Mandela to testify in rugby case


President Nelson Mandela will appear in court today to testify in a rugby race row that highlights tensions between the government and a section of the country's white community.

The summons of a sitting president is without precedent: never before has a head of state been called to account for his decisions in front of a court of law.

Mandela must explain to the High Court in Pretoria why he gave orders last year to set up a judicial commission of inquiry into the affairs of the white-dominated South African Rugby Football Union (SARFU), which stands accused of nepotism and financial irregularities.

Mandela's legal team has already expressed concern that his court appearance could set a "dangerous precedent" that would compromise the head of state's decisions and lead to a flood of litigation against the president.

But Judge William de Villiers, who issued the order for Mandela to submit to cross-examination, said the interests of justice outweighed all other considerations.

SARFU is contesting the validity of the commission of inquiry into its affairs, alleging that Mandela acted unconstitutionally by merely "rubber-stamping" Sports Minister Steve Tshwete's wish that the union be investigated.

For SARFU, the probe represents government interference in what it believes is essentially a private organisation.

The saga brings to the fore racial tensions that have dogged South African sport since democratic elections in 1994, and since the country's Springbok rugby team won the 1995 World Cup trophy.

Excitement at the surprise victory united black and white South Africans for a brief period. But this soon dissipated with the emergence of a series of incidents with racial connotations in the sporting fraternity - largely in the rugby union arena but also extending to soccer and cricket.

The SARFU case poses an important question for post-apartheid South Africa: who will control rugby union, once the symbol of white domination?

According to SARFU, Tshwete has a personal vendetta against rugby union boss Louis Luyt, and resents that rugby is run by whites - mostly Afrikaners - and not by the government, which has a policy of affirmative action for blacks.

For their part, Mandela and Tshwete say that rugby has an important role to play in developing the nation, that allegations of bad management within SARFU are of national interest and that the commission must continue its probe.

The racial overtone of the case is further reinforced by the fact that Judge de Villiers is an Afrikaner who opposed the acceptance of black lawyers onto the Pretoria bar of advocates 13 years ago.

Mandela has always made it clear that he intends to honour the court's order that he testify, even though he is aware of the precedent it may set. A spokesman for Mandela said the 79-year-old would appear in court this morning.