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Judge Begins Probe of Alleged Racism in South African National Rugby Team - 2003-09-08


A South African judge has opened an investigation into allegation of racism in the national rugby team. The special inquiry panel investigators hope to finish their job before start of the Rugby World Cup in just over a month.

Retired judge Edwin King is leading the panel of three investigators. He told a local radio station that they will be investigating a specific list of allegations, rather than conducting an open-ended probe into the South African rugby establishment.

Those allegations come from a report written by former rugby team spokesman Mark Keohane, who resigned last week over what he called a cover-up of racist behavior by a number of white rugby players.

The furor began two weeks ago at the team's World Cup training camp, with the suspension of a white player, Geo Cronje, for allegedly refusing to share a room with a black player, Quinton Davids.

Cronje was kicked out of the training camp and suspended from the team while South African rugby official investigated his behavior. But a few days later, they cleared Cronje of racism, and said the incident was blown out of proportion by the media.

That was when team spokesman Keohane quit his job in protest. His letter of resignation said he could not continue to work for a team in which prejudice is tolerated, wished away, and excused.

In a radio interview on Friday, Keohane said he could not discuss most of the specific allegations outlined in his report because of the pending inquiry. But he did give a few examples of what he calls blatantly racist behavior by some players. He said the team has two physiotherapists, one white and one black. Many white players, he said, refuse to allow the black therapist to treat them, and arrange their appointments so they can be seen by the white therapist, even though he is less experienced.

In the meantime, South Africa's squad for the World Cup has been chosen. Both Cronje and Davids were left out, although Cronje was considered a key player before the racism row erupted.

Judge King and his fellow investigators plan to interview Keohane first, followed by Cronje and Davids. They may also talk to other rugby players and managers, but the panel has not published a formal list of witnesses.

Critics say the racism inquiry is a huge distraction for a team that is trying to prepare for the Rugby World Cup, which begins in Australia on October 10.

Judge King says he hopes the investigation will help clear the air before the players leave for the World Cup. He hopes to finish the hearings within two weeks, and deliver his report to rugby officials soon thereafter.

Judge King has closed the hearings to the news media. But the state-owned broadcaster says it is filing an urgent court application to force him to open the doors to journalists.

Judge King also led the judicial inquiry into South Africa's last major sporting scandal, the match-fixing allegations against then-cricket-captain Hansie Cronje, who is no relation to rugby-playing Geo Cronje.

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