Former cabinet minister and Northern Ireland Secretary Lord Peter Hain told David Hennessy why he had to strike a blow against apartheid with the campaign to stop an all-white South African cricket team coming to England in 1970.
Lord Peter Hain saw the injustice of apartheid as a young boy growing up in South Africa where his parents were anti-apartheid activists, something for which they were briefly imprisoned.
Peter was only 19 when he became chairman of the Stop The Seventies Tour campaign which aimed to disrupt the tours by the South African rugby union and cricket teams in 1969 and 1970 and had success in getting the latter cancelled to strike a blow against the apartheid regime.
Their disruption of the rugby tour was also so successful that the all-white Springboks squad wanted to abort their trip with only diplomatic pressure persuading them to carry on.
The new book, Pitch Battles: Sport, Racism and the Resistance tells the story of that campaign that led to South Africa being frozen out of international sport until the 1990s.
Peter told The Irish World: “I couldn’t play rugby, cricket or football with or against anybody who didn’t have white skin. I was sports mad as a boy- and still am as it happens.
“We used to go and watch our local team Arcadia play football. It was a white team. Black supporters were segregated.
“We used to walk with black friends to the ground and then have to separate and then a few years later, the government offered a proclamation banning mixed, albeit segregated, spectators so ‘whites-only’ events had to have ‘whites-only’ spectators.
“That deprived Arcadia of their most enthusiastic, fervent, noisy chanters and supporters.
“Many were so keen to nevertheless watch the match they shinned up trees overlooking the stadium. White neighbours complained to the police and police dogs tore them down from those trees bloodied and shrieking. Seeing that just symbolised the injustice of apartheid and why it had to end.
“My young South African-born anti-apartheid parents were unique in having black friends in our house, being involved in anti-apartheid politics and in joining Nelson Mandela’s resistance to apartheid. It was in my DNA from a young age whereas my school friends and my cousins’ only contact with black citizens was as servants or performing menial tasks in society. They had no contact as human beings on equal terms with their black brethren.”
In their comprehensive account Peter and fellow activist Andre Odendaal reveal how exactly they forced the unprecedented cancellation of a tour.
“It was an amazing victory because at that time the resistance inside South Africa had been completely smashed. In 1970 Nelson Mandela and his leadership comrades were into their seventh year of their imprisonment in those cold, bleak cells in Robben Island. There was no resistance to speak of.
“The anti-apartheid movement that had for years sat outside Twickenham, Lansdowne Road, Murrayfield and Cardiff Arms Park had made no progress at all because of the hostile indifference of the sports world.
“When we came up with the idea of running on the pitch, of stopping the matches, that changed the game entirely.
“It was a decisive victory. It led to South Africa’s isolation from the Olympics, from all team sports and they were not readmitted until Nelson Mandela walked to freedom and the process of change began towards eradication of apartheid.
“The head of South African rugby at the time Danie Craven said, ‘There will be a black Springbok over my dead body’.
“Last November Siya Kolisi, a black Springbok captain, led South Africa to become champions of the world.
“When I met Nelson Mandela for the first time after he had come out of prison he said to me, ‘That campaign was historic. It was very important because it struck a blow against white South Africa’s omniopotence and apartheid of a kind that hadn’t happened before’.
“Trade was continuing. Arms were being sold. Cultural contact continued and suddenly white South Africans were deprived of something they were fanatical about which was their sport. It hit home in a way that political protests never did.
“When the question of apartheid appeared on the sports pages in South Africa and internationally that started to make an impact in a way that it would never have otherwise done.”
However, the campaign was not popular. Peter was himself branded “public enemy No.1” back in his native South Africa while he and his fellow activists were referred to as ‘weirdos’ by sports fans who were just concerned with seeing the matches go ahead.
“I personally was the butt of a lot of hatred and we generally, as a movement, were detested by the majority of rugby and cricket fans, particularly those who couldn’t lift their eyes and recognise there was something basic to humanity wrong about the rugby going on or the cricket match that they were watching. It represented an evil creed. They just didn’t see that.
“I describe in the book presenting a letter to Willie John McBride before he took the Lions tour out in 1974. I might as well have been talking to a brick wall. There was no meeting point at all.
“We were denounced with inaccurate smears of being communists or long haired drug-taking weirdos. I was none of those things. Nor were 98% if not more in the movement. That didn’t matter. They were young men who just wanted to play rugby or cricket and they refused to face up to their collaboration- That’s what it was, collaboration- with apartheid and the perpetuation of it.
“People like Willie John McBride and the players and officials of that era all said, ‘Promoting contact will bring about improvement’. The reverse was happening. The more contact there was the worse apartheid got, the more intrusive apartheid legislation became, the more oppressive its police state behaved towards Nelson Mandela, locking him up on Robben Island and killing, torturing and repressing not just political activists opposed to apartheid but sports officials as well.
“This was a matter of sport. It wasn’t a matter of politics. You couldn’t get through to the leader of English cricket, the rugby officals of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland or the likes of Willie John McBride. They were hostile to indifferent.”
Peter says the attitude at the time was hypocritical, perhaps saying that apartheid was distasteful but taking absolutely no action against it.
“People professed to have a distaste for apartheid but they were playing with it. they were playing against teams and treating with generous hospitality visiting tourists as if they were equal on the world stage whereas in fact they were representing only a minority of South African- the white population. South Africa never had a representative team until after Nelson Mandela came out of prison and became president.
“It was only representing the white minority and that was symbolised by Basil D’Oliveira, the mixed race South African cricketer who was so good that to further his career which he couldn’t do in his own country, he had to play in England and ended up fulfilling the necessary criteria after many years of cricket in England to represent England.
“He couldn’t be selected for South Africa when he would have easily been in the South African team if it had been chosen on merit not on race. He was one of the top test players by the mid 60s. England were due to tour South Africa at the end of 1968. When D’Oliveira was selected it was the president of South Africa John Vorster who banned the tour. That England tour never happened because he had been selected.
“That just showed South Africa’s particularly evil, repressive, discriminatory form of racist politics was actually at the heart of its sport system.
“When people like me were charged with bringing politics into sport, my reply always was and still is: It was apartheid rulers who brought politics into their sport. Nowhere else in the world were you barred from representing your country because of the colour of your skin.
“Sport was integral and intrinsic to the way the apartheid super structure was organised and that is why they were so vehement about refusing to have mixed race teams. For them, sport organised on the principle that occurs on the island of Ireland and anywhere else in the world, on merit not race, was unthinkable. It would open the floodgates of multi-racialism to overwhelm apartheid. That’s the kind of language they were using at the time. Apartheid would be overwhelmed which they, of course, couldn’t tolerate.”
Although apartheid ended in the early 1990s, South Africa is still healing and is likely to be for generations.
“When you’ve had racism institutionalised under British colonialism for centuries and then you have had 50 years of Nazi-like racism under apartheid whose whole objective was to subjugate the black majority, to deprive black children of the educational opportunity to allow them to gain the skills and opportunities- When you have that, the mass poverty and unemployment that goes with it, you can’t change that overnight.
“The Good Friday Agreement is 22 years old but the island of Ireland is still plagued by the instabilities and tensions of centuries of bitterness.
“Nevertheless South Africa had made monumental strides since the ending of apartheid.”
Speaking of Northern Ireland, it was something that Peter achieved in his time as Northern Ireland Secretary that he counts as an even prouder moment than his successful campaign against apartheid.
“The campaign is only surpassed by negotiating the Northern Ireland Peace Settlement in 2007 that brought Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness into office to share government. That’s my proudest moment but a close second is stopping the 1970 cricket tour.”
Like many, Peter has been worried that Brexit could undo much of the good work that has gone into bringing peace to Northern Ireland.
“I was one of few politicians other than John Major and Tony Blair to actually warn Brexit could be vastly destabilising and undermining of the peace process. I’m afraid that’s been true and still is. I’m very concerned about it. There’s no question: It’s very much at risk.
The Black Lives Matter movement has recently shone a light on systemic racism and its infiltration of sport bringing themes that Peter was talking about half a century ago very much back into sharp focus.
“There are moral questions and difficult decisions to be faced up to and you can’t ignore those if you’re a sports person or a sports official. Sport has suddenly been jolted by the Black Lives Matter protests led by figures like Lewis Hamilton and Raheem Sterling. Every sport has had to face up to racism in a way it has not done before.
“Sport is inextricably bound into life and politics. These issue that were alive 50 years ago have come to the fore in a big way half a century later.
“It’s not just shameful that a player can be racially abused in this day and age, it’s totally unacceptable and there must be no compromise with it at all.
“It was nice looking back and to be able to both tell the story of a remarkably successful campaign that achieved its objective of stopping the all white South Africa cricket tour but also changed the whole future of South African sport so it’s both historic but it is also a very live story for me.”
Pitch Battles: Sport, Racism and Resistance by Peter Hain and Andre Odendaal is published by Rowman & Littlefield.