South African Chess

My Part in Shaping SA Chess

I was recently honoured with a Lifetime Achievement Award in South African Chess. It is the kind of thing that leads to reminiscences for which a blog is the ideal vehicle.

I won’t go back to my early years (it can be summed up as: Chess Fanatic from the age of 9) but two things that changed my life were:

  • the Fischer-Spassky match in 1972. I covered the match for the Cape Times and through that became well known in Cape Town (and in the Independent Group of newspapers, as it turned out later).
  • Being elected as president of the WP Chess Union in 1988. When I was booted out after publicly denouncing the apartheid structure of chess I also I had no idea that I was being watched by the ANC.

Defying the apartheid regime

In 1966 I had caused half of the False Bay Chess Club to resign when I accepted André van Reenen, designated coloured, as a member. In 1970 Van Reenen departed the WP Chess Union to form the Chess Association for the People of South Africa (CAPSA). South African chess was split down the middle.  The SA Chess Federation went along with the apartheid government while the SA Council on Sport whose motto was “No normal sport in an abnormal society’ excluded itself from all existing sporting bodies. Its members were not even supposed to watch sport on TV. CAPSA was affiliated to SACOS.

The empire strikes back

In July 1972, Eschel Rhoodie, was appointed to the post of Secretary of Information. Shortly after his appointment to what would later be called the ‘Dirty Tricks’ Department, Rhoodie created an organisation designed to counter South Africa’s sporting isolation. The result was the Committee for Fairness in Sport. On the counter side SACOS did all it could to exclude sport, including chess, from international competition.

1972 – 76 Donald Woods

Donald Woods

Donald Woods

I first came into contact with Woods, a chess enthusiast, in 1975 when he accompanied Len Reitstein and Bill Bowers, president and vice-president of the SA Chess Federation, to the World Chess Team tournament.

1976 — the student uprising.

South Africa went up in flames after the June 1976 youth uprising. The government responded by banning the entire Black Consciousness Movement along with many other political organisations, as well as issuing banning orders against various persons.   Under Woods, (he was editor from 1965 to 1977), the Daily Dispatch had been critical of the South African government, but was also initially critical of the emerging Black Consciousness Movement under the leadership of Steve Biko. A young black woman, Dr Mamphela Ramphele, berated Woods for writing misleading stories about the movement, challenging him to meet with Biko. The two men became friends, leading the Security Police to monitor Woods’s movements. Nevertheless, Woods continued to provide political support to Biko, both through writing editorials in his newspaper and controversially hiring black journalists to the Daily Dispatch.   I was then working as a sub-editor at the Cape Times (part of the same newspaper group), and attended a public meeting at UCT where Woods called Biko’s death, murder. The government denied giving Biko these injuries, even though police officers admitted to beating Biko to the point of nerve and brain damage. Woods was banned by the government soon after Biko’s death, and his life threatened. He fled to London, where he continued to foster opposition to apartheid. The movie Cry Freedom. documents that period of his life.

Bucking censorship

Before leaving, Woods asked me to be the conduit for news reports he intended to write — he joked that if he sent me a game, his moves could not be printed because he was banned!   The Editor of the Cape Times, Tony Heard, published the letters Woods sent me under a pseudonym.   On his return to South Africa in 1991 we met at the Waterfront, where we filled in our different histories and I introduced my son, Daniel to him. Woods again returned to South Africa in 1994 to support the fundraising efforts for the ANC election fund. He died in 2001.

1990 Back into the international fold.

When the ANC was unbanned, I received call from my fellow journalist, Lennie Kleintjies to meet the bogeyman of the nationalist government. It opened a new chapter in my life.   Cameron Dugmore, the ANC’s Sports spokesman and future Education Minister in the Western Cape, took me to the Claremont Civic Centre where I was invited to join the ANC along with Kadar Asmal.   Cameron introduced me to Berte van Wyk, Lyndon Bouah and Francois Kleynhans and together we formed a new body called the SA Chess Congress (SACON). We were charged with bringing chess into the ANC’s vision of how sport should progress.

The birth of Chessa

The two existing bodies, the SACF and CAPSA were not on speaking terms. The former wanted things to go on as usual with some concessions, while CAPSA demanded a moratorium on all overseas contact. As SACON we eventually brought about reconciliation and contacted Fidé.   I was delegated to draft the letter to Casta Abundo a Filipino, Fidé General Secretary, who I got to know when I worked in Manila in 1967.   Fidé appointed a CACDEC (Committee for Assistance to Chess Developing Countries) troika headed by Nigerian lawyer, Emanual Omuku with US anti-apartheid activist, Jerome Bibold, and John Warnock president of the US Virgin Islands federation.   It took weeks of hard negotiations before Omuku demanded a conclusion and Chessa was born.

The first SA Olympiad team.

From 1996 Fidé officially allowed SA to participate again in International Fidé regulated Championships.   Selection of the team was the next challenge. I managed to get Dimension Data to set up a video conference link between Johannesburg and Cape Town. Michael O’Sullivan led the Johannesburg selectors and Faik Haroun the Cape Town team.   Because CAPSA had been entirely Cape based and isolated, it was tough getting O’Sullivan to accept Deon Solomons and Maxwell Solomon from the Cape, but Charles de Villiers, David Gluckman and Watu Kobese were acceptable to both sides.   Although everything seemed resolved, some tensions still remained and there were some unfortunate occurrences before and during the Olympiad . Watu was playing abroad and somehow his ticket to Manila did not arrive. De Villiers needed only to play in the final round to receive his international master title, but he was not included in the final four.


Although I would have preferred South African chess and its players to be at the top of the league I feel fortunate to have been at the centre of these momentous events and having met so many courageous fighters for freedom.

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