Sport, racism and resistance in Apartheid South Africa

Photo: Sydney Peace Foundation

Pitch Battles: Sport, Racism and Resistance
By Peter Hain and Andre Odendaal
Rowman and Littlefield, London.
2021, 500pp, $34.99

“There will be a black Springbok over my dead body”, said South African Rugby president Dannie Craven in 1969, demonstrating his commitment to upholding South Africa’s racist Apartheid system in sport.

At the same time, whenever all-white South African sporting teams and athletes were met with protests, the Apartheid regime and its supporters would cry “sport and politics should not mix”.

In fact, racialised sport was a central pillar of the Apartheid regime’s ideology, with the white sporting establishment and athletes — especially in rugby union and cricket — benefitting greatly from this arrangement. In Pitch Battles, anti-Apartheid activists Peter Hain and Andre Odenhaal give an account of how sport can both uphold the status quo and become a crucial site of resistance.

Long before the election of the Afrikaner-dominated government in 1948 formalised the Apartheid system in South Africa, British colonialism had put in place laws that discriminated against the country’s non-white majority from the late 19th century onwards. The British sports establishment played a crucial role in excluding African, Indian and other non-white sportspeople as a central part of its imperialist project.

Among those sportspeople was William Henry “Krom” Hendriks, who had a Dutch father and a mother from St Helena, and was therefore classed as “coloured”. Considered one of the best fast bowlers of his day, Hendriks took 4 wickets for 50 runs in the Malay XI, which faced a touring English cricket team in 1892. As a result, calls were made for his inclusion in the upcoming South African tour of England in 1894.

However, arch imperialist William Cecil Rhodes and former England rugby union player and South African cricket captain William Milton conspired with their racist colonial allies in the Western Province Cricket Club to hound Hendriks out of the game. This established a pattern of systematic exclusion of non-whites from South African sport.

From the late 19th century onwards, countless non-white athletes were excluded from playing at club and international level and erased from sporting history. This enabled the Apartheid regime to later claim non-whites had “no interest or inclination” to play British sports, such as cricket or rugby, or were “not good enough”.

From the late 1950s, the anti-Apartheid movement had begun to campaign for the exclusion of Apartheid South Africa from the international sporting arena, as way to isolate the regime. Despite resistance from conservative sporting establishments in Britain, Australia and New Zealand — considered the “Old Boys Club of Empire” — these campaigns led to South Africa being suspended then expelled from the International Olympic Committee in 1970. Protests against touring South African sporting teams and athletes continued throughout the 1960s.

This culminated in the “Stop the Seventy Tour” campaign in 1969-70, to pressure the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) to cancel its invitation to an all-white South African cricket team to play in England. After the Springboks rugby team was met by protests and disruption everywhere it toured, the MCC was forced to cancel its invitation, in May 1970.

Following on from this success, Springbok tours to Australia in 1971 and New Zealand in 1981 were also met with protests. Conservative sporting establishments, which were often sympathetic to the Apartheid regime, were forced to end ties with South Africa. In Australia and New Zealand, this lasted until the 1990s.

Meanwhile, in South Africa the non-racial sports movement continued the struggle in the 1970s and 80s through organisations such as the South African Sports Association, South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee, South African Council on Sport and the National Sports Congress.

Despite attempts to break the isolation that sporting sanctions had imposed on South Africa — through rebel sporting tours by some rugby union and cricket teams — by the late 1980s, it was clear that the Apartheid regime could no longer continue. It began to negotiate with the African National Congress (ANC) and other anti-Apartheid organisations on a transition away from Apartheid.

In 1990, this culminated in the release of Nelson Mandela and other ANC and anti-Apartheid activists. Their organisations were unbanned and the transition to majority democratic rule began. The ANC gained power in 1994, and in the negotiation process that followed, sport became a key building block for a post-Apartheid South Africa.

In 1995, after the Springboks hosted and won that year’s Rugby Union World Cup, Mandela wore a Springbok jersey and presented the trophy to captain Francois Pienaar. A year later, Mandela would hand the African Nations Soccer Cup to Bafana Bafana captain, Neil Tovey, after the team hosted and won that year’s tournament. These moments were seen as a symbol of the new South Africa.

Fifty years after Craven’s infamous pronouncement, a multi-racial Springboks, led by captain, Siya Kolisi, lifted the Rugby Union World Cup trophy for the third time, in Yokohama, in 2019.

However, despite this triumph, life in post-Apartheid South Africa is complicated, with many of the racial economic inequalities remaining in place under an ANC government fully committed to neoliberalism.

The global COVID-19 pandemic is compounding these inequalities and the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement echoes in South Africa. Black South African cricketers are speaking out against the racist discrimination that still exists in South African sport.

Sport cannot be separated from wider political struggle, and Pitch Battles is a compelling account of the way that sport was used by the Apartheid regime to launder its image internationally. But the book also documents how sport also became a crucial site of resistance to that regime, helping to bring about its downfall. This should help inspire struggles for a better world, in the face of growing capitalist inequality, COVID-19 and climate crisis.