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Profile : Gary Player Takes a Swing at South African Politics : Once reticent on issues, the golf star says he supports ending apartheid but worries about communism.

August 17, 1993|SCOTT KRAFT | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BLAIR ATHOLL, South Africa — He's achieved almost everything he ever dreamed of. Golf's most treasured trophies fill his homes. Millions around the world play the courses he has designed. He has six happy children and two grandchildren. And he is wealthy by any measure.

But strolling across his farm here the other day, gazing at his breeding stock of thoroughbred race horses and taking in the narcotic beauty of his homeland, Gary Player was fretting that one final dream may elude him.

"My dream is to stay here forever. Africa is in my blood," said Player, 57, squinting in the stark sunlight of a warm winter morning in the Southern Hemisphere.

"But I would not stay here with a Communist government," he added. "What we in South Africa have to have is capitalism with some socialist ideas--some charity--thrown in."

During his illustrious golf career, Player has been a lightning rod for anti-apartheid sentiment, especially in the United States. Yet for most of his four decades on the course, he tried to be the neutral athlete, neither criticizing nor defending the white rulers of South Africa.

"Politics is not for me," he said recently over breakfast at his farm here, 20 miles north of Johannesburg. "I've found that if I say anything in this country, people will say, 'Well, what does he know? He's a golfer.' "

But then, in a long interview with The Times, Player talked of little besides politics. And later, he telephoned this correspondent once and followed up with three letters, expanding on his political views and emerging as a man with strong opinions on the direction his country is going.

Player belongs to no political party and has little contact with black or white politicians. But, like many whites in South Africa, he strongly supports President Frederik W. de Klerk's efforts to abolish apartheid, hold democratic elections and negotiate a new constitution with the black majority.

These days, though, Player is deeply concerned about that transition to democracy, the resulting violence that has claimed nearly 10,000 black lives since 1990 and the name-calling by top black and white leaders.

Player admires Zulu Chief Mangosuthu Gatsha Buthelezi for fighting sanctions and supporting a free-enterprise system. But he is disappointed that neither Buthelezi nor Nelson Mandela, of the African National Congress, seem able to stop the fighting between their supporters.

And most of all, he deeply fears the Communist influences in the ANC.

Although Mandela is not a Communist, several dozen key members of his organization are party members. And even though the local Communist Party has said it now realizes the need for a vibrant private sector in South Africa, Player and many other white business leaders are skeptical.

"When you've been deprived of so many things in life, I can understand a person thinking, well, communism might be the answer," Player said.

"But here I've built something without anybody giving me anything," he added. "And then some guy who believes in communism says, 'Hey, look, you've got to share that with everybody.' "

Player believes that South Africa, with visionary leadership, could be a model of racial harmony and economic prosperity. But the country needs to embrace free-market principles if it hopes to create an environment where all races can prosper, he said.

"I've always been the eternal optimist," Player said. "But I feel a little pessimistic at the moment. I don't blame (black) people for feeling frustrated with an apartheid system. But we need to forget the past. You can't live with hate in your heart."

Player's faith in the future is shaken by two worrying trends. One is the high rate of black population growth, which will delay the economic recovery needed to right the wrongs of apartheid. The other is the huge number of young blacks today who are uneducated, because of political strife and a weak educational system.

Three years ago, Player decided to do something about the state of education by building a school on his farm.

The school's 400 pupils, sons and daughters of black farm workers, have computers, modern classrooms and a library full of books. They are served hot lunches and visited regularly by a doctor and a dentist. And their parents attend "life skills" courses at night, taught by the school's instructors.

Although the school can't begin to correct South Africa's massive educational problems, Player believes that it can be a model. And the Sowetan, South Africa's largest newspaper for black readers, said in an editorial that Player had "set a sterling example" for the country.

"We are trying to show that with a little bit of input and support, you can uplift people," said Kathy Milwidsky, the school principal. "And we are proving that if children and teachers are provided with the right opportunities, they will take them and fly with them."

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