Sam Ramsamy

Sam Ramsamy was the force behind the international boycott of South African swimming. 

He was awarded the first presidency of the new national governing body created after the dissolution of SAASU in 1991 - known as Swimming South Africa. He was the Chairman of South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SANROC, 1976-1990). Today he a member of the IOC as well as a FINA Vice president.

His swimming credential are not recorded anywhere on the internet, but there is mention of him as swimming coach in Durban, and he studied sports management and swim coaching in East Germany.  In 1973 he was a the "facilitator" for 5 SAASWIF swimmers on a tour to the UK in 1973. One of these swimmers was included Brian Hermanus, who was supposed to be ranked 25th in world in the 100m breaststroke. Hermanus was killed in car accident on 26 July 2000. He was the MEC for Sport Arts and Culture.

Rob Hatherley had won the event at SAASU 1973 nationals in Bulawayo  in  a time of 1:11,9. 

Click here to see an article on Otto Aquatics, where Sam Ramsamy was a swimming coach.

Now Ramsamy can join the club

15 June 1995

Sam Ramsamy is likely to be invited to become a member of the IOC—a just reward for his long battle against racism in sport, writes Julian Drew

ON a weekend when the Springboks and All Blacks will be battling it out for the right to face each other in next Saturday’s Rugby World Cup final, the man who battled so hard to keep them apart 19 years ago is expected to receive the highest accolade open to a sports administrator.

National Olympic Committee of South Africa (Nocsa) president Sam Ramsamy is in Budapest this week for the annual congress of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and it is widely believed that IOC president Juan Antonio Samaranch will invite him to become a member of the organisation.

For Ramsamy things have changed dramatically since the day back in July 1976 when he, as chairman of the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (Sanroc), and African IOC member Jean Claude Ganga, met Lance Cross and Sir Arthur Porritt at the Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal.

Cross was an IOC member and chairman of the New Zealand Olympic Committee while Porritt, a Kiwi bronze medallist in the 100m behind Harold Abrahams at the Chariots of Fire Olympics in Paris in 1924, was also a member of the IOC. At that very moment the All Blacks were already in South Africa on a rugby tour which was threatening to cause an African boycott of the Montreal Olympic Games.

Just a few weeks earlier Hector Peterson’s face was plastered across the world’s front pages as Soweto erupted into conflagration. The All Black team was caught in the cross fire between the people and the machinery of the apartheid regime as the South African Police fired teargas at demonstrators and some of the players were engulfed by the fumes.

“We told them—look, you’re humiliating yourselves, why don’t you withdraw the team from South Africa? This is an ideal opportunity to withdraw and if you do it now then everything can be saved. You will be treated with the highest respect within the IOC and there will be no boycott. That way everybody will save face,” recalls Ramsamy.

The two New Zealanders agreed to speak to their government and rugby authorities but that was the last Ramsamy and Ganga heard from them. Either they thought the Africans were calling their bluff and didn’t take the boycott threats seriously, or they just didn’t care. Whatever the truth behind the lack of response from the New Zealanders it is clear that the IOC, preoccupied with Canadian prime minister Pierre Trudeau’s attempts to exclude Taiwan from the Games, did not take the African boycott seriously.

By the time they woke up to the reality of it all it was too late. A few days after that meeting at the Elizabeth Hotel the Organisation of African Unity met in Mauritius and decided that Africa would pull out. Ramsamy and Ganga were devastated and had to stay on to supervise the withdrawal of the African teams who were already firmly ensconced in the Olympic Village.

“We didn’t want a complete boycott of the Games. Our idea was to withdraw Africans from events in which New Zealand took part thereby turning New Zealand into a pariah. We wanted to target New Zealand, not the Africans and the Olympic Games,” says Ramsamy.

Such feelings were understandable from Ramsamy. Having been deprived the opportunity to compete in his own country for so long he did not want to deny all the Africans their

Ramsamy was a keen sportsman as a youngster and his first knowledge of the Olympics came at an early age. “My first awareness of the Olympic Games was in 1948 when I was 10 and my father explained to me about the Games that were going on in London at the time from the newspapers.

“I’ve followed the progress of every Olympic Games since then,” says Ramsamy. “I remember the next one was in Helsinki in 1952 and I was involved in swimming by then. Joan Harrison won the 100m backstroke. I was in standard six and I didn’t understand the full implications of racism in sport by that stage. When she won I was overjoyed. It was my first experience of a South African winning a medal and she is still very special to me. Whenever she comes to any of our swimming championships I always ask her to present the medals,” says Ramsamy, who is now president of Swimming South Africa.

“I started becoming aware of De Coubertin’s ideas about the Olympics in 1956 in my matric year. That year the Olympics were in Melbourne and I remember thinking why can’t we have the Games in South Africa. This idea germinated inside me all those years ago but that was when I didn’t understand the political implications and I said wouldn’t it be great to have them here because then we could all take part. When we saw the Olympics we used to see the Jamaicans taking part and I didn’t realise that we as black South Africans couldn’t take part,” says Ramsamy.

Today the dream of Ramsamy and thousands of other South Africans could become a reality with Cape Town’s bid for the 2004 Olympic Games. If, as expected, Ramsamy becomes a member of the IOC, that task could become a lot easier. But more than that, his membership would be a fitting tribute to more than 30 years of tireless and selfless service to the cause of non-racial sport in South Africa. 

Sports and the liberation struggle : a tribute to Sam Ramsamy and others who fought apartheid sport

 E.S. Reddy
(Former Director, United Nations Centre against Apartheid).

In South Africa, as nowhere else, sports boycott made a great contribution to liberation. The Indian community can be proud that Indian sportspersons and administrators were in the vanguard of this front of the anti-apartheid struggle.

I would like to extend my congratulations to Sam (Samba) Ramsamy - the principal strategist of the struggle against apartheid sports from the mid-1970s - on his forthcoming 60th birthday on 27 January and take this opportunity to pay tribute to several others who fought apartheid sport at great sacrifice.

The issue of discrimination and segregation in sports was first raised during the Indian passive resistance campaign of 1946-48. George Singh, a football star, was among the leaders of that campaign.

A Committee for International Recognition was formed by non-racial sportsmen in 1955 and was succeeded by the South African Sports Association (SASA) in 1958 and the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (SAN-ROC) in 1963 - to fight against racism in sport and press for international recognition of the non-racial sports bodies in South Africa. Their leadership was largely from the Indian and Coloured communities as the Africans were not practising many of the codes of sport with international affiliations.

The International Table Tennis Federation recognised the non-racial South African Table Tennis Board (SATTB) in 1956 and expelled the white body from South Africa. The SATTB team was able to participate in the world championships in Stockholm in 1957. The apartheid regime then began to refuse passports to its teams, making it clear that no one would be allowed to compete internationally except through a white sports body.

International action against apartheid sport began in earnest in 1963. That was the year when Sewsunker "Papwa" Sewgolum, an Indian golf caddie, won the Natal Open Golf Championship (after winning the Dutch Open in 1959 and 1960). He was not allowed inside the clubhouse where whites were celebrating. The photograph of "Papwa" receiving his trophy in heavy rain outside appeared in many newspapers around the world and greatly helped the boycott of apartheid sport. (He was banned from all major tournaments in South Africa after 1963.)

Since SAN-ROC was prevented from sending representatives abroad, the British Anti-Apartheid Movement sent appeals to Olympic Committees and other national sports bodies to exclude apartheid sport from international competition. Abdul Samad Minty, honorary secretary of the Movement, lobbied delegates at the meeting of the International Olympic Committee in Baden in October 1963 on behalf of SAN-ROC. The IOC adopted a proposal by India which led to the exclusion of South Africa from the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. It was formally expelled from the IOC in 1970.

The response of the authorities was repression against the non-racial sports movement.

Dennis Brutus, secretary of SASA and later President of SAN-ROC, was refused a passport and served with stringent "banning orders". He managed to escape to Mozambique in 1963 and tried to go to the IOC meeting, but the Portuguese authorities handed him over to South Africa. He was incarcerated on Robben Island and left for Britain on release. John Harris, Chairman of SANROC, was also refused a passport, restricted and then detained. Utterly frustrated, he joined a white armed resistance movement and was executed in 1965. George Singh was served with banning orders in 1964. SAN-ROC was paralysed, until it was revived in London in 1966.

The Vorster regime also began openly to interfere in sports. It issued a Proclamation in February 1965, under the "Group Areas Act", prohibiting any mixed sports or even mixed audiences, except by permit. (Until then, segregation in sport was by "custom", not law). In the few cases when permits were granted, the organisers were required to separate spectators by race, with six-foot wire fences, and provide separate entrances, toilets, canteens etc. In some events, only Coloured people and Indians were allowed.

Because of this blatant intervention and repression by the government, the United Nations General Assembly decided in 1968 to call upon all States and organisations to suspend sporting exchanges with South African bodies which practise apartheid. The UN Special Committee against Apartheid began actively to promote the sports boycott all over the world.

Action by anti-apartheid groups, Afro-Asian countries and the United Nations dealt severe defeats to apartheid sport. Apartheid became a major public issue in countries with which South Africa sought sports exchanges.

A rugby tour of Britain in 1969 proved a disaster because of public demonstrations; the British Government was obliged to prevent a cricket tour in 1970 when Afro-Asian countries threatened to boycott the Commonwealth Games.

Massive demonstrations greeted the South African rugby tour of Australia in 1971. The South African team had to be transported in Australian Air Force planes because of trade union action. More than 700 demonstrators were arrested and many were injured because of police brutality. The State of Queensland declared a state of emergency during the tour, provoking a general strike by the trade unions.

The Conservative Government hoped to arouse racist passions and win the next elections, but it was roundly defeated. The Labour Party Government of Gough Whitlam announced a boycott of apartheid sport.

A proposed rugby tour of New Zealand was also aborted because of public opposition and a threat by India and African countries to boycott the Commonwealth Games in Christchurch in 1974.

These campaigns strengthened the anti-apartheid movements and provided tremendous publicity to the struggle for freedom in South Africa. But the successes led to new challenges.

South Africa remained a member of many international sports federations with the help of its Western friends who enjoyed weighted voting in several codes of sport like tennis. The struggle had to be carried on each of these bodies.

While South African tours of other countries could be disrupted by public action, it was much more difficult to prevent sports administrators in Britain, New Zealand and other countries from organising tours to South Africa.

To overcome the boycotts, South Africa began to send teams abroad with no advance publicity and to spend millions of rand to entice sportsmen and teams from abroad to play in South Africa. It announced "concessions" from time to time, none of which satisfied the Olympic principle of non-discrimination, but were meant to deceive the gullible.

The new situation required SAN-ROC to intensify action with constant vigilance and a multi-pronged strategy. But it had hardly any resources. Dennis Brutus had moved to the United States where he became a professor of English literature and could not give adequate attention to the day- to-day work of SAN-ROC.

Fortunately, two important developments took place at this time.

The South African Council on Sport (SACOS) was established in 1973 as a non-racial sports federation, with M. N. Pather as secretary-general. Uncompromising on apartheid, it played a crucial role as a partner of SAN-ROC in reinforcing the international boycott. Its declaration that there could be "no normal sport in an abnormal society" was a powerful antidote to the propaganda of the apartheid regime and the maneuvers of white sports bodies which made false claims of non-discrimination.

Leaders of SACOS suffered persecution but refused to be intimidated. The passport of M. N. Pather was seized when he was preparing to go to New York for consultations at the invitation of the United Nations. The passport of Morgan Naidoo, President of the SA Amateur Swimming Federation, was withdrawn in 1973 to prevent him from attending the meeting of the International Swimming Federation; and he was banned after the apartheid swimming body was expelled by ISF.

Secondly, Sam Ramsamy - a sportsman, administrator and college lecturer in physical education from Durban - managed to leave for Germany to represent the non-racial sports bodies during the Munich Olympics. After a year of study at Leipzig, he arrived in London in 1974. A founding member of SACOS, he joined SAN-ROC, linking internal and external resistance, became chairman of SAN-ROC in 1976 and executive chairman in 1978. He proved to be ideally suited to lead the campaign in the new stage.

A tireless campaigner, he was adept at bringing people together to work as a team. He established excellent relations with African, Indian, Caribbean and other sports federations, and secured recognition for SACOS from the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa. He maintained close contact with anti-apartheid groups around the world. He also developed personal contacts with many sports editors - and South African correspondents in London - so that the boycott received great attention. Above all, he was in constant consultation with colleagues in South Africa and secured close cooperation between SAN-ROC and the ANC leadership in exile.

New successes were achieved.

In 1976, when New Zealand Rugby Federation toured South Africa, soon after the Soweto massacre, the New Zealand Olympic Committee declined even to express regret. African countries then withdrew from the Montreal Olympics. Concerned about possible disruption of Commonwealth Games, the white Commonwealth countries agreed to the "Gleneagles Agreement" of 1977 to discourage competition with South African teams; a similar declaration was adopted by sports ministers of the Council of Europe the next year.

There was thus the beginning of action at a governmental level in Western countries and of "third party boycott" (of teams and countries collaborating with apartheid sport).

Sam, who was at the time deputy principal of a large Middle School in London, resigned his job to work full time for SAN-ROC at great personal sacrifice. He also had to face attacks and threats from the friends of apartheid: but he and his wife, Helga, never wavered.

He accepted my invitation in 1978 to work for three months as a consultant to the United Nations. While performing this assignment, he was able to establish contact with United Nations bodies and many governments. I was in constant communication with him since then and was greatly impressed by his ability as an organiser of public action, as well as his diplomacy in persuading governments and sports federations to lend support.

A United Nations committee began in 1978 to draft an international convention against apartheid sport which would provide for action against those continuing to play with South Africa. Its task proved extremely difficult. Many governments which supported boycott of apartheid sport were concerned that the "third party boycott" might disrupt international sport. The Soviet Union, for instance, was concerned about the effect on the Moscow Olympics.

Intense negotiations had to be carried on for several years. Sam, because of his personal friendship with leaders of many national Olympic Committees and his knowledge of their concerns, was of great help to the UN Committee. The Convention was finally approved in 1985 and was signed by many countries.

Meanwhile, on my suggestion, the UN Special Committee against Apartheid initiated in 1980 a "Register of Sports Contacts with South Africa", listing all sportsmen who participated in events in South Africa. Though the United Nations did not recommend specific action against these violators of the boycott, several governments prohibited them from entering or playing in their countries. Those who profited from apartheid, and showed contempt for the majority of the South African people, they said, would not be allowed to make money in their countries.

I can now disclose that Sam Ramsamy provided us the lists of sportsmen and sports administrators, publicised the UN Registers, contacted many government and sports bodies to secure action against collaborators and persuaded scores of listed sportsmen to undertake not to play in South Africa again.

As revulsion against apartheid spread around the world, more countries began to take action against those on the Registers. Hundreds of city councils and local authorities in Britain and other Western countries denied them use of their sports facilities.

The Special Committee also decided, on the suggestion of Sam, to commend sportsmen, sports administrators and others who made significant contributions to the boycott of apartheid sports. Most of the citations were, in fact, given on his recommendation.

Meanwhile, there was effective public action in every country with which South Africa hoped to maintain sports contacts. In this respect, I must make special mention of the contribution of many Indians - notably Kader Asmal in Ireland, Hanif Bhamjee in Wales, and Jasmat Dhiraj and Bobby Naidoo in London.

International boycott of apartheid sport was nearly complete in the 1980's - South Africa was expelled from most international sports bodies. The International Olympic Committee adopted a declaration against "apartheid in sport" in June 21, 1988, for the total isolation of apartheid sport. Sam was an honoured guest at meetings of the IOC.

The time had come, however, to prepare for the possibilities which opened up for a negotiated settlement in South Africa.

As the sports bodies from South Africa began to approach the ANC and undertake meaningful measures, Sam maintained close contact with the ANC headquarters in Lusaka to avoid any appearance of differences. When a black sports body, NOCSA, emerged in South Africa, he encouraged international support to it. As a result, SAN-ROC was able to ensure a smooth transition from boycott to cooperation for non-racial sport.

Sam was always firm that it was not enough to have mixed sports bodies or teams. The sports bodies must undertake to devote resources to provide facilities and training to the majority of the people who had, for too long, suffered from discrimination. That has been one of his main concerns as head of the national Olympic committee.

As South Africa proceeds to develop sport on truly non-racial lines, I hope that the Ministry of Sport and the Olympic Committee will find ways to publicise the long struggle that had to be waged and honour the fighters against apartheid sport who deserve a place in the hall of fame.

Sam Ramsamy chats about home, life and sport

30 Sep 2015

The 77-year-old has met sporting legends, presidents, prime ministers and celebrities but there are no airs and graces.

During an interview at the Beverly Hills Hotel in uMhlanga last week, we sifted through old and recent photographs.

One was of him with Brazilian football great Pele. Another showed him greeting former US president Bill Clinton and a third was with Queen Elizabeth. Ramsamy, who was born and raised at Magazine Barracks in Somtseu Road, Durban, has come far.

“Our family lived in a simple two-room home with a kitchen,” he said. “The toilets and bathroom were communal. Our home was one of the few that had electricity. “As a child, I did not understand apartheid.

Everything was exciting. I recall playing goolie dhanda, marbles, three tins and hop scotch with my cousins and close friends. I enjoyed the system back then of communal living,” he said. He and his sister were raised by their parents – Rungan, a clerical worker at the Durban municipality, and Rungama, who died when he was 5. His father later re married and had three more children.

After attending De pot Road Primary, Ramsamy, who counted maths among his favourite subjects, was the only child from Magazine Barracks to win a bursary to high school. “Sastri College was the only high school around Durban at that time and the competition to get in was tough.

The other high schools were in Verulam, Umzinto and Pietermaritzburg,” he recalled. Not only did Ramsamy ex cel academically at Sastri but his prowess in sports was evident. He played football, did athletics and swam.

After he matriculated in 1956, options for pursuing tertiary education were restricted – due to apartheid and a lack of funding. “I wanted to do a science course at Fort Hare but my father could not afford it, so I completed a teaching diploma at Springfield Teacher Training College in 1958.”

The first school Ramsamy taught at was Sawete Primary on the South Coast. He remained there until 1961 then moved to Mayville School until 1966. He was made a sports master and in charge of all sporting codes.

By this stage, he was also a volunteer life saver. “I was a member of the Durban Indian Lifesaving Club and worked over weekends at Battery Beach. We ensured the beach was safe and instructed bathers to swim within demarcated areas.

Saving lives was occasional due to the high level of safety.” Ramsamy, who was also involved in coaching soccer, athletics and swimming, said it reached a stage where he realised he had to further his knowledge in sports coaching, because opportunities were non-existent for people of colour. He decided to travel to England to get certified.

“My family was concerned but I assured them I would return. I went for three years (1966 to 1969), until I received all my coaching diplomas and a diploma in physical and health education.”

His impression of England? “I felt for the rst time that I was a human being. I did not have to worry about looking out for signs meant for Europeans or non-Europeans. I could get on any bus and go into any restaurants. I didn’t have enough money back then,” he laughed. “But I queued for sh and chips just like any other person.”

There was, however, a stumbling block. “The money I saved was not enough for fees and boarding. But within a week of arrival I secured a teaching post, as my diploma from the Springfield Teacher Training College was internationally recognised.

Ramsamy taught in the east end of London for two years and saved enough for a physical education course at the Carnegie College of Physical Education in Leeds. He graduated with a diploma and returned to South Africa in 1969. “I always knew I would re turn home. My aim was to pass on the knowledge I gained.”

He was the only person of Indian origin to have received this diploma and continued to coach and administer sports until 1971. “I coached top class football teams like Aces United in the non-racial South African Soccer League, which was part of the South African Football Federation. I also coached athletics and swimming and never accepted remuneration from whoever I coached.”

The anti-apartheid activist, who also taught at the Springfield Teacher Training College, became involved in activities to fortify non-racial sport in South Africa with George Singh, Morgan Naidoo and MN Pather. Ramsamy said that it was while he was president of the Natal High School Sports Association, that a turning point in his career happened.


“In 1971 South Africa was commemorating the 10th anniversary of the founding of the Republic of South Africa and I applied to the college to be come a full-time lecturer, but I did not get the post. “The head of department of physical education, Adrian Liversage, recommended me for the post but for the first time his recommendation was not accepted. He made enquiries and was told confidentially I was being watched by the Special Branch (police), who believed I was an instigator of boycotts in the run up to the anniversary games.”

The best non-white high school athletes, he said, would purposefully fall or get penalised for false starts. “Adrian called and asked if I had a passport. He ex plained what he learnt from the head of department and said that within six months to a year, they would have enough evidence to arrest me. Added to this, I was part of the campaign to de-racialise sport in the country.

So in 1972 I was forced to go to England or face arrest.” Ramsamy remained in London until 1991 working as a teacher and for the South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (Sanroc). It campaigned for the isolation of apartheid sports internationally. In 1973, Ramsamy completed another course in physical health education at the Karl Marx University (now University of Leipzig) in East Germany, the top sporting nation in the world at the time. He also met his wife Helga – they tied the knot in 1978. In 1976 Ramsamy be came the chairman of Sanroc, taking over from Dennis Brutus.

The same year, Sanroc, in conjunction with the African sports movement the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa, expelled South Africa from Fifa (the International Football Association), the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) and FINA (international swimming federation). “It formed part of the campaign to isolate South Africa, because most of the people who competed in sports overseas were white, which meant they now could not compete.

This boosted the morale of black people and defeated white sportsmen, who were termed pariahs internationally. It was a campaign against apartheid.” The ban was lifted in July 1991 when the ANC was preparing for the first democratic elections in 1994. Ramsamy, who returned to South Africa in 1991, was part of the consultative process. “

The lifting of the ban meant all South Africans could take part in all sports. It also meant that I and the National Sports Congress, which I was a member of, had to restructure sport in the country.” Another coup in Ramsamy’s life came when he became president of the National Olympic Committee of South Africa in 1991, holding the position until 2004.

To Ramsamy, a member of the International Olympic Committee, sports will continue to play an integral part of his life. At 77, he is pre paring to head for Budapest next month to work with the ministries of sport, education and health to promote sports’ benefits to both the body and the mind.

He lives in Gauteng but spends at least three months of the year in Durban. He enjoys writing columns and articles and authored the book Reflection on a Life in Sport in 2004