MCSA – The Legacy of the Apartheid Years

A Cape Town Section Initiative

Most Club members are aware that during the apartheid years the Cape Town Section conformed to the socio-cultural norms of the time. It was an exclusively white organisation, which had also previously excluded Jewish people. Steps were taken to change this and by 1985 the Section had become open to all those interested in mountaineering and mountains. In spite of this, the Section has failed to attract a significant number of members from the previously disadvantaged communities. We feel that the Club owes it to itself, all mountaineers, and to society at large, to acknowledge its mistakes of the past and to re-affirm its commitment to a shared future. SOME BACKGROUND

Over the years, there have been many occasions when the discrimination practised by the Club caused distress and some of the anger still remains. This affected those unable to join the Club, members who challenged this, and the broader climbing community. The few examples that follow are illustrative of the situation that prevailed.

In the 1930s a relatively new club member tried to introduce one of his Jewish friends to the club, to the point of applying formally for membership. This application was formally rejected without reasons given (as would usually be the case). The club member, a committed Christian, found this behaviour unacceptable to his conscience and resigned in protest, despite his close friendship with many other club members.

In the late 1940s the first Jewish club member was formally elected to the club. He was proposed by one of the most respected mountaineering rock climbers of his day, but a man of few words. So we can only speculate that the success of this election might in part have been due to a fear that the previous consequence of a protest resignation would be repeated, and this time by a highly regarded Club member. This joining of the club by the newly elected Jewish member was disapproved of by his own community. Nonetheless he went on to become a prominent and long-standing member of many club committees. There he resisted the discriminatory attitudes of a number of other committee members and succeeded, with the support of others, in changing club practice for many membership applications regarded as potentially odd, difficult, or different.

A number of incidents occurred during the following decades where club members were reprimanded by the Committee for climbing with persons of colour on land belonging to farmers or forestry/government, or for bringing them onto club properties. In some cases the justification offered was that the club would be exposed to possible censure by government or official bodies, or by farmers owning mountain land, and might lose access privileges. This was a real issue, but it was also underlain by the racism within the club. Other incidents occurred when visitors of colour were brought to the Club House by members to consult the Club Library or to attend the Friday evening talks. The excuse that they were non-members begged the question and the potential for “legal” censure by government agencies was far-fetched in these latter instances.

In the late 1970s, rock climbers both from within and outside the club formed the South African Climbers Club as a categorically non-racial organisation. For some years the SACC was active in pushing rock climbing standards and was supported by many leading climbers of the day. This was a real indicator of the desire for change by many of our members.

In 1985, the then chairman of the Cape Town Section of the club set in motion an initiative to change the constitution of the club which would make it clear that the club was open to all segments of South African society. Our section also held intermittent talks over the following years with both the Cape Province Mountain Club and the Western Province Mountain Club to explore whether amalgamation, federation or some other form of association would be acceptable to them. We also wished to share our resources with them. These talks never achieved any concrete organisational result, but were useful for contacts and interpersonal relationships as several well-attended joint meets were held. Several magazine and newspaper articles and letters also recorded these positive aspects of the Club’s membership policy. Notwithstanding that earlier versions of the constitution did not contain any discriminatory clauses, changes were formally introduced in 1992 to reflect that neither race, colour, nor creed would influence any application for membership.

Some, but not many persons of colour, joined in the years following 1985 as the perception of the Club as an elitist organisation persisted. In the mid-1990s a prominent and respected mountaineer and rock climber of colour became a member – this, despite more than two decades of a troubled relationship with the club, and despite real concerns that he had about how this might affect his standing within his own community. He took this risk in full knowledge of the Club’s negative image within his community, and with the clearly stated intention and understanding that the club would make meaningful advances in rejecting informal discrimination and changing its ethnic makeup. He has played a significant role on club committees, and has been one of the most prominent mountaineers and rock climbers from this country with many international first ascents. Since he joined, he has also been an important part of the club conscience.


While the last years have seen the Cape Town Section take several positive steps towards improving the image of the Club via e.g. the Outreach Programme and the Western Cape Mountain User Group initiative, it remains true that we are, to an extent, prisoners of our past. Consequently, over the last two years, following the initiative of several concerned individuals, the Cape Town Section has been going through a process (see box) of formulating an apology for the discrimination practiced by the Section during the apartheid years. We now wish to issue a statement that places our regret at the Club’s actions – or lack of them – on record. This statement is currently in preparation and it is hoped to have it accepted by the Section’s mid-year General Meeting on 30 September. In the interim, any member who wishes to have input to this process will be able to view the draft and is invited to submit written comments via the office.

The apology can viewed on the MCSA website


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