When what hap­pens on tour stays on tour

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Derek Parker

The 1971 South African rugby team tour of Aus­tralia is not quite long enough ago to have as­sumed the neu­tral­ity of history but it is be­yond clear mem­ory. Larry Writer’s in­ten­tion in Pitched Bat­tle is to re­it­er­ate a po­lit­i­cal con­flict of the time be­fore it slips into the mist.

In the early 1970s South Africa rep­re­sented the apex of dis­crim­i­na­tion, with apartheid di­vid­ing the coun­try along racial lines, in­clud­ing in sport. Writer em­pha­sises that rugby union was tied firmly into the Afrikaner po­lit­i­cal cul­ture, with its em­pha­sis on tough­ness, grit and bloody-minded mus­cle. And the South African team, the Spring­boks, was good at it.

For the left-lean­ing group of Aus­tralian pro­test­ers known as the Anti-Apartheid Move­ment, the is­sue was that a racially cho­sen team, rep­re­sent­ing a racially based gov­ern­ment, should not be wel­come. A cen­tral fig­ure was Mered­ith Burgmann, who pro­vides a good deal of first-hand com­ment through­out this book. (She later be­came a se­nior La­bor politi­cian.)

On the other side were con­ser­va­tive forces ar­gu­ing that sport and pol­i­tics should be kept sep­a­rate, and that sin­gling out South Africa made lit­tle sense when teams from com­mu­nist regimes, for ex­am­ple, were wel­comed. It is hard to not ad­mire the prin­ci­ple and tenac­ity of the AAM, es­pe­cially since opin­ion polls at the time did not show much sup­port for their cam­paign.

Draw­ing on the lessons of the Amer­i­can civil rights move­ment, they sought to be dis­rup­tive but non­vi­o­lent. Some of their ideas to in­ter­fere with Spring­bok games even had a streak of hu­mour: the plan to use a re­mote-con­trolled model aero­plane to drop smoke bombs on the field would have been some­thing to see, but it did not get off the ground. As the tour started the protests gained mo­men­tum, spread­ing from the sports grounds into the streets and even to the ho­tels putting up the South African play­ers. Some mem­bers of the AAM were not un­sym­pa­thetic to the play­ers, who had been in­vited to play foot­ball and now could not leave their rooms with­out be­ing spat on.

One prob­lem fac­ing the protest or­gan­is­ers was that there was no way to mon­i­tor ev­ery­one who demon­strated in the name of op­pos­ing apartheid. Through­out the Spring­bok tour, po­lice would con­fis­cate ten­nis balls stuffed with tacks and bro­ken glass, screw­drivers, knives and lead pipes filled with gravel. Con­sid­er­ing the ar­se­nals of the com­bat­ants in the de­mon­stra­tions and ri­ots that would en­sue all over Aus­tralia, the in­jury tolls should have been no sur­prise.

Writer should, one feels, have paid this is­sue more at­ten­tion. Who were these peo­ple and what were they try­ing to do? While his fo­cus on the lib­eral ac­tivists of the AAM pro­vides a nar­ra­tive co­her­ence, it means that many play­ers in the story re­main off­stage. Un­sur­pris­ingly, the vi­o­lence be­gat vi­o­lence, with mil­i­tants from the far-right as well as thug­gish foot­ball fans wad­ing in. As the tour ground on — the Boks had a con­sis­tent win­ning record, by the way — the at­mos­phere grew in­creas­ingly poi­sonous.

New-ish Queens­land premier Joh BjelkePetersen upped the ante by declar­ing a state of emer­gency, giv­ing the po­lice al­most un­tram­melled pow­ers.

The last leg of the tour was rel­a­tively quiet, as if ev­ery­one was worn out. The Boks left qui­etly but it was clear they would not be re­turn­ing.

The story, how­ever, was not quite over. The South African cricket team had been in­vited to tour Aus­tralia. Which brings Don­ald Brad­man into the book. As chair­man of the Aus­tralian Cricket Board, he ini­tially was in­clined to con­tinue with the in­vi­ta­tion but was aware of the dev­as­tat­ing con­se­quences of the rugby tour. He con­tacted Burgmann to seek her views. Even­tu­ally, Brad­man trav­elled to South Africa and met prime min­is­ter John Vorster, who in­ti­mated that blacks were in­tel­lec­tu­ally in­fe­rior to whites and there­fore in­ca­pable of ap­pre­ci­at­ing cricket. This prompted an an­gry Brad­man to ask Vorster if he had ever heard of Garfield Sobers.

One way or an­other the in­vi­ta­tion was with­drawn and South Africa found it­self ef­fec­tively locked out of in­ter­na­tional sport. Did this con­sti­tute a win? The AAM ac­tivists seemed will­ing to pat them­selves on the back but it should be re­mem­bered the apartheid sys­tem rolled on for an­other 20 years. It even­tu­ally col­lapsed due its own in­ter­nal con­tra­dic­tions and mount­ing de­mo­graphic strains, not be­cause its sports teams could not come to Aus­tralia.

This is a ba­sic point and it needs ex­am­i­na­tion. The story Writer tells is in­ter­est­ing enough but there is a hole where the book’s con­clu­sion should be. Per­haps Writer would say it was an­other brick in the wall, a sym­bolic vic­tory. Even so, a will­ing­ness to cast a broader net, and pro­vide a wider his­tor­i­cal view, would have made this a bet­ter book. is a book re­viewer.

Pro­test­ers in Bris­bane in 1971 rally against South Africa’s Spring­boks tour

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