In a land of profound sadness and disquiet

I love black Africa. I cannot tell you why, but there is something about the land south of the Sahara which is very different to any other. There is a magic there which you smell in the air, feel in the warmth and hear in the breezes. There is a pulse - a joy - to living. You can never quite pin down what makes it special for there is nothing perfect about the place. It is maddening to have to deal with "African time" - nothing ever gets done - and sometimes the corruption and poverty makes one sick, but once bitten by Africa, it is hard to get away.

Years ago I was introduced to black Africa on the Paris-Dakar Rally. Each year, when January came along, I was aware of an urge to return. Initially that pull was so strong that, like an addict faced with the prospect of going cold turkey, I gave in and went off to Africa on holiday.

I was very much looking forward to going to South Africa. I had never been before, did not know what to expect and tried to keep an open mind about the politics.

Talking to the old F1 lags about the good old days at Kyalami, one quickly realized that they loved the place. The sunshine, the good life and a great racing track.

The great race track has gone. The good life is under threat from political change. Only the sunshine remains the same.

Above the modern track a castle has been built. Today it is the personal home of a very wealthy man, but inside, so they said, is a full-blown casino, waiting for the South African government to change its gambling laws. It is either a brilliant investment, or a castle in the air...

Such optimism seems ill-placed in modern-day South Africa for one knows that a reckoning is coming. The leafy avenues, shopping malls - designer Africa, if you wish - are doomed. The whites, who have enjoyed this country in its time-warp, now have to pay the price for the policies instituted by their forefathers.

One should not condemn them, merely feel sorry for them. South Africa is their home as much as England is the home of the countless thousands of West Indians, Pakistanis and other races who have settled there.

In South Africa the whites have their backs to the wall. Although the ANC is pushing for compromise, there are extreme black elements pushing for faster change. In addition there is a very real problem of drought and international isolation. Farmers are struggling. Already many have been driven off the land by high interest rates and falling land prices (prime farm land is going for as little as #50 a hectare.

Perhaps integration can be achieved without violence, but the likelihood is that this will not be the case. Even as the F1 playthings were screaming around Kyalami the local papers were warning of "a culture of weapons".

Many South Africans now own a weapon of some sort or another. These range from "a half-brick" (a safety device for the township commuter) or a revolver kept in a safe by the bed. There are more than 3 million licenced arms and heaven knows how many illegal ones.

'It is a sad commentary on lifestyles,' said the article, 'a psyche of violence seems to be growing day by day.'

Whether South Africa tips into civil war or emerges in an atmosphere of compromise will - to a great extent - depend on the result of the referendum next Tuesday when five million white South Africans vote in a referendum on whether or not to support the continuation of the reforms which are aimed at a new constitution through negotiation with the blacks.

The reforms have already had a great deal of effect - both at home and abroad - for South Africa. All the major parties are engaged in peaceful negotiations, terrorism has been reduced, national military service has been cut from two years to one and foreign loans are beginning to become available. International isolation, sanctions and boycotts are fading. South African sportsmen have returned to the playing fields of the world.

In the run-up to the referendum, the papers are full of adverts warning of the effects of a No vote. The most striking in Grand Prix week was one which showed a racing track littered with the wreckage of a car. 'Without reform,' it said, 'South Africa hasn't got a sporting chance'.

Sport is important to the South Africans. Sports mania is sweeping the country as Kepler Wessels and the South African team do battle in the cricket World Cup Down Under. Sport is normality, an echo of the good days. The GP highlighted the feeling that the country is coming out of the dark ages. There was enthusiasm in the crowd at Kyalami, but it was as if the GP was a signal that all will be well, despite the uncertainties and the fears.

Sport is a very powerful form of propaganda. A tool in the image-building process. At Kyalami the girls on the grid were multi-racial and the ANC's Cyril Ramaphosa bumped into foreign minister Pik Botha on the grid, but these were just photo opportunities. There was no real integration involved and one should not pretend otherwise. It was a white festival, a chance to show South Africa as it really isn't. The blacks either could not afford the tickets or chose not to attend.

When it comes to money, of course, F1 comes into its own. The money men of F1 do not care about politics or propaganda. Do not believe for one minute that F1 left South Africa in the mid-eighties because it wanted to. The honest truth is that more and more international sponsors did not wish to be associated with the country, which was bad for their international images. It was solely a question of money.

F1 tried hard at Kyalami not to get involved in politics.

'I am a sportsman,' said Nigel Mansell when asked about the political situation, 'and I talk about my sport and F1. I am not going to talk about politics. I am just happy that world international relations with South Africa are such that the country is back in the Olympics and we are racing here. That is all that matters.'

Is it really?

Sport does have responsibilities and simply ignoring the rights and wrongs of a situation is not, perhaps, the answer. I do not claim to have an answer to this question, but I do believe that there is a certain naivety in motor sport about what is happening in the world. People are too busy taking themselves too seriously to worry about the real world and, in doing so, are putting themselves forward to be criticized.

Like it or not, there are much more important issues than F1. A journalist friend of mine tells a story which highlights, dramatically, the way F1 is. Back in 1980, during the American election campaign, he asked an F1 driver what he thought of Jimmy Carter.

"Who does he drive for?" came the reply.

Only last year another driver was asked what he thought of the goings-on in Moscow, as the country was falling apart.

"It's okay," he replied. "Bernie says we don't have to race there."

This sort of blindness was the undoing of the Paris-Dakar (and Paris-Cape Town) rallies. On the Paris-Dakar they sent the route through a war zone and were surprised when someone was shot and killed. On the Paris-Cape Town they complained that the military escort promised for one particularly dangerous stage did not materialize. Why? Because the unit in question was fighting a pitched battle with guerillas a few miles up the road...

I am not arguing against the GP going to South Africa. I just want people to be fully aware of what they are doing. The fact they do not is shocking. They are putty in the hands of those who might wish to exploit them.

But, be it cynical or naive (or both), Grand Prix racing goes to where money is made available. Such cynicism was underlined the other day when the Brabham team came up for discussion. Giovanna Amati attracted the lion's share of the press coverage in South Africa, enabling the team to pick up all manner of local sponsorship deals.

"They should change the name Brabham and call it Team Novelty," suggested one evil soul. "If they fired Eric Van de Poele and hired Willy T Ribbs imagine the exposure they would get. A girl and a black man would really bring in the cash."

The implication is that Giovanna should not be in F1. In the macho world of F1 the presence of a woman racer is a threat to those with fragile egos (of which there are several hundred). The only means of defence is ridicule.

I have to say I was impressed by Amati. She did not have a hope in hell of qualifying but she kept her head down, dealt with the press and her lap times came down bit by bit. There is still a long way to go before she qualifies for a race, but - in all probability - she will do it this year. When I suggested this to a friend in Australia, he kindly offered to buy me a bottle of the best Australian red wine every time Giovanna was successful. I accepted gracefully. Later, chatting to Brabham boss Dennis Nursey, I mentioned the deal and he kindly offered to buy me a similar bottle every time Giovanna did not qualify.

Finally, a bet I cannot lose.

Go for it, Giovanna. I am willing to share my winnings with my Australian pal. It will help him to wash down the humble pie he will have to eat.

The lighter moments aside, I did not enjoy South Africa. It was not the Africa I know and love. The joyful pulse of black Africa was lost in the leafy rich suburbs and fast freeways from the airport. It felt like Australia or parts of the United States.

And, beneath this rich facade there was a heart-rending disquiet. It may be a paradise, but what good is paradise if you have to build high walls and buy guns to protect it?

I left Johannesburg feeling profoundly sad.

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