It undoubtedly led to a major breakthrough. I don’t regret anything,” Lord Peter Hain said of the Stop the Tour protests, explored in his new book Pitch Battles: Sport, Racism and Resistance, written with André Odendaal. The organised disruption against all-white South African rugby and cricket teams heralded the end of apartheid sport, eventually leading to 2019’s Rugby World Cup-winning South African side, captained by Black athlete Siya Kolisi. The book, marking the 50th anniversary of the protests, argues sport can “never be divorced from politics or society’s values”.
Protests were sparked when visiting rugby and cricket teams from South Africa attempted to tour the UK. Describing the tactics used by the protestors during the Stop the Seventy Tour, Pitch Battles reads as entertainingly as a knockabout caper. At one point, one activist, booked into the same Park Lane hotel as the Springboks rugby team, spent the early hours “gumming up the players’ door locks with solidifying agent”. The doors had to be broken down the next morning ahead of an international.
Another protestor, dressed in a smart suit, tricked the team’s waiting coach driver into letting him on board. He promptly “slipped into the driving seat, chained himself to the steering wheel and drove the coach off”. A Springbok player later recalled, “All hell broke loose... one of the players managed to get his hands around the driver’s neck. The bus crashed into half a dozen cars... Chaos... And all this only four hours before kick-off.”
The Stop the Tour campaign “reached parts of the population” that had never before been involved in politics, according to Hain. Unlike politicians, “most people are not highly political, they’re just getting on with their lives”, and in those days the average British man “looked at the back pages before the front pages”. Sport was at first used “as a stick to beat apartheid”, affecting South Africa’s reputation on the global stage, leading to sharp drop in trade, and later, “as a carrot”. Nelson Mandela understood the healing power of sport, with his first public appearance as president at a South Africa–Zambia football match; when he later attended the Rugby World Cup final to see the Springboks play, the “99% white” crowd rose up to cheer him, chanting “Nelson! Nelson!”
In the past five years, there has been an increase in athletes speaking out against injustice. “Sportspeople shouldn’t have to transform them- selves into politicians,” said Hain. “They’re just like everybody else, going about their daily lives.” But he notes that athletes, including Lewis Hamilton and Megan Rapinoe, have felt “freer to speak out” in recent times, and that a “decisive moment” in that respect was NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick “taking a knee” in peaceful protest against racial injustice, in 2016.
Pitch Battles (9781786615220, £14.95) will be published by Rowman & Littlefield in September. The hardback is out now.
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