The widespread international outcry at South Africa’s apartheid regime brought cricket to the forefront of political debate from the late 1960s until its collapse in 1992. The oppressive white nationalist regime had, as a feature of their policy of racial segregation, banned interracial domestic cricket. Sport, having always played such a central role in South African consciousness, became a vehicle for repression, with black facilities and coaching lagging well behind, and the benefits of racially integrated activity deliberately avoided.
English cricket began its strained relationship with apartheid South Africa in 1968 when a Coloured batsman of South African origin, Basil D’Oliveira, who had been successful playing for England, was left out of the Marylebone Cricket Club’s England touring squad. D’Oliveira’s exclusion was overtly political – the apartheid government considered it unacceptable to have a black player playing in the series. When injury and domestic political pressure forced the MCC to include D’Oliveira in a revised squad, the tour was called off at the apartheid government’s insistence.
A planned tour of the all-white South African cricket team to England in 1970 was cancelled after widespread protests, orchestrated by then-young liberal, and now Labour shadow cabinet minister, Peter Hain. The protests were violent, attracted much publicity and caused great anger amongst the traditionalist establishment. Nevertheless, as a result of the popular outrage and security issues it raised, Harold Wilson’s government cancelled the tour and the newly constituted Test and County Cricket Board (TCCB) ruled that no English team was to play South Africa until the apartheid regime was ousted. Other sporting bodies across the world followed suit. It was felt that international sporting isolation was an effective political tool – it certainly provoked deep hurt to the unique sporting pride of white South Africa. The policy was, to a degree, successfully carried out, as there was no official England cricket tour of South Africa until 1995/6.
One result of isolating South Africa from international cricket was that many white South Africans emigrated to England to play. In the 1970s and '80s, many of England’s best test players were of South African origin. Allan Lamb and Robin Smith were two South African-born players who enjoyed much international success playing for England, and Tony Greig was a respected captain. Moreover, even more players came to play county cricket in England, having had promising international careers cut short by the ban. Eddie Barlow, Mike Procter, Graeme Pollock, Barry Richards and Garth le Roux are examples of talented cricketers who, were it not for their government’s actions, would have had fantastic test match careers for South Africa.
Shortly after the ban, and controversially, several tours to South Africa of county players were organised, outside the jurisdiction of the TCCB. With the support of the apartheid government, Derrick Robins, a wealthy supporter of Warwickshire County Cricket Club, organised three non-professional trips to white South Africa in 1973, 1974 and 1975. The first went largely unnoticed in the media, but John Shepherd, an Afro-Carribean player for Kent C.C.C., was allowed by the South African government to travel and play on the second tour. This was the first time a black player was permitted to tour South Africa with a predominantly white team. This should not be seen as a progressive step by the South African government. They were merely attempting to undermine the international ban and condemnation of the regime by allowing one man clemency from persecution. In order to stay in the team hotels and use the facilities, Shepherd had to be granted ‘honorary white' status on his passport. It was an objectionable PR move, not an egalitarian statement. By allowing Shephard to play, and by encouraging touring more generally, it was hoped that the international ban would be relaxed, white South Africa’s appetite for competitive cricket would be satisfied, and the decisiveness of isolationism would be diluted.
However, by the mid 1970s, general outcry against apartheid had made the organisation of any tours to SA more problematic. The governments of Guyana, India, Bangladesh and Zimbabwe cancelled test matches against England because English players were touring South Africa or playing domestic cricket there.
Many white English cricketers felt that it was an intrusion on their freedom to be prevented from earning money overseas. The apartheid government's sports body had ensured that tours would be well compensated, and, consequently, the financial rewards for playing in South Africa were rich. Nevertheless, the prevailing international opinion was that any contact with the South African regime legitimised it.
Norman Middleton, the President of the Anti-Apartheid South African Council of Sport declared that people ‘had to use whatever platforms available to confront and embarrass the whole system’. Refusing to play sport with or against South Africans was, in his view, the ‘only thing that really hurts them where they feel it’. It was stressed that isolationism could not work unless it was rigidly enforced. The Somerset batsman Peter Roebuck declared that ‘It is political freedom, not sporting freedom, that is at debate’, and that cricketers should recognise a higher purpose to their actions. Roebuck co-founded the Campaign for Fair Play in 1985 with former England captain Mike Brearley in order to spread that message more easily.
Black cricketers in England largely supported the isolation and were critical of players on amateur tours to South Africa. John Abrahams, a Cape Coloured batsman, had refused invitations to join Robins’ tours on principle. Moreover, Gladstone Small, the black Warwickshire bowler, told Cricket Life International that he would never go to South Africa while the apartheid system remained intact. He was naturally disgusted by the policy of affording black touring players ‘honorary white’ status. Internationally, Clive Lloyd, the great West Indian captain, told the United Nations that he would always adhere to a ‘principle of non discrimination in sport’, and that the apartheid regime’s attempt to buy approval was ‘contrary to humanity’. Somerset and West Indies legend Viv Richards voiced the opinion of many when he declared that 'our people have been bought and sold throughout history’ and that he would ‘never play cricket in South Africa’ for what he termed ‘blood money’ to legitimise evil.
Following this reaction to South Africa’s attempt to compromise the international isolation, a de facto ban on any tours, amateur or professional, was imposed. It was in this context that the infamous ‘rebel tours’ of 1982 and 1990 took place. With the background of outrage with South Africa’s sporting policy extending far further than county dressing rooms, it is unsurprising that when several England cricketers decided to stage a first-class tour, they were met with condemnation.
The 1982 all-white unofficial touring squad included five players (Geoffrey Boycott, Graham Gooch, John Emburey, Peter Lever and Derek Underwood) who had traveled on the previous official tour to the West Indies. Only three of the players had never represented England. The second ‘rebel tour’ in 1990 was captained by Mike Gatting. It featured the legend of Headingley 1981, Graham Dilley, Bruce French and the controversially ill-tempered current match referee, Chris Broad.
The month-long 1982 tour was organised in secret, for fear of mild protest. The players had naively not expected the worldwide outrage they faced when they signed up for three ‘tests’ and three ‘one day internationals’. The rebels were immediately labelled the ‘dirty dozen’ in the House of Commons. Labour MP Gerald Kauffman went further, accusing Gooch and Boycott of ‘selling themselves for blood-covered Krugerrands’. Desmond Tutu, then the Archbishop of Johannesburg, wrote “It is not a glorious chapter in their history. They ought not to tell their children that they came.” Large demonstrations were staged in England and attempted in South Africa. In the end, the tour passed without violent incident in South Africa largely as a result of fear and brutally-effective repressive policing.
The 1990 tour, however, came in a different political context. Nelson Mandela was released during the course of the series, the government had lost the tight grip on law and order it had maintained since 1948, the fall of the Soviet bogey man and international pressure was about to force apartheid to crumble.
The tour provided a high profile target for the newly freed anti-government movement. The squad had to evacuate their plane at Johannesberg following a bomb scare, 3,000 protestors halted the opening game at Kimberley and in the following match in Bloemfontein police used tear gas and rubber bullets on demonstrators, severely injuring dozens. On February 12th a bomb exploded at the Newlands ground in Cape Town just prior to a game. Gatting found himself pelted with stones when in public, and it may well have been worse for him had it been public knowledge that the tour’s ‘sponsors’ were fake and all money was coming from de Klerk’s government. Ali Bacher, the influential administrator of the two tours, “realised for the first time that those earlier tours were peaceful only because if there had been demonstrations those people would have been locked up in jail."
The figurehead of the tour, Mike Gatting, was not well-suited to a public political profile, and spent much time throwing fuel on the fire. Even teammate John Emburey admitted that “Gatt has never been any good at making public statements" after the captain naively dismissed protests as "a few people singing and dancing”. The international reaction to comments such as these was damning - effegies of Gatting were burnt in the streets of Calcutta and parliaments across the non cricketing world were unreserved in their condemntion.
Those who toured attempted to justify their actions by stating that cricket and politics should not be mixed. Upon being asked about Nelson Mandela in a press conference, Bill Athey bluntly said ‘he can’t bowl, can he?’. They also alleged that South Africa was used as political capital by an ailing government. This was perhaps true to an extent, but the politicization of cricket was a reality, not an option, and, in the light of that reality, it is hard to see an ethical justification for collaborating with such an immoral regime. Others offered even less convincing arguments for touring – Geoffrey Boycott typically courted controversy by suggesting the highly critical Indian government should sort out the standard of living in their own country before turning to South Africa. Gatting, in a characteristically blundering statement, while conceding ‘black people should have the vote’, stated that the evil of the apartheid regime was exaggerated. This sort of ill-advised comment furthered the illusion that the tourists supported the regime and stirred hate towards them.
In truth, the ostracism of Gatting and his fellow rebels was perhaps an overreaction. They were not supporters of apartheid, but were attracted by the financial rewards on offer. By touring, they could earn in a month what they would get for five years as a county professional. Racial segregation in sport had been the norm in South Africa long before the nationalist government was elected, and the rebel tourists were deliberately not exposed to the brutal nature of the regime.
The players certainly misunderstood the political implications of their actions and perhaps did not realise that they were being used for propaganda purposes. They were not racist, just inappropriately apolitical and perhaps guilty of a blend of greed and lack of thought. The consequences of their actions would, however, prove to contribute towards a longer-term distrust of the English cricket establishment that they later joined by other cricketing nations. The results of that distrust are still evident today.