From jail to fairway on march to freedom
Golf also played its part in South Africa's sporting renaissance, says Dermot Gilleece
When they bury Nelson Mandela today, a long-time friend, who also happens to have been a gifted golfer, will feel the parting more than most. For Andrew Mlangeni spent 18 years on Robben Island in a cell beside the man he knew only as Madiba.
Remarkably, he later became a member of the South African government's standing committee on sport and recreation and played a key role in bringing the World Cup of Golf to Erinvale, 30 miles from Cape Town. It was there, in late November 1996, that I met him when he partnered Ernie Els in the pre-tournament pro-am.
I remember noting that it was about 15 miles from Robben Island to the nearest golf club in Cape Town. Yet it might have been an ocean away for all the relevance it had for a keen 12-handicapper who had become a political prisoner of his country's apartheid system.
Then, in dramatically changed times at Erinvale, there was the sight of 71-year-old Mlangeni walking off the 18th green, a baseball cap covering his receding hairline. A white spectator, clearly moved by the occasion, was heard to remark as a simple statement of fact: "Less than three years ago, he wouldn't have been allowed inside these gates. Amazing, isn't it?"
It surely was. For not only was the ANC member of parliament competing in the same team as the country's foremost tournament professional, he had leading industrialist, Johann Rupert, and merchant banker, Nick Padgen, as playing colleagues. And from my observations, he acquitted himself admirably.
When I approached Mlangeni on the completion of his round, he complained of tiredness, though there was also palpable delight at his day's sport. "It was my first time on the course and I had a few pars," he said cheerfully. "It was also my first time to play with Ernie, which I consider to be a great honour."
Els, who had won the World Matchplay at Wentworth a month previously, had obviously seen us in conversation and on hearing that last remark, came across and said: "It was more of an honour for me to play with this man, when I think that he was held in a place for as long as my age." Then he added with a smile: "Mr Mlangeni made a good contribution to our team score."
I later discovered that during school days in Johannesburg, Mlangeni was introduced to golf as a caddie, back in 1937. "Soon after I left school in 1947 I started playing, but in those days, Soweto didn't have much of a course," he recalled. Still, with a keen eye and an orthodox method, he developed a useful game.
Involvement in politics from 1958, however, meant an end to his golfing activities. And there was clearly no chance of a return to the fairways when he was sentenced to life imprisonment (26 years) in 1964 at the same trial as Mandela. Eventually, on being released from Robben Island, Mlangeni was invited by his brother-in-law to the Soweto Country Club where, close to 40 years after he had last hit a shot, he took up the game again. Now, at 88, he is one of only three surviving co-defendants of what became known at the Rivonia Trial in which ANC leaders faced charges for terrorism.
There is an iconic photograph of Mandela standing beside Els in his moment of victory in the 1995 South African PGA Championship. From then on, the great man made a point of phoning Els every time he won a tournament and though he wasn't at Erinvale, there was no doubting the importance of the event to the hosts.
In the new South Africa, sporting success had quickly become a way of life. And Els reflected the mood by declaring: "The Boks won the Rugby World Cup and Bafana Bafana [national soccer team] the African Nations Cup. Now it's our turn to produce the goods."
It was, in fact, the event's first staging on the African continent and it came 15 years after the diplomatic flare-up of 1981 when the organisers failed in an attempt at bringing it to Waterville. To its credit, our Government formally objected to the participation of South Africa which meant no World Cup that year.
For the one-time sporting pariahs, however, Erinvale was worth the wait. Thousands thronged the fairway ropes to see Els and his partner, Wayne Westner, march triumphantly to a record-breaking victory on 29-under par, 18 strokes clear of their closest challengers from the US.
In capturing the trophy for a third time, South Africa also had the top two individual scorers, with Els finishing three strokes clear of his compatriot. This was done on only two previous occasions, by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer in 1964 and by John Mahaffey and Andy North in 1978. American dominance was emphatically broken.
On hearing of Mandela's death, Els recalled doing his national service in the air force at a time when the ANC was banned. He then spoke of a commercial flight to London on which Mandela, in the front seat, saw Els behind him, sitting with his daughter. "All of a sudden he didn't really want to see me anymore; he wanted to talk to my daughter," said the golfer. "He got Samantha to go up there and she sat on his lap and he spoke to her like she was his grandchild. He was just the most amazing person I have ever met."
For his part, Mlangeni spoke last week of how "a part of me is gone" with the passing of his friend. And I thought of 17 years ago and our approach towards Cape Town airport from the South Atlantic, and the pilot pointing out Robben Island.
It made for a fascinating arrival and an inescapable sense of a new beginning.