The first gymnastics club in South Africa, the Port Elizabeth Gymnastics Club, was founded in 1876, although British soldiers practiced the sport spontaneously prior to this date in Cape Town. The formation of the Port Elizabeth Gymnastics Club was followed by the formation of the Cape Town Gymnastics Society in 1880 and the YMCA Gymnastics Society (also in Cape Town) in 1884. Originally, gymnastics was practiced for the inherent physical and moral value with competition limited to internal club rivalry.
The advent of organized sport, including gymnastics, gained momentum in the Kimberley region with the establishment of the Kimberley Gymnasium later in 1884 and also the Pirates Gymnastics Club in 1886. Here the first noticeable signs of competitive gymnastics in South Africa were seen.
The Wanderers Gymnastics Society was formed in 1889 after gold was found in the areas surrounding Johannesburg, as it is known today. Members of the Pirates Gymnastics Club, H. Bettheim, G. Imroth and Jacob Swart formed the core of the Wanderers Gymnastics Society, which later became the most in the country. The Pretoria Gymnastics Club followed as the second gymnastics organization in the Transvaal area and was founded in 1892. The Pretoria Gimnastiekvereening was formed on 4 April 1898 by Dutch enthusiasts of the sport.
The first provincial gymnastics body in South Africa was the Transvaalse Gimnastiekverbond, proclaimed in December 1898 in Johannesburg. Due to the outbreak of the Anglo-Boer war in October 1899, the body ceased functioning, but was revived in 1904. Lack of interest in the sport as well as the outbreak of the First World War is thought to have lead the eventual demise of the Transvaal Gimmnastiekverbond.
Growth in the activities of both the Pretoria Gimnastiekverbond and Wanderers Gymnastics Society lead to the re-establishment of the Transvaal Gimnastiekverbond in 1923. During an annual meeting of the Transvaal Gimnastiekverbond on 8 February 1931, it was decided to formally change the name of the Transvaal Gimnastiekverbond to the South African Gymnastics Union, effectively establishing the first national federation of gymnastics in South Africa. Max Thiel (of the Pretoria Gimnastiekverbond) was elected as the first president of the South African Gymnastics Union. In 1932 Thiel was succeeded by HG Hayward as the new president. In 1947, the SA Gymnastics Union affiliated to the FIG (Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique) thereby becoming only the second African country to receive membership of the FIG after Egypt. This also provided the opportunity for international participation and representation at the Olympic Games.
The first international exposure came by means of a Swiss national team competing in South Africa in 1947. South Africa competed in the Olympic Games from 1952 – 1960 and in the World Championships from 1954 – 1966. International participation after these dates ceased due to boycotts as a result of South Africa’s racial policies. However membership of the FIG was never suspended.
South Africa re-entered the international area in 1991, competing for the first time in 25 years at the Artistic World Championships in Indianapolis, USA. After an absence of 44 years, South Africa once more competed at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens.
The SAGF is an active member of both the FIG and UAG developing all of the seven disciplines of gymnastics in the country. Hugo Olivier, former president of the South African Gymnastics Federation, served on the FIG’s General Gymnastics Technical Committee form 1996-2000. The SAGF is currently governed by its Board and Technical Committees under the leadership of Jerry Masia (President) and Elizabeth Cameron Smith (Secretary General).
Researched and Written by Mr Salmar Burger