Just as South Africa tried to win sympathy for its racial policies through covert attempts to influence public opinion as revealed in the recent Information Department scandal, it hoped to exploit the World Boxing Association's heavyweight title to reduce its isolation in international sports because of those policies.
As Sports Minister Punt Janson said to South African Gerrie Coetzee before he met American John Tate in last Saturday's title fight, "Gerrie, if you win tonight . . . together with other South African world champions like Gary Player, Jody Scheckter, and Kork Ballington, [you] will have proved to the world that sports boycotts have no effect whatsoever on the quality of sports in South Africa."
But, what was "to have been the great leap forward," as one South African sportswriter put it, "turned instead into a wake for South African boxing." The fight showed that the isolation South Africa has suffered for more than 15 years does indeed affect its sports.
First, South Africans now realize that their boxing expertise lags far behind the best. "This defeat, when a victory was so important, came as a just punishment to South African boxing as a whole," wrote sportswriter Chris Swanepoel in The Citizen -- a newspaper founded with government money but now owned privately.
"For too long now, and without any justification, have we been walking tall under a cloud of 'seen it all and know it all.' Yet, the truth of the matter is that we are just still amateurs. We just don't know what professional boxing outside our little small world is about," Swanepoel wrote.
American promoter Bob Arum, who staged the championship fight, remarked, "I have seen enough boxing in South Africa to know that your trainers, though dedicated and trying their best . . . lack the knowledge and know how of their American counterparts."
Normal contacts in worldwide boxing events, especially in the Olympics from which South Africa has been barred since 1966, might have given South African trainers the edge they needed to make Coetzee a winner.
Second, the country's isolation hinders trainers from working objectively with their own sports figures. Before the fight newspapers had virtually named Coetzee the champ and today's editions had to do some facesaving and not always convincing backpedaling.
When the opposition newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail, criticized Coetzee and suggested he might not win, Coetzee's manager, Hal Tucker called the paper "unpatriotic" and "destructive of things in South African."
White South Africa's isolation in another respect -- from its own black population -- was also underscored by the title bout. The victory of Tate, a black American from Knoxville, Tenn., caused dancing in the streets of Soweto, the all-black satellite township of more than a million, and thus tarnished white South Africa's promotion of Coetzee as the hero of all South Africans, black and white.
Before the fight, the Rand Daily Mail provided a keyhole view of the political dilemma forced on South African blacks by the white minority's racial policies.
The paper asked its black readers to say who they were rooting for. Forty-two respondents said they backed Tate because he is black and 42 said they were cheering for Coetzee because he is South African. Three other respondents did not give a choice.
One writer who signed himself "Monate," put the problem this way: "gerrie Coetzee is a wonderful person; handsome, good-natured, honest and, most important, a gentleman . . . But to me, a black South African, a lot of things have shaped my reasoning and outlook on my life for my past 30 years.
"This country's policies have drummed it into me that I must never hope to have a white man as a friend nor as a countryman, for that matter. I must go my 'separate,' 'pluralistic' and recently 'cooperative' ways. To us it is not Coetzee vs. Tate, it is not South Africa vs. America. It is black vs. white. We cannot help it . . . My sympathies are with Gerrie . . . who is truly a great fellow . . . But it's Tate for me."
The aftermath of the Information Department scandal, the worst in this country's history, includes suspicion about the management of all South Africa's international endeavors. The championship fight did not escape.
There was speculation that government money helped set up the match in the same way that more than $72 million was channeled to secret influence buying projects by former Information Secretary Eschel Rhoodie.
The chairman of the South African Professional Boxing Board of Control, Hendrick Kloppers, explained how after consulting with the South African Cabinet, the boxing establishment here joined the WBA in 1974. This was at the height of Rhoodie's clandestine activities. Kloppers was quickly elected a vice president of the WBA and last year he came second in voting for the presidency, according to Arum.
"As a nation under the influence of [the secret organization of Afrikaner men] the Broederbond, the policy was to get control of sports bodies to control sports. So it would have been a logical thing for them to try and buy WBA votes," said one sports observer.
For some it was also curious to see how quickly South Africans Kallie Knoetze and Gerrie Coetzee moved to the top of the WBA rankings, putting them in direct line for Saturday's fight.
However, no evidence has surfaced that the government was involved in arranging Saturday's fight. CAPTION: Picture, American fighter John Tate holds aloft the $27,000 golden belt he won in his fight Saturday in Pretoria. AP