When what happens on tour stays on tour
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