African Open in 1969. She was also there later with Ashe, but it was in 1973. Ashe made two controversy-shrouded visits to play tennis in South Africa in the 1970s. He was excoriated by people like the great poet and activist Dennis Brutus for breaking the sports boycott, but he also inspired young men like writer Mark Mathabane (Kaffir Boy, 1986) who were starved of glamorous black role models.
Evert never criticised apartheid, repeatedly broke the sports boycott and later went on to marry another infamous “rebel tour” figure — golfer Greg Norman. There’s a cool document at africanactivist.msu.edu about the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee’s work with the UN to shame sports figures like Evert who broke the boycotts. In 1987 I was living in Melbourne, Australia, and once joined members of the local ANC and Swapo branches to picket and protest at a tournament where Norman was playing. We were a ragtag bunch and we yelled through a high fence onto the golf course, “NORMAN NORMAN YOU CAN’T HIDE YOU’RE IN BED WITH APARTHEID” — the last word not correctly pronounced but put into a satisfyingly silly rhyme for the sake of making the point.
So Evert earnestly fantasising 40 years later about Mandela and how Ashe visited him — ugh. Talk about revisionist history. Ashe was an interesting man who took risks. He did in fact combine tennis matches with a visit to a prominent, banned South African — but it was in 1974 to the pan-Africanist Robert Sobukwe in Kimberley, not to Mandela on Robben Island. Sobukwe, of course, had by then been released from a decade of solitary confinement on the island to banning and virtual imprisonment at home. Eric Allen Hall, author of Arthur Ashe: Tennis and Justice in the Civil Rights Era (2014) says that although no transcript of the Ashe-Sobukwe meeting exists, it is most likely that Sobukwe strongly criticised Ashe’s decisions to break the boycotts and visit South Africa.
It is true that when Mandela was released, one of the people he was happy to meet in America was Ashe, and it seems that they became friends in the 1990s (while Mandela had a few other things to do). But Ashe did not visit Robben Island in the 1970s. And people — even ESPN commentators — should actually be able to distinguish between Mandela and Sobukwe. Evert should be reminded that some people remember her own history of repeatedly breaking solidarity boycotts for the sake of cold hard cash. The full prize purse for the South African Open in 1974 was $100 000 — a lot of money in those days. Evert’s attempt to dabble in Mandela’s now saintly aura without revealing her own repeated opposition to everything he stood for is offensive. Ashe made Herculean efforts — not always successfully — to wriggle between the rocks of apartheid and the hard places of being a self-appointed agent of hope and symbol of achievement. He should certainly be remembered accurately — as should the people who were never ashamed to simply profit from apartheid.
Image – Arthur Ashe holds the men’s singles trophy July 5 1975 after the final against fellow countryman Jimmy Connors at Wimbledon in London. Ashe won 6-1, 6-1, 5-7, 6-4. Ashe (1943-1993) also won the US Open in 1968, the Australian Open in 1970 and was six-time winner of the Davis Cup. (AFP)