'There will be a black Springbok over my dead body': Sport, Life and Protest from 'Pitch Battles'

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Supporters of the Anti-Apartheid 'Stop the Tour' movement parade with posters outside the Grace Gate at Lord's. (Photo by R. Taylor/PA Images via Getty Images)
Supporters of the Anti-Apartheid 'Stop the Tour' movement parade with posters outside the Grace Gate at Lord's. (Photo by R. Taylor/PA Images via Getty Images)

“There will be a black Springbok over my dead body.”— Dr Danie Craven, President of the South African Rugby Board, 1969

Just a year after the controversial D’Oliveira affair, the organised disruption of the all-white 1969/70 South African rugby and cricket tours to Britain represented a significant challenge to apartheid politics. Led by future cabinet minister Peter Hain, the ‘Stop the Seventy Tour’ campaign brought about the cancellation of both tours, presaging white South Africa’s expulsion from the Olympics and the end of apartheid sport altogether.

Interspersing a wide range of examples with personal testimony, Pitch Battles explores the themes of sport, globalisation and resistance from the deep past to the present day. Published in the same year as the Stop The Tour documentary from acclaimed director Louis Myles, this compelling story of sacrifice, struggle and triumph reveals how sport should never be divorced from politics or society’s values.

This year two seismic global events overtook and enhanced the relevance of our new book Pitch Battles. 

Dramatic #BlackLivesMatter protests sparked by the callous killing by an American police officer on 25 May in Minneapolis of a black man, George Floyd, sent shockwaves reverberating around the world.  

In a filmed horror lynching that lasted eight minutes and forty-six seconds, officer Derek Chauvin clamped his knee over Floyd’s windpipe, ignoring his anguished plea, ‘I can’t breathe’. 

The protests quickly spread from the United States to other parts of the world, shedding light on the depth of systemic racism throughout societies globally, sport included, still persisting despite official policies opposed to it. 

The impact of this terrible killing was heightened by the fact that it took place in the middle of the unprecedented Covid-19 global pandemic – which, at the time of writing, has infected more than 35 million people, and killed over one million. More than half of humanity, some four billion people, were put into a state of lockdown, and whole economies ground to a halt – eerily pictured by ghost airports, deserted streets and empty sports stadia. 

Every major sports competition on the planet was suspended. 

The virus has caused a rethink about our world, politically, socially, environmentally, technologically and economically; the ‘normal’ propounded by global elites and monopolies is not an unchangeable reality, and sport is no exception.  

The tragedy of human beings expiring while separated from loved ones, often attached to ventilators as space-suited medical staff bravely tried to help, and then that single public killing, has led to an upswell of solidarity.  

Pitch Battles: Sport, Racism and Resistance. (Phot
Pitch Battles: Sport, Racism and Resistance. (Photo: Jonathan Ball/ Supplied)

The Black Lives Matter movement emphasises how black and indigenous people all over the world remain subject to oppressive structures and power relations shaped during 500 years of Western conquest – taking in colonialism, slavery and the development of an exploitative global economic system – leading to a chasm between rich and poor.  

As the first comprehensive single-volume account of the making of the most racist sports system in the world – South African sports apartheid – and the ensuing six-decade-long struggle to overthrow that iniquitous system and its effects, Pitch Battles offers lessons that link directly to the ferment of energy and ideas in the Black Lives Matter movement. 

While our book marks the fiftieth anniversary of the militant protests that stopped the all-white South African cricket tour to Britain in May 1970, the events of 2020 reinforce its interconnected themes. 

From the Western DNA of systemic racism in modern sport to the agents of change – black sportspeople and their allies who spoke up against the odds, often at great cost to themselves – this book traces how sport is inseparable from justice and human rights issues.  

Questions raised by the pandemic and Black Lives Matter also resonate closely with many of those that have emerged in South Africa over the past few decades as it has moved from apartheid and the liberation struggle to becoming a democratic country, though with the expectations of that transition in many ways unfulfilled.  

Going back 50 years, many rugby and cricket fans were horrified by the direct-action protests that caused widespread disruption of the all-white 1969–70 Springbok rugby tour and the subsequent stopping of the 1970 cricket tour to Britain.  

Yet, with fifty years’ hindsight, that presaged the end of apartheid sport.  Former British cabinet minister Lord Peter Hain (brought up in South Africa) led militant direct-action demonstrations against those tours and, with one of South Africa’s foremost sports historians and fellow anti-apartheid activist André Odendaal, shows how decades of international campaigns and the rise of the ‘non-racial’ movement inside South Africa helped change a country and led eventually to a Springbok team captained by a township kid, Siya Kolisi, winning the 2019 Rugby World Cup.  

That pulsating, emotional, dramatic victory over an England team that had vanquished New Zealand consigned to history rugby supremo Danie Craven’s defiant statement.  Amidst the 1969-70 anti-Springbok protests in Britain he said: ‘over my dead body will there ever by a black Springbok.’   

This is a riveting story of vision, sacrifice, complex contestation, struggle and hard-earned change, full of human drama. Those opposing the sports apartheid system faced trial, torture, hardship and hanging. 

Pitch Battles rests on the little-known contextual detail stretching from early colonialism to the coronavirus to explain the deep connections between the nineteenth-century British origins of globalisation, racism and gender discrimination in sport, and contemporary developments.  And shows why sport can never be divorced from politics or society’s values.  

Sportsmen and women who had rarely stood against injustice or inequality have started speaking out. Trusted sports establishments – including the richest sports league in the world, the US National Football League, were compelled to apologise and respond. For generations, sportspeople had been in denial about the racism ubiquitous in global sport. The mantra to ‘keep politics out of sport’ thrown at Peter Hain’s militant stop-the-tours protesters is fervently contested in this book.  

In 2016 US basketballer Colin Kaepernick led with his protest against racism – and was effectively sacked for it. Yet four years later, in June and July 2020, Britain’s Premier League soccer teams followed his lead and bent down to ‘take the knee’ when their season resumed after being halted for over three months by the Covid-19 pandemic. 

So did most Formula One drivers when their race season began belatedly in Austria, led by multi world champion Lewis Hamilton, the only black driver in Formula One – and the most successful driver ever in the sport – who eloquently demanded diversity in motor sport and gave the black power salute on the podium after his first victory. The very black power salute US Olympic medallists John Carlos and Tommie Smith were punished for giving on the 1968 Olympics podium.

Other sports – also in South Africa – followed, as officials and competitors, who had for generations resisted taking a stand on issues of human rights and injustice, have found themselves swept up in the tide for change.

However the refusal of South Africa’s cricket team to ‘take the knee’ in the current T20 series is extraordinary.  Given the apartheid legacy still haunting South African sport, if there was one national team in the world that ought to have taken the knee in solidarity with Black Lives Matter, surely it is here? 

But will the change that has reverberated around sport globally and locally be fundamental? This depends on whether the pressure endures once the sense of outrage subsides. Meanwhile Pitch Battles illuminates and reinforces the case for sport to acknowledge and act upon its social responsibilities in a way it has rarely ever done.

Pitch Battles: Sport, Racism and Resistance, by Peter Hain and André Odendaal is published this by Jonathan Ball and retails at R310.

Book Hamper December giveaway 

Arts24 is giving its readers the chance to win a book hamper with the following titles 

  • Pitch Battles: Protest, Prejudice and Play by André Odendaal and Peter
  • Miracle Men: How Rassie’s Springbok’s Won the World Cup by Lloyd Burnard
  • Believe Us: How Jürgen Klopp Transformed Liverpool Into Title Winners by Melissa Reddy
  • Shoemaker: Reebok and the Untold Story of a Lancashire Family Who Changed the World by Joe Foster

To stand a chance to win, subscribe to Arts24 as well as our weekly newsletter The Arts24 WrapUp before 25 December, 2020.

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