In the 1990s did we move too quickly to ‘normalise’ sport?

Review: Dougie Oakes

Pitch Battles – Sport, racism and resistance, by Peter Hain and André Odendaal (Rowman and Littlefield)

This is a book about the fight against apartheid sport, by activists in South Africa and across the world.

It is a story about how apartheid in sport, like apartheid in South African society, was defeated. But it is also a story brimming with examples of missed opportunities – and filled with questions that, almost 30 years into democracy, have still not been adequately answered.

Was South Africa’s re-entry into international sport done with insufficient thought and too much haste, as many are now suggesting? Was too much sacrificed too quickly by those who had struggled for too long for equal rights? And was too much taken and too little given in return by those who had enjoyed the fruits of apartheid?

Some pointers, if not all the answers, are contained in Pitch Battles by Peter Hain and André Odendaal.

It is one of the few books that tells the story of the efforts to isolate white South African sport from the 1960s to the early 1990s, just before what many believed was the collapse of apartheid.

Importantly, it also examines what happened to the plans and promises for sport in a new South Africa, in the first two decades of democracy.

The book begins dramatically: “Sport had never experienced anything like this before,” it says in the first sentence of its introduction.

And for the next 500-or-so pages, it explains exactly why.

Sometimes, timing is important.

Many would argue that the real impetus against segregated sport took place in 1969-70, when “mass demonstrations and field invasions during the whites-only South African Springbok rugby tour … shone global attention on apartheid in sport and, more broadly, the iniquitous system itself”.

Thousands of protesters disrupted the activities of whites-only teams from apartheid South Africa, leading to the unprecedented stopping, in May 1970, of a scheduled South African cricket tour.

“A year later, the new, headline-grabbing, direct action form of sports protest spread from Britain to former white-run British colony, Australia, and then to New Zealand.”

South African-born Hain, whose family had been forced into exile in Britain, became a key figure in these protests.

To white South Africans he was an ogre. He was “Public Enemy Number One”. He was a longhaired “kommunis”.

Odendaal’s political activism, by contrast, was played out in South Africa many years later. The book describes him as having “participated in small ways through sport and the heritage sector in the broader micro-negotiations that led to the abolition of apartheid”.

Pitch Battles contains several intriguing features – not least the opportunism of so-called sporting greats who reinvented themselves – from being supporters of the apartheid regime and its sports policies to fawning supporters of Nelson Mandela and mainstays of non-racialism.

Take Gary Player….

During apartheid he stated proudly: “I am of the South Africa of Verwoerd and apartheid.”

South Africa, he added, was the “product of its instinct and ability to maintain civilised standards among the alien barbarians because to have abandoned them would have meant its disappearance.”

These words were as racist as those uttered by any of the National Party stalwarts of the day. But not once did he apologise. And yet, after the collapse of the apartheid government, Player inexplicably emerged as one of the “ambassadors” of the new South Africa.

And then there was Ali Bacher….

In 1989, in a South Africa dominated by defiance marches and rallies involving 10s of thousands of protesters by the Mass Democratic Movement, and in which Mandela’s fellow Rivonia trialists were released, Bacher organised a tour by rebel English cricketers.

Brushing aside what was happening in South Africa, he said: “It’s totally unfair for cricketers to say they are against the government. I can assure you I wouldn’t have signed a statement deploring apartheid or the South African Government if asked by [Peter] Hain, or anyone else.”

It sparked the drawing of battle lines between those for and against the tour – at breakneck speed.

Opponents were furious.

The National Sports Congress, strengthened by the “defection” of several top officials from the South African Council on Sport (Sacos), took up the fight.

While this was happening, Hain slipped into South Africa incognito and “illegally”, as a member of Granada Television World in Action team investigating sport in South Africa.

In a daring, high-risk mission, he travelled around the country interviewing some of the top sports anti-apartheid figures (sometimes, under the noses of the security police).

Incredibly, he also interviewed his old enemy, Danie Craven, in his offices at Stellenbosch University. Craven, sounded out beforehand, had agreed to a secret interview with him.

Faced with unprecedented protests, damage to the Newlands pitch, and bomb blasts at one of the Newlands turnstiles and in Paarl (courtesy of MK), the tour was cut short, and the second part, scheduled for 1990, cancelled.

The 1990s were period of unbelievable change in South Africa.

Marches and demonstrations became part of a final big push to defeat apartheid. Mandela was released in 1990. Confidence that freedom was at hand soared, dissipated and soared again. Massacres occurred in the townships of present-day Gauteng and the rural areas of present-day KwaZulu-Natal. White South Africans were asked to agree in a referendum in 1992 to a proposed new South Africa. Chris Hani, the popular SA Communist Party and ANC leader, was assassinated in 1993. The country lurched towards civil war – and then came back from the brink. Agreements were reached, put on hold, and then started up again.

But, overall, political progress was slow.

In sport, though, things moved quickly – too quickly, in the view of many outside the ambit of the ANC.

ANC negotiators believed white South Africans wanted international sport more than anything else – and it was a carrot that they were prepared to entice them with.

There was a cricket tour to India in 1991, a visit to the West Indies shortly afterwards, followed by a World Cup in Australia.

South Africa went to the 1992 Barcelona Olympic Games, without a flag and without an anthem.

But despite this generosity, Mandela was betrayed by many for whom he had bent over backwards. The first quarter century of sport in a democratic society had a few notable triumphs, most notably Siya Kolisi becoming the first “black African” to captain South Africa – in the 2019 rugby World Cup tournament in Japan, leading the country to its third World Cup triumph.

But there were far too many racist incidents in different codes of sport – and far too many promises made by newly installed ANC leaders to black sportspeople that did not materialise.

The ANC government discovered, like the National Party had, that politics and sport are inextricably linked.

I pointed this out in the book. In what was described by the authors as “an uncomfortable grounded verdict” on rugby in South Africa, I accused the game’s establishment of being “culpable in that they have collaborated repeatedly with national and provincial governments throughout the country in pretending that all South Africans have equal opportunities on the country’s sports fields”.

I was quoted as saying: “Today, more than ever, entry into the game for black players is still a carefully managed and white-controlled process.

“Players from the townships with aspirations of playing at the highest level have to squeeze their way through a narrow pipeline of elite rugby playing schools, like Kolisi did.”

Pitch Battles is the most comprehensive book ever written on the relationship between South African sport and politics. It should be required reading for anyone wanting a clearer understanding of why during the South Africa of apartheid (and even of today) so many people swore by the mantra of “no normal sport in an abnormal society”.

  • Dougie Oakes is a veteran South African activist-journalist and a strong opponent of the retention of the Springbok symbol in rugby.

 

1 thought on “In the 1990s did we move too quickly to ‘normalise’ sport?

  1. Archie Henderson

    Perhaps the rush in 1991 to get South Africa back into world sport had much to do with money … an added attraction for TV en so voorts. Retaining the Bok emblem had a lot to do with satisfying white emotions, but also it was a marketing move – and has proved to be ever since Springbok rugby became acceptable again. A lot of money to be made out of these ‘rehabilitated’ pariahs.

    Reply

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