An awesome experience
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Date: 16 April, 2004

Gary Bailey. Photo courtesy

'That process from apartheid rule, to releasing Mandela and coming to vote was absolutely awesome. People who don't know South Africa's history wouldn't really know what it is like, because they probably have democracy.'

Charlotte Haines Lyon meets up with former Manchester United goalkeeper Gary Bailey

Gary Bailey is best known as the blond Manchester United goalkeeper of the 1980s.

Born in Ipswich, England, he moved to South Africa aged six and returned to the UK in his teens.

After playing for the reds, he moved back to his beloved South Africa in 1987.

"Oh yes, hi. I was wondering who the hell is phoning me at this time in the morning!" laughs Gary when I call him at dawn. Apparently his journey to Johannesburg Airport was the only time he could guarantee to talk free of interruptions. Not surprising considering he is a father of three, a businessman and a television presenter and involved in charity work too.

Football is a family trait for the Baileys: Gary's father Roy played for Ipswich Town before emigrating to South Africa. It was at the end of Gary's second year at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg that he was chosen to represent the national team.

However at that time, due to the sanctions, South Africa couldn't play international games except against what was then Rhodesia. This led to pressure for Gary to move to England, so he could play at a suitably high level.


"Fortunately my dad made me keep my British passport," Gary says. "He was the manager of the South African national team at the time and although I was in the squad, he refused to play me. He knew if he did it would nullify me from ever being able to play with England.

"So I basically sat on the bench and they said to me it was time to go overseas to see if I could make it," he explains. After 373 appearances as goalkeeper for Manchester United and two for England, Gary was forced to retire due to a knee injury in 1987.

Despite everybody denouncing him as crazy, Gary returned to South Africa with his wife Kate during the brutal states of emergency. He admits that: "everything was in the melting pot, pushing for change."

Apparently the first thing he did in South Africa was to buy the music of Johnny Clegg, the first white singer to record with black musicians under apartheid. "All the rehab training I did to get my knee strong again was to his music and the songs about Mandela being in prison. I wasn't an activist but it was such an exciting time."

In a further shock to his friends he played for the Kaizer Chiefs, the biggest club in South Africa: "It was amazing to be close to the African culture at a time when most whites were probably very fearful. There I was, this white guy in a black soccer team going around in townships playing in huge soccer derbies."

After two years with the Chiefs, partly due to injury and partly as a career decision, Gary left the game to start his own business. He used football as a theme to train workforces. However according to Gary, as workers began to understand principles of business such as scoring goals and working as a team, the unions became obstructive.


But it was in 1992 that Gary was able to realise his dream when he was offered a full time job with MNET, a South African television station. Many would agree with his words: "You know to watch English Premiership and European Champions league is what I would do even if I wasn't getting paid for it."

Like most of South Africa, Gary describes the transition in 1994 to full democracy as a miracle: "When I came back in '87, I really felt that I was coming back to say goodbye to South Africa. It was my home and I loved it but in the back of my mind I was thinking 'there is no hope for the country.'

"That process from apartheid rule, to releasing Mandela and coming to vote was absolutely awesome," he enthuses. "People who don't know South Africa's history wouldn't really know what it is like, because they probably have democracy."

Despite having worried that "the miracle was falling apart" due to the crime and corruption that became so common after 1994, Gary is very optimistic due to his fellow South Africans' determination to fight the problems.

As well as his TV work, Gary is fully involved in working for the country's future, through work with young footballers and victims of apartheid. "I run a soccer academy at Pretoria University that's on a world class level. We are now producing kids that I think can do a lot for this country."

I keep quiet when he tells me that South Africa's sport is in crisis, and the academy based on a similar English endeavour will produce world-class players. I don't like to inform him that some might question our country's footballing prowess.


Gary is also president and fund raiser for Yenzani, a charity for abused children. He explains that this is huge issue in South Africa: "A lot of children get caught up in homes where they are abused, so this a shelter for them".

But possibly the most inspiring work that he is involved in has stemmed from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "Ginn Fourie's daughter, Lyndie, was killed in 1993 in a bomb blast before the election," says Gary as he starts a tale unusual even by South African standards.

"Four years later in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the freedom fighters who set of the bomb refused to claim amnesty because the felt they should pay for what they did. She was so touched by that, she asked to meet the commander and the guy who set the bomb off and they slowly reconciled."

He continues to describe a charity where they all now "raise money for ex-combatants, people who were trained to kill and now are trying to look for alternative work. It is an absolutely awesome, awesome project."

So what about the future of South Africa? "I still think crime is the main issue, crime is destroying the fabric of our society and keeping foreign investors out. All my mates from overseas ask the same question - is it safe? If we can sort crime out our tourism will fly and with that the investment will fly.

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