The Sports Teams Who Defied The Apartheid Boycott of South Africa
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The Sports Teams Who Defied The Apartheid Boycott of South Africa

While apartheid South Africa came under blanket boycott from many international sporting bodies, there were teams who defied the ban. Those included England cricket and rugby sides, which led to bitter acrimony at home.

This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.

On 24 September 1968, the Marylebone Cricket Club announced that their tour of South Africa was cancelled. The newspaper prints whirred into action, as the resultant media frenzy began. The England cricket team had been due to travel to South Africa under the MCC's auspices, but were now informed that they would be staying home on account of the bitter controversy that had been swirling around the tour for months. That controversy centred on a polite, well-spoken, Cape Town-born all rounder named Basil D'Oliveira, who had been hoping to represent his adopted country, England, at the wicket and on the pitches laid over his native soil.


While D'Oliveira was an excellent cricketer, a consummate gentleman and, by most accounts, a thoroughly decent man, the South African government of the day had one major problem with him. The problem was that, as a man of mixed Indian and Portuguese heritage, he was a 'coloured' cricketer included to face an all-white South African team. The deeply unpleasant John Vorster, then National Party premier, was dead set against D'Oliveira's inclusion in the MCC squad, even if he tried to maintain a facade of conciliation in the months before the tour's scheduled start. As a former Nazi sympathiser and a staunch champion of apartheid, Vorster was never going to allow a supposed racial inferior to show his sporting worth and so embarrass his segregationist regime.

D'Oliveira playing against Pakistan in 1967 // PA Images

In the build-up to the tour, everything had been done to deter D'Oliveira from making himself available to selectors. In a series of cloak-and-dagger moves from English and South African cricketing officials and politicians, he was offered bribes, threatened, induced and cajoled, though none of these intrigues came to fruition. Unlike those plotting his exclusion from the team, D'Oliveira was a man of principle, character and firm resolution, and was not going to be denied the right to represent England in the same way he had been with South Africa. What's more, public opinion in Britain was solidly behind him. Attitudes towards apartheid were hardening, and the general consensus was that D'Oliveira's treatment at home and abroad was anything but cricket.


Though his selection was in doubt in the weeks leading up to the tour, an injury to bowler Tom Cartwright saw D'Oliveira included. Vorster reacted in predictable fashion, saying: "We are not prepared to receive a team thrust upon us by people whose interests are not in the game but to gain certain political objectives which they do not even attempt to hide. The MCC team is not the team of the MCC but of the anti-apartheid movement." If the snub to D'Oliveira wasn't enough, the insult to English cricket more generally helped to ferment public uproar. The MCC saw the light and cancelled the tour altogether, while Denis Howell, Labour's sports minister, called Vorster's accusations "ludicrous."

The D'Oliveira affair, as it would become known, did a huge amount for the anti-apartheid movement in Britain. It also increased the momentum of various efforts at sporting boycott, with the ICC imposing a moratorium on tours to South Africa in 1970. Though the Proteas were due to travel to England that year and the MCC were still happy for the return tour to go ahead, public opinion and political pressure saw them withdraw the invitation. At the same time, the South Africa rugby team's tour of England and Ireland was greeted by mass anti-apartheid demonstrations, including an attempt to hijack the team bus in London and a 'lie in' on the streets of Dublin which blocked the team's route to Lansdowne Road.


Demonstrators during South Africa's tour of England and Ireland in 1970 scale the posts // PA Images

It should be said that, prior to the D'Oliveira affair, several sporting boycotts of South Africa were already in action. The South African Football Association had been suspended by FIFA in 1961 for practising segregationist policies, while South Africa had been barred from the Tokyo Olympics in 1964. In early 1968, with the scandal concerning D'Oliveira in its incipient stages, the United Nations general assembly called for a boycott of all South African sports teams which were organised along apartheid lines. The majority of sporting bodies began to cut ties with South Africa, and the seventies and eighties saw them incrementally ostracised from cricket, rugby, track and field, golf, tennis and, from 1974 onwards, even chess.

That said, though sporting boycotts were backed by UN directive, they were not universally adhered to. In cricket and rugby union especially, there were teams who defied anti-apartheid sentiment and chose to tour South Africa regardless. Despite further sporting sanctions against South Africa, as well as the Gleneagles Agreement of 1977 – in which Commonwealth leaders further agreed to discourage links to South African sport – and the condemnatory 'Register of Sports Contacts with South Africa' set up to pressurise individual athletes by the United Nations in 1980, not everyone was deterred from maintaining relationships with apartheid-era teams.

At various points throughout the seventies, English county cricketer, businessman and sports promoter Derrick Robins organised private tours of South Africa. There were no sanctions against individual cricketers who toured the country at that point and, as such, despite condemnation by politicians, activists and many cricket fans, several big names in the sport decided to join him on these overseas jaunts, with the likes of Brian Close, Bob Willis and Tony Greig involved. Robins largely shrugged off the criticism his tours attracted, and even went as far as to suggest that by fielding multi-racial teams – West Indian cricketer John Shepherd was included on two of his tours – he was helping to break down apartheid. Naturally, not everyone bought this explanation, and perhaps owing in part to the reaction in Britain he made South Africa his part-time home from 1975.


After the Gleneagles Agreement and a series of increasingly strict motions from the ICC, there were still several excursions to South Africa which came to be known as rebel tours. Often made up of jaded veterans or naive youngsters and enticed by generous financial incentives from corporate sponsors – this in an attempt to avoid the furore that would have resulted from National Party financing – cricket teams from England, Sri Lanka, the West Indies and Australia went on a total of seven unofficial trips. The first of these was an 'English XI' led by Graham Gooch in 1982, with news of their tour only breaking when they arrived in Johannesburg that March. The 12 cricketers involved had planned the expedition in secret, and were prepared to ride out the public opprobrium and any sanctions issued by the ICC.

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Unfortunately for the rebels, the subsequent outcry was rather louder than they had expected. They were vilified back home by press and politicians, while condemnation of the tour made it into the Houses of Parliament where they were described as 'The Dirty Dozen' by Labour MP Gerald Kaufman. English cricket was dragged through the mud both domestically and internationally, both by the association with apartheid and the unseemliness of cricketers playing purely for money. For many, the rebels had gone against everything English cricket stood for, and all for a reported payday of around £40,000 to £60,000 each.


In South Africa, the team were lionised, with many newspapers heralding the homecoming of international cricket and predicting a return to the sporting fold. It was a domestic propaganda coup for the apartheid regime, which further damaged the touring team's reputation back home and abroad. The tour was a fiasco, with an underprepared, ageing and increasingly demoralised English team losing all their matches against South Africa. When they returned to England, they were met with a wall of anger. The rebels, who totalled 15 cricketers in the end including injury cover and late additions, were given three-year bans from international cricket, which in the cases of Geoffrey Boycott, Mike Hendrick, Geoff Humpage and Bob Woolmer effectively ended their international careers.

The Sri Lankan and West Indian rebel tours of the mid eighties were even more acrimonious, with many of the rebels' compatriots denouncing them as traitors and apartheid collaborators. All of those who participated received lifetime bans from their respective cricket boards, and often found themselves frozen out from social, civil and professional life. The issue of money was again controversial, making it easy for the press at home to characterise them as mercenaries who had sold out their countries. In the case of the West Indian tours, opinion was perhaps more divided, with some arguing that their good showings in South Africa were actually a public blow to racism and apartheid rhetoric.


Events in South Africa were moving rapidly at this point, with outbreaks of violent civil disorder serving as the backdrop to the rebel cricket matches. This seriously undermined the position of those who argued the tours were a positive, and it was suggested that they were being used to cover up the increasing brutality of the regime. In the midst of the two Australian tours of 1985/86 and 86/87 led by former Baggy Greens captain Kim Hughes, Australian Prime Minister Bob Hawke openly called the travelling players "traitors". Speaking in a recent interview with ESPN, former rebel and Australian fast bowler Rodney Hogg said: "I thought that if it was okay for Hawke to trade with South Africa, it was okay for me to go and play cricket there."

READ MORE: How the Africa Cup of Nations Became a Powerful Propaganda Tool

It was certainly true that there were some double standards at work when it came to boycotts of South Africa, with many governments encouraging business links to the country, tacitly or otherwise, while advocating sporting bans. With her administration blocking economic sanctions against the apartheid regime on multiple occasions, it's perhaps little surprise that Britain under Margaret Thatcher was the most regular contributor to rebel tours. Another English XI, featuring the likes of Mike Gatting, Tim Robinson, Bill Athey and Chris Broad, travelled to South Africa in early 1990, at a time when apartheid was near to collapsing and massive change was on the horizon. This was seen as especially crass, in that it was a last sop to a dying form of governance on the eve of Nelson Mandela's release.


Unlike the previous English rebel tour under Gooch, Gatting and co. were paid by the apartheid government, drawing widespread revulsion from the cricketing establishment and those watching developments at home. With South Africa gripped by protests as a result of their presence, the touring party were met with angry crowds and several seriously threatening situations. Once again, heavy bans and suspensions were handed out afterwards, and several careers came to a premature end. A follow-up tour in 1991 was unsurprisingly cancelled, with the disgrace of the first expedition more than enough for those involved.

During the eighties, in defiance of the Gleneagles Agreement, there were rugby tours to South Africa by the British and Irish Lions and England, while France and Ireland also travelled in the face of international reproof. While there was a certain square-jawed arrogance to the rugby establishment's reaction to protests, even they had to bow to public pressure and the Lions tour of 1986 was eventually called off. Nonetheless, South Africa remained a member of the International Rugby Board throughout the apartheid era, which is no doubt part of the reason that various national governing bodies maintained cordial relations with them. Unlike in cricket, where India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and the West Indies had a say, world rugby was still an overwhelmingly white sport and did little to show that it was inclined any other way.

As apartheid began to crumble as a policy in the early nineties, South African sports teams were slowly rehabilitated and the various sporting boycotts came to an end. The European Community announced the end to its members' boycotts in June 1991, while India ended its own veto on South African sport that same year. Soon enough, after the groundbreaking elections of 1994, South Africa were hosting the Africa Cup of Nations and winning the tournament with a multiracial team. There was also their iconic Rugby World Cup triumph in 1995, which for many seemed to usher in a new age of South African sport unshackled from the policies of the apartheid regime.

Mandela during the 1995 Rugby World Cup // PA Images

Watching this on television, at home in their armchairs or in their club bars, one wonders what the reaction was from those sportsmen who flew in the face of the sporting boycotts. For some, there was no doubt further shame and embarrassment, and for others, an intransigent sense of self-justification. Having profited from their tours of apartheid South Africa, some were doubtlessly still glad of the money, and not going to exercise themselves over an abstract point of principle. For the rest of us, it is perhaps best to leave them to judge whether they sold their honour for a high enough price.