Sam Ram­samy chats about home, life and sport

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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.

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