1980s >> 1982 >> no-934-june-1982

Playing with Apartheid

The present use of sport for political ends was foreshadowed before World War II by the attitudes of the dictators Hitler and Mussolini, who encouraged and financed the endeavours of native footballers and athletes. The disappointment shown by Hitler and other leading Nazis at the win of the negro Jesse Owens over their own German favourite at the 1936 Berlin Olympics, is still well remembered. Most governments nowadays assist the efforts of “their” athletes of international class. They value success at this level because it engenders patriotic feeling and distracts the working class from problems at home. By publicising the country it helps exporters to gain ground on competitors. So sport today often spills over from its allotted place on the back pages of newspapers into front page headlines.

Although coming into a somewhat different category, in one way or another the apartheid policy operated by the South African government is often involved in such instances. Scarcely a week passes without news of some projected sporting conflict being jeopardised by the “South African Connection”. The latest major incident burst on a sick and weary world last February in an announcement from South Africa that a team of “rebel” English cricketers had arrived to start a tour sponsored by South African Breweries. Many South African cricketers, boycotted internationally for years, welcomed this chance to test their skills against top class opposition.

There have of course been many examples of discrimination in sport not involving apartheid. In many cases—polo, racquets and equestrian events—the high cost of competing eliminates the average worker before the event begins. In this country, cricket was for a long time bedevilled by the distinction between amateurs and professionals. Among other things, the latter—working men playing for a living—had to stay at inferior hotels to their amateur team mates who, in the main, had enough unearned income not to need payment. In some cases however, including that of W. G. Grace, amateurs were secretly paid to ensure that they did not have to openly turn professional. Although officially abolished 20 years ago, vestiges of this traditional separation linger on today. Similar distinctions arose in the United States where, until 1947, the major league baseball teams consisted of white players only. There were separate leagues for negro players. Now many of the major league teams have more black than white players on their staff. In none of these cases was their any legal backing for discrimination, whereas in South Africa apartheid operates within a legal framework, as a result of legislation passed by successive National Party governments since 1948.

The aims of the apartheid policies pursued by the South African government since 1948 are analysed in depth in our pamphlet The Problem of Racism, published in 1966. This government has represented the interests of the Afrikaner farming section of the ruling class, and the policy has been an attempt to preserve the values and attitudes of the old agricultural order and hold back the development of industrial capitalism. The latter is largely controlled by the English speaking capitalists, who would much prefer a free market in labour to the present restrictive situation. Until a few years ago the Afrikaners had a big advantage because of their unity, while the opposition became fragmented. However the increasing Afrikaner involvement in industry and the development of modern capitalist farming have led to dissensions within the National Party, as a section want some relaxation of apartheid rigidity, and others see this as “the beginning of the end”. In the case of its policy on sport, pressure from outside has combined with a shift in Afrikaner attitudes to produce some quite significant changes.

When the National Party government took power in 1948 they applied a rigid apartheid policy in sport as in all other walks of life: sportsfields, seating and clubs were segregated. World reaction took some time to gather pace, but eventually boycotts of South African players started to mushroom. Eventually an attempt was made to apply the policy to visiting teams also, and the situation reached a critical point when it was announced that a New Zealand rugby team, including Maoris, would not be allowed in. On 4 September 1965 the then Prime Minister, Verwoerd, addressing a meeting at Loskop Dam, spelled it out thus:

Our standpoint is that just as we subject ourselves to another country’s customs and traditions without flinching, without any criticism, and cheerfully, so do we expect when another sends representatives to us they will behave in the same way, namely not involving themselves in our affairs, and that they will adapt themselves to our customs.

(Quoted in The Broederband, Ivor Wilkins and Hans Strydom, Paddington Press 1979)

This statement was like fuel on the fire but, for a time, the government stood firm. To them, the policy seemed quite fair and they may well have expected it to be accepted. When it became obvious that it was seen very differently abroad, the next Prime Minister, Vorster, changed the policy and allowed the Maoris to tour. However he told Parliament a few weeks later: “Inside South Africa there will not be mixed sporting events, irrespective of the proficiency of the participants. On this there can be no compromise, negotiations or abandonment of principle” (Ibid).

Wilkins and Strydom also relate how the Prime Minister had to ride a tremendous backlash from hard line Afrikaners. These reactionaries did not consider sporting prestige important enough to justify any weakening in apartheid, and were perfectly prepared to accept complete isolation if that was the only alternative. It was very probable that Vorster decided in 1968 to “sacrifice” cricket as a sop to these critics. Although both games have their origin in Britain, in South Africa rugby is primarily an Afrikaner game while cricket is mainly played by the English speaking population. This was the year of the “D’Oliveira crisis”. Basil D’Oliveira, a Cape Coloured and as such ineligible for selection by South Africa, had qualified for England and been chosen to tour. “To a cheering (Orange) Free State National Congress, Mr. Vorster announced that D’Oliveira’s selection was political and unacceptable” (Ibid).

Except for a visit the following season by an Australian team (which incidentally lost every Test Match by enormous margins). South Africa has played no cricket at international level since then. The position with rugby was only slightly different. The 1970 New Zealand tour was a great success, the Maori players being among the most popular. In 1974 a British Lions team arrived and shocked the Springboks by winning three of the four international matches and drawing the other. It was now obvious that South Africa faced an indefinite period of total sporting ostracism and a decline in standards through lack of the necessary level of competition.

The Afrikaner government was in a terrible dilemma. Wilkins and Strydom report that a 1974 survey of opinion within the Broederband, and exclusive Afrikaner body, showed 97 per cent in favour of national sporting policies for every “nation” to be affiliated with world bodies (a policy rejected by these bodies because the “nations” were not considered to be independent); 92 per cent were opposed to mixed teams being fielded in sports other than athletics; whereas 93 per cent accepted the inclusion of non-whites for the Olympic Games, but as an interim measure only. Yet despite this, writing only four years later, Wilkins and Strydom could predict that “in about two years all races will play together on club, provincial and national level, will sit together on stands, will use all the club facilities such as bars and toilets, and that no more applications for permits will be needed”.

Certainly significant changes have been made. The pressure from abroad, combined with internal pressure from inside and outside Afrikanerdom, has overcome a white backlash which, observing events elsewhere on the continent, was and still is terrified of the consequences of “giving in to the blacks”. A British Lions rugby team visited South Africa in 1980 and played against non-whites in some matches. A South African touring party, containing some coloured players, visited New Zealand in 1981. Despite these isolated events however the sports boycott of South Africa is still virtually complete.

Internationally the capitalist class has reacted in fairly predictable fashion to the anti-capitalist policies pursued by the National Party governments. While perfectly prepared to trade with and invest in South Africa, openly or secretly as circumstances dictate, they have nevertheless made it clear that they expect conformity to normal capitalist practice; for example an open labour market, without the reservation of certain classes of jobs for whites. The expulsion of South Africa from the Commonwealth in I960 was a result of this stand.

However, whereas countries like Great Britain—where capitalists are mostly white—would be satisfied with a South African capitalism dominated by a white ruling class, this does not appear to be the case generally. Countries like India and the emergent ‘Third World” nations, where the capitalists are mostly non-white and perhaps under pressure from extremists in their own ranks, want rather more. South Africa has now become an anomaly in another sense: it is the only part of the continent still under white rule. It could well be that India, for instance, feels that better trading terms could be obtained from a non-white ruling class (a class of wealthy Indians has long been in existence) rather than from white capitalists still harbouring old prejudices from the apartheid era.

This difference is reflected in the field of sport. Sporting bodies in states such as Britain and New Zealand, expressing satisfaction with efforts in South Africa to provide multi-racial sport, show some willingness to resume relations. The position of New Zealand is particularly delicate. The large farming element there may to some extent sympathise with Afrikaner attitudes, and their main sport is also rugby football. South Africa and New Zealand have traditionally had the best teams, so New Zealand players and turnstiles have keenly felt the loss of fixtures with the Springboks.

Walter Hadlee, past New Zealand cricket captain and test selector, gives expression to his frustration in an article in the 1982 Wisden Cricketer’s Almanack entitled “The Escalating Effect of Politics in Cricket”. He criticises the Gleneagles Agreement drawn up by Commonwealth governments in June 1977 to effect a common policy on sporting links with South Africa, aptly noting: “Different interpretations have given rise to endless controversy, much of it still continuing . . . Governments and anti-apartheid groups never seem to clarify their demands by setting out the precise requirements to be met either by the South African government or the sporting bodies concerned”. Hadlee interprets Gleneagles as meaning that when apartheid is no longer practised in any particular sport, normal relations can be resumed. From this viewpoint he comments on South African cricket that “they attained this in 1977”. Similar impatience was displayed in an editorial in the April 1982 issue of The Cricketer International“. “India, Pakistan and Guyana, for instance, exercise some repression on ethnic or religious grounds. Moreover cricketers from these countries have cheerfully played with and against South Africans in England. Where should principles stop being applied?”

In non-white dominated countries a different view is taken. Here the Gleneagles agreement is interpreted as demanding an end to apartheid—not just on the sports field. They question whether the multiracial South African teams now being fielded are in fact selected on merit. Here there is a practical problem. Because of years of discrimination, only a few non-whites have achieved the necessary standards. What may be a genuine selection on ability can appear to an outside observer as an attempt to appease critics by fiddling one or two non-white “passengers”.

In this case the counter discrimination does not stop at a refusal to play against South African representatives. Teams and individuals who have previously played in, or against, South Africa are also boycotted. The England cricket tour of India last winter was jeopardised because Geoffrey Boycott and some other members of the party had played and coached in the Republic (coaching mainly non-whites, incidentally). On that occasion a declaration by Boycott of his personal opposition to apartheid was accepted by the Indian government. However, when Boycott and other current England players travelled with the rebel band earlier this year, the only way in which India and Pakistan would agree to go ahead with their projected tours of England this summer demanded that these individuals be prevented from taking the field against them.

To prevent a crippling loss of much needed gate receipts, the Test and County Cricket Board had no alternative but to impose a ban lasting for three years on the selection for England of these rebel players. More extreme action has been taken in the West Indies. The Guyana government cancelled a Test Match because the England team included Robin Jackman, a player with a South African wife, who had played in South Africa. The West Indies Cricket Board cancelled a projected cricket tour by a New Zealand team because of the 1981 tour of New Zealand by the South African rugby team. In neither case, it appears, were the opinions on apartheid of the individuals objected to considered to be of any importance.

Criticism is often directed at individuals for allegedly introducing politics into spheres of activity which, it is said, should be outside the political arena. Sport is often considered to be such a sphere, but the criticism is manifestly absurd. Because the class division of present-day society is to some extent reflected in all aspects of life, informed comment on any of these activities, particularly by those who seek to abolish this class division, must of necessity be political in content. We have seen, how pressure applied in the field of sport, but with the broader aim of modifying the wider South African society, does appear to be meeting with some success. It does increasingly look as if this story of sport and apartheid will not end until South Africa has a non-white capitalist government. The present white ruling class can scarcely be expected to acquiesce in this, as it will inevitably mean the reduction of many of them to the status of wage workers. The present unstable condition of many black African states increases still further the paranoia of the rich South African whites. Yet even the establishment of a black capitalism in the Republic will not prevent sundry prejudices from bedevilling sport, as in all aspects of life.

E. C. Edge