The dinner was held under the banner Sports for Peace. How appropriate.
The reason for which we were traveling to South Africa, the holding of the 20th World Cup over the next four weeks, was made possible in part because of a role sports played in defeating an inhumane and racist governing body and ushering in a democracy.
To be sure, what is scheduled to kick off here on Friday was an absolute impossibility less than a generation ago, and had been since the early '60s. FIFA, soccer's global governing body, banned South Africa from international competition in 1963, and other global sports bodies soon followed. The International Olympic Committee withdrew its invitation to South Africa to the 1964 Summer Games. By the middle '70s, track and field, cricket, tennis and other sports did the same.
The reason South Africa became a country non grata with the rest of the civilized world in sports was because of its then all-white government's continued grasp of a policy it coined "apartheid." Apartheid denied with deadly implementation basic human rights to the indigenous and majority black population of the country.
The reason South Africa was readmitted to the world's sports arena in the early '90s was because an armed struggle waged by the country's oppressed, coupled with international pressure -- like that from those world sporting bodies, and protesters I joined who marched and sported anti-Krugerrand buttons -- made apartheid defunct.
As the secretary general reflected Tuesday evening at the banquet: "South Africa hosting the World Cup is a triumph for humanity."
South Africa is a shining example of the good sports can do for society. In the wake of widespread international condemnation of Israel's botched commando raid last week that killed nine people on a humanitarian aid flotilla headed to the Gaza Strip -- where Palestinians live under what Nobel-prize winning South African Bishop Desmond Tutu, also on my flight, once said is Israel's apartheid-like thumb -- could it not be time for sport to illuminate Israel's deadly occupation of Palestinians?
Maybe a sports boycott of Israel, where sports are beloved the same as in South Africa, could help foster a round of truly meaningful peace talks between Israel and Palestinians. Maybe such a collective effort could exercise the same leverage on Israel that it did for nearly 30 years with South Africa.
I wouldn't suggest a boycott of individual Israeli athletes, like tennis player Shahar Peer, who wasn't allowed entry last year into the United Arab Emirates for the tournament. It wouldn't have been right to deny boxer and rabbinical student Yuri Foreman last Saturday night to defend his undefeated record and junior middleweight belt in Yankee Stadium against Miguel Cotto, who beat him.
Foreman reminded boxing fans last week in interviews with the media that he learned to box in an Arab village not far from Haifa, Israel, and wished sports could breakdown religious and ethnic barriers in the Middle East. Peer and Foreman are individual athletes striving mostly on their own rather than Israel's dime. It was troubling that sports turned a cold shoulder in the mid '80s to barefoot South African runner Zola Budd when the global track governing body refused to recognize her 5,000-meter world record because it was won under apartheid.
It is when it comes to international team competitions, when sports are at a nationalistic zenith, that a boycott should be considered.
This wouldn't be a new concept. Some regional sports' organizations over the years have barred Israel from their competitions. A Palestinian movement called Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions started calling for a boycott of Israeli sports teams five years ago around the time Israel evacuated its settlers from Gaza and withdrew its military after almost four decades of occupation. But after the militant Islamic group Hamas won election in Gaza in 2006 and seized control of the strip in 2007, Israel tightened its economic blockade of the strip that reached a crescendo last week in the flotilla raid.
Ban Ki-Moon reiterated on Tuesday that the U.N. wanted Israel to agree, which it has refused, to an international investigation into the deadly raid on the Gaza-bound aid flotilla. A spokesman for Ban, Farhan Haq, said Ban wants to underscore that "credible international involvement is crucial to a prompt, credible, impartial and transparent investigation" which the U.N. Security Council called for after the deadly commando raid May 31.
"The secretary-general understands that Israel is still considering how and if to bring an international element into the investigative process," Haq said.
A sports boycott would certainly intensify the world's spotlight on Israel's approach to dealing with its occupied territories, just like it did South Africa's defunct government's dealings with its occupied peoples.
After what we witnessed Israel suffer at the '72 Munich Games, it would seem particularly callous to expel it from the Olympics, the world's most-inclusive athletic smorgasbord, but someplace -- European basketball championships, the Davis Cup, etc. -- a stand should be taken.
After all, sports are supposed to promote and award fair play. There was nothing fair about the manner in which South Africa's former government dealt with most of its population. The world spoke and joined forces with those receiving the long end of the trungeon, and the victory it struck in South Africa is turning out to be grand.
That wasn't an all-black throng that rallied Wednesday afternoon in the suburban Sandton square named after Nelson Mandela, the new democracy's hero. It was black and white, and yellow -- the color of South Africa's World Cup entry, Bafana Bafana (The Boys, The Boys) -- all over.
Sport here hasn't just helped liberate a people, but an entire country.