Sam Ramsamy chats about home, life and sport
OUR words spring to mind on meeting Sam Ramsamy: prompt, articulate, patient and pleasant.
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, threetins 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 remarried and had three more children.
After attending Depot 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 excel 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 lifesaver. “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 first 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 fish 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 return 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 become 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 explained 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 became 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 deflated 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 preparing 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.
Meeting soccer legend David Beckham and, below, with talk show host Oprah Winfrey.
Sam Ramsamy with US first lady Michelle Obama.
Sam Ramsamy with his wife Helga and football great Pele.
Sam Ramsamy as a young man (standing second from left) who enjoyed playing soccer.