Anti-apartheid rugby protests showed how sport and politics are inseparable

Protesters disrupt Springbok tour. Sydney Cricket Ground, 1971.
October 17, 2016

Pitched Battle: In the Frontline of the 1971 Springbok Tour of Australia By Larry Writer Scribe Melbourne, 2016 336pp, $35.00

“Sport and politics don’t mix” is often heard from politicians and media commentators when people target sporting events in acts of protest or athletes use their chosen sports to make political statement — for example Muhammad Ali and, more recently, US NFL star Colin Kaepernick. However, sport is often politicised in many different ways by the ruling class to reinforce the status quo.

Nowhere was this more obvious than in South Africa during the Apartheid era. South Africa’s national rugby union team, the Springboks, and other all-white sporting teams were used as symbols of the regime. This was especially the case with the Afrikaner-dominated Springboks, whose every victory was seen as a justification for Apartheid. Larry Writer, author of Dangerous Games: Australia at the 1936 Nazi Olympics, has provided a gripping account of the infamous 1971 Springboks tour of Australia.

The tour was met with huge protests, polarised Australian society and, along with similar sporting-related protests globally, contributed to the demise of Apartheid in South Africa. Divided into two parts — the years leading up to the tour, and the tour and its aftermath — Winter begins by focusing on seven Wallabies players: Jim Boyce, James Roxbourough, Paul Darvenzia, Bruce Taafe, Barry McDonald and Terry Forman, who declared they would refuse to play against any all-white Springboks teams. They became known as the Rugby Seven and gave a huge boost to the protest movement against the Springboks tour.

In 1963, Boyce was selected to play with the Wallabies touring side to South Africa. On this tour, he and the other players were shocked by their exposure to the injustices of the Apartheid regime. Throughout the tour, Boyce and the other players were exposed to the arrogance of white Springboks supporters, officials, politicians and police — as well as the everyday oppression of the South African Black and non-white majority. One particularly brazen incident was a stage managed visit to the township of Sharpeville, the site of the massacre of 69 Black African men, women and children who had been protesting apartheid laws in 1960. Because the Springboks were seen as such a symbol of their oppression, Black and other non-white rugby fans would always cheer for their opponents from the worst parts of the ground into which they were herded.

During the fourth Test in Port Elizabeth, a missed knock-on call led to a Springboks try. The non-whites in the crowd booed the referee loudly. In response, the police and white spectators attacked them with a savage fury. This experience made Boyce a determined opponent of the Apartheid regime. Similar experiences by the six other Wallabies in the Rugby Seven during the 1969 tour also inspired them to refuse to play against South Africa during the 1971 tour. This stance earned them much scorn from the conservative rugby establishment. In the 18 months leading up to the tour, two anti-racist groups opposing it emerged.

The first was the Campaign Against Racism in Sport (CARIS), which had been inspired by the examples of anti-Apartheid activists targeting the Springboks, such as Peter Hain in Britain and Dennis Brutus in South Africa. CARIS urged sporting boycotts of South African sporting teams and athletes. It organised peaceful pickets and leafleting outside sporting events. The more confrontational Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) carried out acts of disruption against sporting events.

The ranks of the AAM included radical activists such as Denis Freney, Meredith Burgmann, Peter McGregor and others — many of whom cut their political teeth in the anti-Vietnam war movement. While members of the Rugby Seven supported the less confrontational approach of CARIS and the two groups disagreed with each other’s methods, it was generally recognised that their approaches complemented each other.

The second part of the book details how activists from CARIS, AAM and other state-based anti-Apartheid groups dogged the Springboks tour of Australia that ran from June to September in 1971. From the start, the Springboks were subject to trade union bans, protests outside their hotels and repeated attempts to disrupt their games. On the eve of a game, members of the Builders Labourers Federation tried to saw down one of the goal posts at the SCG.

There were also many police attacks on protests in different states. In Queensland, the reactionary premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen used the tour as an excuse to declare a state of emergency, giving the police free reign to attack protesters.

The protestors were often vilified by the press, conservative politicians, the rugby establishment and fans who constantly justified their attitude with the mantra that “sport and politics don’t mix”. They were also subjected to physical attacks by rugby vigilantes and Nazis, whom some believed had been funded by the Apartheid regime, though no direct evidence was found.

More importantly, through the intervention of Aboriginal activists such as Billy Craigie, Paul Coe, Gary Foley, Kevin Gilbert, Roberta Sykes, Dennis Walker, Lilla Watson and Sam Watson, anti-Apartheid campaigners were challenged to get involved in campaigning for Aboriginal rights. Although the campaign failed to stop the tour, it was a public relations disaster for the Apartheid regime and the conservative Australian government led by William McMahon, who insisted on making sure the tour continued at all costs. It led to the decision of the Australian Cricket Board to cancel the planned 1971-72 South African cricket team tour to Australia.

When the Gough Whitlam Labor government was elected in 1972, it banned all sporting contact with the Apartheid regime. This ban was maintained by both ALP and Coalition governments, and was not lifted until the early 1990s with Apartheid’s end. In Pitched Battle, Writer destroys the myth that sport and politics don’t mix. He shows how a united campaign of different groups of people can wage a successful anti-racist campaign and turn public opinion around, contributing to the destruction of a seemingly indestructible regime.

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