Papwa Sewgolum – From Pariah to Legend

Posted on October 2, 2010


by Christopher Nicholson (Wits University Press, 2005)

reviewed by Terry Bell

Finally it’s there for all to read: the full story of one of South Africa’s greatest golfers, Papwa Sewsunker Sewgolum, and his appalling treatment as a victim of apartheid, reflected against that of another great golfer and beneficiary of the system, Gary Player. Written by former human rights lawyer, amateur golfer and now judge Christopher Nicholson, Papwa Sewgolum – From Pariah to Legend is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the past in the context of the present.

Most importantly, this book clears away much of the murk and misinformation that has peppered often angry exchanges about the 1963 incident that gave the greatest impetus to the international anti-apartheid sports boycott campaign. That was the shameful occasion when Papwa, finally given the opportunity to compete in a truly open tournament, won the Natal Open golf championship.

The picture that shook the sporting world was of Papwa having his trophy hurriedly handed to him in the rain as the rest of the players — all classified “white” — sheltered in the clubhouse. “It was only a drizzle; it was hardly raining,” was one of the excuses offered up.

Gary Player also noted in a recent interview that it was not raining hard; that “there was a red carpet” and that he had stood with Papwa. But Player was not even there, although this mistake has often been made.

But shameful though it was, had 1963 been the occasion when Papwa beat Player in the Natal Open, it might have been slightly better for Player’s image. For it was after this event that shook the international sporting world that Gary Player went on to pen his infamous lines: “I am a man of Verwoerd and apartheid” in his book, Grand Slam Golf.

The book was only published in 1966, the year after Gary Player was beaten in the Natal Open by Papwa Sewgolum. It did not rain on that occasion, but Gary Player questioned
whether Papwa’s score card was correct. It was and Papwa was handed his trophy, although, apparently in their haste, the officials forgot to give him his cheque for winning; that was handed to him through a window of the clubhouse.

Nicholson, ever the lawyer, does not make assumptions or draw conclusions about motivation; he merely puts the record straight. And he has done it in an extremely accessible way.

The writing is clear and unemotional and and explains simply the game of golf in which two talented South Africans took part at the same time. Both professed only to be golfers, uninterested in politics, but as Nicholson shows, Player — the “pretty twin” — although he changed his public position as circumstances changed in South Africa, was deeply involved in the apartheid-support system established by the state.

Papwa — the “ugly sibling” — on the other hand, even embarrassed his hosts in India by insisting when he played there, that the South African flag be flown alongside those representing the countries of other players in the tournament. And the “Pretty twin” never challenged the fact that one of the few golfers in the world capable of beating him was banned by racism from even making a living out of golf, while Player went on to become a multi-millionaire.

There is only one serious error in the text and one which City Press readers may spot: making a passing reference to other sporting greats such as the boxer Jack Ntuli who were forced out of South Africa by apartheid, Nicholson mentions “Precious Mkhize [who] became the British Commonwealth weightlifting champion in Jamaica in 1966.

He meant, of course, Precious McKenzie, the fly and bantamweight lifter who has won more Olympic, Commonwealth and world championship medals than any other South African sportsman ever. But this editing error does not detract from a highly informative book on a long overdue subject.

* Originally published 06/2008

Posted in: Archive - 2008