When a soft-spoken Afrikaner steps into the ring next October to make his country's first bid for the heavyweight title of the World Boxing Association, the moment will be savored by white South Africans, increasingly isolated from international sports competition and starved for world recognition of their best athletes.
Nothing would give South Africans more pleasure than for 24-year-old Gerrie coetzee (pronounced "Herrie Cutzea") to slip into the slot vacated by the resignation of Muhammad Ali, by defeating John Tate of Knoxville, Tenn., Oct. 20 in Pretoria.
"They're hungry for something and here's their chance to prove to the world they can win," said one amateur boxing official.
Although most white South Africans claim they attach little political significance to boxing, avid interest in recent international bouts makes it hard to avoid the conclusion that boxing is an extension of their contentious political relationship with the rest of the world, in particular with the United States, where bilateral relations are at an all-time low.
The state-controlled radio was plainly enthusiastic in its news broadcast reporting Coetzee's win over former WBA heavyweight champion Leon Spinks June 24 at Monte Carlo, describing how he had "annihilated" Spinks, "devastating the American" in the first round.
The victory was the lead item in all newspapers, "bringing relief" in the words of one South African, and dispelling the moroseness that descended upon boxing fans when Tate beat South Africa's other prominent heavyweight, Kallie Knoetze, June 2.
The intense interest in the Coetzee-Spinks bout could not, however, prod the conservative state-run television station to violate its Calvinist-inspired ban on Sunday sports broadcasts.
So South African boxing fans had to sit up until midnight Sunday to see a replay of the fight, which had ended two hours earlier. The radio refrained from announcing the winner for two hours so as not to spoil the delayed telecast.
South Africa has had two world title-holders in the bantamweight division-Vic Toweel in 1950 and Arnold Taylor in 1973. If tcoetzee takes the heavyweight crown this year, it could mean South Africa will end up with three world champions, despite its sports isolation.Kork Ballington already holds the world's motorcycling record and Jody Scheckter is leading the field in Grand Prix auto racing.
Coetzee is what one trainer called an "exciting" fighter, punching equally well with both hands, despite having broken both of them in a 1977 title defense. He has never been knocked off his feet in a fight and is renowned for his skillful boxing and tremendous speed.
Coetzee is personally popular, expecially among his fellow Afrikaners, the whites of Dutch descent who dominate the government. He comes from a hard-working, small-town family and is polite and gentle outside the ring. His father, Flip, serves as his trainer.
"I asked the Lord to help me in this fight and I want to thank him. I must tell the people the Lord answered my prayers," Coetzee said after his win over Spinks.
His main rival is Knoetze, whose brash, talkative personality makes him less well-liked than Coetzee.
In the ring he is known for his ferocity - "he's what you call an animal," said one sports report - killing opponents with his strong right punch.
Knoetze was forced to retire from the South African police department after being charged with obstructing justice in connection with the trial of a friend.
As a policeman during the unrest in black communities in 1976, Knoetze shot a black youth as he was running from the police, crippling him in one leg. The blacks remember that, and despise him for it.
After the Tate-Knoetze fight, the black-oriented newspaper, the Johannesburg Post, spoke about the two fighters: "Coetzee is human. He's warm, he's a gentleman. Above all he has publicly denounced racialism. So if he eventually becomes world champion he will be...someone our kids can look up to be a fine example.
"Knoetze, on the other hand, is someone we resent very much. Boxing in our community would have suffered a mortal blow if Knoetze ever became world champ. He knows why we do not care for him."
Coetzee and Knoetze have fought each other six times, with three wins apiece.
The October world title fight is being arranged by Top Rank promoter Bob Arum, along with South African hotel impresario, Sol Kerzner, and is largely the result of efforts by Hendrick Kloppers, chairman of the professional South African national boxing board of control.
Kloppers is also a vice president of the WBA, which South Africa joined in 1974. Soon after South Africa joined the WBA, the announced it would no longer recognize South African boxers.
Audiences at professional boxing matches in South Africa are for the most part still segregated. The Coetzee-Tate match is a special occasion however, and the government has already said a permit will be given so that seating can be multiracial. Some low-priced seats will be available for $11.50 so that blacks can afford seats in the 90,000-plus capacity stadium.
While boxing has long been a popular sport among whites, blacks have only begun to take real interest since the board of control decided to merge the two segregated boxing organizations in 1973, allowing whites to fight blacks.
Since then, registration of blacks as professional boxers has jumped about 55 percent, said Kloppers, and blacks make up the majority of the more than 700 professionals currently licensed.
It was only last January, however, that the control board eliminated the practice of having two champions - one white and one black - in each division, who would then fight each other for title of "supreme" champion. This was phased out because "it caused a bit of uncertainty overseas," Kloppers said.
Blacks hold the national titles in nine of South Africa's 13 weight divisions, predominantly in the lower weights. Last year, a black, David Khambule, was named South Africa's Prospect of the Year.
Prominent among the black boxers is middleweight title holder "Tap Tap" Makhathini, who lost his fight with Colombia's Alfredo Cabral on June 2 in Monte Carlo on a technical decision of the referee.
Makhathini, 37, is cited as an example of a good fighter, held back by discrimination. Arum said he regrets that "he had been hidden as long as he has."
In amateur boxing the scene is not so bright, and apartheid keeps the ring monochromatic most of the time. The amateur boxing groups are divided on racial lines, one for blacks, one for whites and one for coloreds (mixed races). They get together only once a year at the amateur national championship fight held under the umbrella organization, South African Amateur Boxing Association.
At grass-roots level, boxing clubs remain segregated, despite government relaxation of its policy against integration, mainly because of white attitudes.
"They are really afraid that if they let blacks in and let the best man win, then all the top places will go to blacks," said Bernie Coughlan, chairman of the National Boxing Association which has been pushing the association to drop its racial structure and integrate as professional bodies have done.
"In a country with eight blacks to every white, the odds are that balcks will win most of the places," Coughlan said.
Because of pressure from groups like Coughlan's, the National Association has said it will start multiracial fights at the provincial level in 1980 but it is still holding out against mixed clubs.
Since the amateur ring feeds the professional, blacks remain at a disadvantage. "The talent (among blacks) is immeasurable, but because the white man is not allowed to give his expertise in training to the blacks at club level, they suffer," Coughlan explained.
But both Coughlan and Kloppers say that once a black has made it to the top, like "Tap tap" Makhathini, whites support him unreservedly against his opponent, even if he's white. "At that level south Africans are not partisan about color," said Coughlan. "But for the guy to get to the top he has to face almost insurmountable odds." CAPTION: Illustration, no caption, by Alice Kresse - The Washington Post