[DEBATE] : Sports Revisionism
tintinyana at gmail.com
Sat Sep 15 22:10:28 BST 2007
I saw this a few weeks back in the NY Times. I am wondering what
Dennis thinks. My sense is that this is a piece of revisionism, partly
to do with US tennis politics (SA as backdrop) and about Ashe's legacy.
Dennis? -- Sean
August 25, 2007
A Dream Restored
By JOHN MARTIN
Unnoticed by the outside world, part of Arthur Ashe's legacy -- a
tennis center for black South Africans -- descended into decay and ruin
long before his death in 1993.
Not long after its opening in 1976, vandals tore down fences and
ransacked the clubhouse. Neighbors dumped garbage onto the grounds. The
country was in turmoil over the violent repression of blacks by the
minority white government. Soweto descended into lawlessness.
In March 1977, a month after their wedding, Ashe and Jeanne
Moutoussamy-Ashe stood on the dilapidated site and surveyed the damage.
Their dream of a tennis center at the core of Africa's largest black
township had turned into a nightmare of crime and disorder.
But today, still largely unseen by outsiders, the Arthur Ashe Tennis
Center has been brought from the grave to the brink of revival. Behind
its rebirth are two men: Ian Smith, a mild-mannered, conservatively
dressed white sports executive; and Bongani Zondi, a bold,
leather-jacket-clad black political activist who goes by the nickname
Their teamwork, assisted by top South African political and sports
figures, reflects, in a modest way, the kind of racial collaboration
Ashe dreamed of.
When it was built, the Ashe Center was intended to inspire black
Africans to emulate a black American. Ashe's victory at Wimbledon in
1975 was a catalyst.
But within months of a fanfare dedication of the center's eight courts,
South Africa headed into dark days of repression. On June 16, 1976, the
Soweto student uprising began. Twenty-three students, according to
official totals, were killed in a hail of gunfire while protesting a
requirement that they be taught in Afrikaans, the language of the
In 1984, tennis-playing residents restored the courts, but vandals
struck again and the property fell back into decay and disrepute.
''It became a dumping ground, a place for dead dogs,'' said Zondi, a
Johannesburg city councilor who represents the Jabavu neighborhoods of
Soweto, where he was born in 1959.
''It was a place of crime, a problem for the community,'' Zondi said.
He added: ''During those days, people didn't care about facilities,
they didn't care if they were vandalized or not. We were intensifying
our struggle to resist the government.''
For Zondi, the fight was personal. He went underground in the 1970s to
recruit members for the banned African National Congress, which sought
to end apartheid. ''I was never arrested,'' he said. ''I always managed
to run away, but it was very difficult.''
When the country staged a peaceful election and transition to majority
rule in 1994, Zondi became a bodyguard, first to protect Nelson
Mandela, then Thabo Mbeki, the current president.
In 2000, after Zondi won a seat on the city council, developers tried
to buy the site of the Ashe Center for a shopping mall.
''I refused,'' Zondi said. ''I wanted to recognize the late Arthur
Ashe, to honor his contributions.''
Zondi had a broader purpose than simple homage to Ashe. A revival of
the tennis center, he reasoned, could revitalize the township's
battered social and athletic infrastructure.
When Ashe visited South Africa for the first time, in 1973, an event
resisted for four years by the Afrikaner government, his appearance had
an electrifying impact.
''His condemnations of apartheid made him one of us,'' Mark Mathabane
wrote of Ashe in ''Kaffir Boy,'' his 1986 memoir of growing up in
minority-ruled South Africa.
Ashe, wrote Mathabane, ''did not pretend he was a white man erroneously
For a young black tennis player like Mathabane, the way out was to go
in the manner of Ashe. In 1978, when a college tennis scholarship
arrived from the United States, he took it to escape poverty and
To Zondi, the memory of Ashe among South Africans gave him a vehicle to
develop a complex for sports, scholarship and vocational training that
would be open to all in the community.
As a start, he went to see the man whose life he once guarded. Mandela,
the nation's revered father figure, suggested a meeting with Ali
Bacher, who ran the country's world-class cricket establishment.
''He didn't know me,'' Zondi said, ''but he was willing to meet and
talk.'' And act.
With Zondi at their side, Bacher and Smith, then the deputy director of
the cricket association, approached the national lottery and the
provincial government. The three men wrote letters, met with public
officials and won a lottery grant of 3.5 million rand (about $475,000
today). Using Bacher's name, Zondi also raised 4 million rand (about
$543,000) from the province's public works ministry to build two
vocational training facilities and a library.
Still, even with money in hand, Zondi faced appalling conditions at the
''The fences were gone, even the net poles were taken; it was
terrible,'' said Smith, who left the cricket association in March 2004
to become chief executive of the South African Tennis Association.
A month after Smith arrived, Zondi wrote a letter asking for help. Four
years earlier, the association ignored a similar request.
''I telephoned him straight away,'' said Smith, a former professional
Somehow, a bond formed between Smith, who was born in Zambia and reared
in the privileged precincts of the white world (his family moved to
South Africa when he was 12), and Zondi, born and reared in the seedy,
twilight world of Soweto.
Within months, they persuaded the black-ruled city of Johannesburg to
contribute 1 million rand (about $136,000) to rebuild the tennis
''I sold it to the people in my district with the promise that 90
percent of the labor would come from the community'' of Soweto, Zondi
Construction began two years ago. On March 31 this year, the center
held an official opening. Among the guests was Ashe's widow.
''She was crying,'' Zondi said.
Accompanied by officials from the United States Embassy,
Moutoussamy-Ashe brought a collection of books from Ashe's 3,000-volume
collection, pledged to send a large photo of Ashe to be mounted in the
clubhouse and promised to donate some of his trophies, Zondi said.
''It was a very emotional visit for me,'' said Moutoussamy-Ashe, who
praised Smith and Bacher for their enthusiasm and called Zondi
''incredible and inspiring.''
From the clubhouse, she saw an astonishing renaissance. The eight
tennis courts had been resurfaced and restored to mint condition, with
rows of new spectator benches.
A modern yellow-and-red-brick library building, for which Zondi raised
an extra nine million rand (more than $1.2 million), had risen near the
front security gates. Inside, the visitors saw bays for computers and
compact disc players, a wall of 50 lockers beside a play/study area for
younger children and space for about 120 adults to hold meetings and to
read or study.
Seeing the library, Moutoussamy-Ashe said, was the ''most satisfying
and inspiring part of the visit.'' She said she was stunned to find a
library so close to ''the exact same spot Arthur had built the courts
30 years before.''
She said: ''I cannot think of a more fitting tribute to Arthur or to
the people of Soweto. Arthur would have been so honored and extremely
For the future, Zondi and Smith are seeking money to hire a
professional tennis coach and a development director, looking for
sponsors to finance a major African regional tennis tournament and
searching for funds to stage Davis Cup or Federation Cup competitions.
Zondi insists that with the equivalent of $100,000 in donations, the
center can develop young black South Africans into world-class tennis
players within six years.
For Ashe, a voracious reader and student of foreign affairs, watching
young South Africans use the new library would be reward enough, and a
true testament to his legacy.
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