Honorary whites

In apartheid-era South Africa, the government sometimes designated specific people or whole ethnic groups as “honorary whites.” But not everyone accepted it.

Arthur Ashe
Rob Bogaerts / Anefo, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

When the New Zealand rugby team toured South Africa in 1976 (triggering the African Olympic boycott), the team had six non-white players. Those five Māori players and one player of Samoan ethnicity were offered “honorary white” status by the apartheid government. This dubious designation meant that they could do things like buy alcohol or go into white-only businesses, trains, hospitals… everything that would otherwise be closed to them because of their skin colour.

It was not only visiting sports teams that were afforded this “right.” When South Africa had a diplomatic win with some other countries, they included the honorary white status for people from that country. Following a big trade agreement with Japan in 1962, all Japanese people were “upgraded” from Asian to white status in the country.

(This, by the way, was rather insulting to the Chinese citizens of South Africa – who only received their own status change in 1984.)

Some of those sportspeople with honorary white status weren’t too pleased about apartheid; they made a point of thumbing their noses at every turn:

Throughout the tour, Bush was provocative. He invited black girls to official functions to aggravate Afrikaners saying they were “Maori girls from Rotorua”. He repeatedly made his way into the hotel kitchens to meet the black workers, ventured to East London to mingle with blacks despite knowing it was frowned on, and went to white areas at night to defy the curfew which forbade non-whites in the city at night.

Rugby: Once was hatred

But probably the most famous clash between South Africa and a non-white sportsperson was the American tennis player Arthur Ashe.

In the 1960s, the South African Open was one of the top six international tennis tournaments. And Ashe really wanted to play in this tournament. He applied for a South African visa in 1969, and set off a behind-the-scenes political furor. (I’m not kidding – apparently even Richard Nixon got involved!) The South African government, citing some of Ashe’s anti-apartheid statements, refused the visa.

In response to this snub, the International Lawn Tennis Federation suspended South Africa from the 1970 Davis Cup. And Ashe? He kept applying for that visa. And in 1973, surprisingly, South Africa let him in. It was probably a quid pro quo in order to lift the Davis Cup suspension, and to help with their suspension from the Olympics. Ashe accepted the visa on three conditions:

Ashe requested that all facilities where he would play were integrated, that he would not be given honorary white status by the South African government (as many visiting African Americans, such as Percy Sledge and Eartha Kitt had been), and that he would be allowed to visit any part of the country he wanted to.

Black and White at Center Court: Arthur Ashe and the Confrontation of Apartheid in South Africa

Ashe hoped to shine a light on apartheid and chip away at its support, but contemporaries were divided on whether him going there at all did that or played into the government’s hands. In any case, he played in the 1973 South African Open, coming second in the singles and winning the doubles. Ashe would return to South Africa another three times. He never received honorary white status, and after his 1977 visit he never played in South Africa again.

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