Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 29 May 2020

Significance of South African all-white cricket team's tour being scrapped in 1970

It's been 50 years since South Africa's 1970 cricket tour was called off by England

SOWETO - OCTOBER 27: Nelson Mandela shakes the hand of Alec Stewart of England before the Tour Match between South Africa Invitation XI and England held on October 27, 1995 at the Elkah Oval, in Soweto, South Africa. (Photo by Getty Images)
SOWETO - OCTOBER 27: Nelson Mandela shakes the hand of Alec Stewart of England before the Tour Match between South Africa Invitation XI and England held on October 27, 1995 at the Elkah Oval, in Soweto, South Africa. (Photo by Getty Images)

May 22 will be the 50th anniversary of an announcement that represented the first real crack in the wall around the racialist apartheid government in South Africa.

That was the day, back in 1970, when England’s Cricket Council announced that they had been instructed to call off a planned tour by an all-white South African cricket team.

In the aftermath, South Africa was steadily excluded from international sport. Not until 1992 would a South African team play test cricket again, or compete in the Olympics, until the edifice of apartheid was crumbling and Nelson Mandela, released from prison in 1990, was on the way to becoming the country’s first black president.

Much of the credit for that momentous decision to cancel the tour was due to one of the most effective political campaigns to have taken place in Britain between the end of the Second World War and the recent Brexit campaign.

Unlike Brexit, this campaign was not well-funded, nor devised by well-established political and economic interests.

20th December 1969: Anti-apartheid marchers, including David Sheppard, Bishop of Woolwich (second left) and (from left) Anne Kerr MP, Methodist preacher and christian socialist Lord Donald Soper and Ian Mikardo MP, on their way to Twickenham rugby ground. (Photo by Central Press/Getty Images)
20th December 1969: anti-apartheid marchers, including David Sheppard, Bishop of Woolwich (second left) and (from left) Anne Kerr MP, Methodist preacher and christian socialist Lord Donald Soper and Ian Mikardo MP, on their way to Twickenham rugby ground. Central Press / Getty

Instead, it arose out of a group of young opponents of South Africa’s racialism, supporters of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), who decided to mount protests against the tour and against an earlier tour, in the winter of 1969-1970, by the South African all-white Springbok rugby team.

The previous winter, a tour by England’s cricket team had been blocked by the South African authorities because the Marylebone Cricket Club, the heart of English cricket, had selected a South African-born player, Basil D’Oliveira, then playing in England, as a member of the team.

D’Oliveira had come to England because, of mixed Indian-Portuguese descent, he was classed as non-white or ‘Cape Coloured’ and could not hope to play for South Africa.

In reply, the Stop The Seventy Tour (STST) campaign was launched in autumn 1969 to block all-white South African sporting teams from visiting Britain.

15th August 1955: English cricketer Denis Compton lofts a ball from Heine (SA) to log for two runs at the start of the second day's play in the final Test Match against South Africa at the Oval in London. (Photo by Dennis Oulds/Central Press/Getty Images)
August, 15 1955: English cricketer Denis Compton lofts a ball from Heine (SA) to log for two runs at the start of the second day's play in the final Test Match against South Africa at the Oval in London. Dennis Oulds / Getty

The idea for the campaign was developed by a loosely-knit group of young political activists, all engaged with the activities of the AAM and many of them involved in the then-large youth section of Britain’s Liberal Party.

“I won’t bother to arrest you,” a policeman told me as he escorted me out of the ground. “I think you’ve been dealt enough with already”

One, Peter Hain, whose family, active members of the South African Liberal Party, had fled into exile in Britain a few years earlier, was selected as spokesman and chairman of STST.

A former vice chairman of the Young Liberals and a member of the AAM executive, I was another member of that initial group.

Conventional protests or protests in parliament, we realised, would not be sufficient to put an end to the rugby tour or the cricket one to follow. Instead, non-violent disruptive action would be required.

During the winter, wherever the Springboks went to play in England, and in Wales and Scotland, they were met by large protests. Games were disrupted by demonstrators running on to the pitch.

Large crowds gathered outside the grounds to voice their objections. Against a background of growing media interest and increasingly nervous rugby authorities, STST led the campaign to mobilise thousands of people, young and old, of political views that ranged from moderate Conservatives to the left or of none.

Even former Test cricketer David Sheppard, then the Bishop of Woolwich, and the future England captain, Mike Brearley, backed the cancellation of the summer 1970 tour.

Although Britain then had a Labour Government, many prominent members of the Labour Party, inside and outside Parliament, along with the trades unions and a whole range of other organisations also called for the cricket tour to be cancelled.

The Springbok rugby tour eventually staggered to an end, its players conceding that they had been stunned by the demonstrations against them.

And with the summer approaching, along with a general election due in June, the Labour Government decided to order that the cricket tour should be called off.

I remember, in considerable detail, my involvement in the events of that winter of 1969-1970.

A particular memory is of the rugby test match between England and South Africa at Twickenham. Clambering over the fence, evading the policemen, I managed to reach the middle of the pitch before I was tackled by an enormous member of the Springbok front-row. I can almost feel the bruises now.

“I won’t bother to arrest you,” a policeman told me as he escorted me out of the ground. “I think you’ve been dealt enough with already.”

As Peter Hain said in an interview last week, “We were regarded as revolutionary Communists and anarchists, as long-haired weirdos. We were none of those things.”

South African captain Clive Rice (R) and Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin at the coin toss before the 1st One Day International between India and South Africa at Eden Gardens in Calcutta, India, November 10, 1991. This was South Africa's first tour after readmission to the ICC. Shaun Botterill / Getty
South African captain Clive Rice (R) and Indian captain Mohammad Azharuddin at the coin toss before the 1st One Day International between India and South Africa at Eden Gardens in Calcutta, India, November 10, 1991. This was South Africa's first tour after readmission to the ICC. Shaun Botterill / Getty

Those of us who were involved in those events have moved on over the last half-century. Peter Hain became Young Liberal chairman, then joined the Labour Party and served as a cabinet minister under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

I became involved in the Middle East and eventually moved to Abu Dhabi over 40 years ago.

We both share the satisfaction not only of having played a small part in that historic campaign but of knowing that we and many others stood up, against considerable odds, for what we knew was right. I am deeply proud to have done so.

Peter Hellyer is a consultant specialising in the UAE's history and culture

Updated: May 21, 2020 05:21 AM

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