A bunch of decrepit old Australians had a particular interest in South Africa’s astonishing win at the World Cup in Yokohama last week. As a delighted and inspirational black captain, Siya Kolisi raised the Webb Ellis trophy high in victory, some of us had teary eyes. We are some of the survivors of a bunch of Australians who almost 50 years ago were heavily involved in the 1971 anti-Springbok campaign.
To recap, in 1971 South Africa was still sending all white, racially selected teams to those countries who would accept their players. Australia under Billy McMahon was enthusiastically one of those countries. It was particularly important for this sporting connection between the two ‘great white brothers across the ocean’ to be broken because sport was such an important source of morale for the Apartheid regime.
Tens of thousands of Australians protested against the unwelcome tourists. Union bans were imposed, police leave was cancelled, hundreds of demonstrators were arrested, the Premier of Queensland declared a State of Emergency and seven Wallabies announced that they were not available for selection.
I had been quite a rugby fan until the 1971 tour. I supported the Galloping Greens and my schoolgirl hero was Ken Catchpole. However, after the traumatic incidents of 1971 when I was arrested on five occasions and given a two month gaol sentence, I stopped supporting rugby – did not watch another game for twenty years.
In 1990 Mandela was released from prison and in 1993 a Springbok team came to play rugby in Australia. It had been selected on a ‘non-racial’ basis but only had one black player who did not feature in the tests. I was asked by the media at the time would I go out to watch them and I remember thinking about it seriously.
I eventually decided that I wouldn’t watch South Africa play rugby again until black Africans had democracy – one person one, vote which happened in 1994.
So in 1995 with a democratic South Africa involved in the World Cup – actually taking place in South Africa (so beautifully depicted in the Clint Eastwood film Invictus) I was very happy when they achieved that stunning victory and Nelson Mandela wore the culturally significant number 6 Jersey of the captain of the Springboks. We all remembered the famous comment made by Prime Minister Verwoerd and echoed by Vorster that ‘a black man will never wear the Springbok Jersey’.
South Africa has had to institute an affirmative action program (racial quotas) in order to get African players into the team. Progress on integrating the team after 1994 had been very slow and famous South African Constitutional Court Judge, Albie Sachs (who had lost an arm in a car bomb attack) always claimed that the rugby authorities did not really have their heart in it. There is still some dissent in the rugby community about this quota approach. Some old timers consider that affirmative action has damaged the Springbok culture.
So there is a doubly important reason for joy now that the result of this affirmative action strategy has resulted in six black players in the team AND has brought the Webb Ellis trophy home to South Africa.
I have recently been involved in an exhibition project called Memories of the Struggle: Australians against Apartheid which was staged at the Customs House in Sydney, then at the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra. The enthusiastic curator Angus Leendertz was then invited to show it at Constitution Hill in Johannesburg and later at The Castle in Cape Town. I attended both these South African openings and it was a truly fascinating experience. What was most obvious though, was that the photos and memorabilia of the sporting protests were the most visited parts of the exhibition. The 1971 tour still has resonance in South Africa today.
There was a moment during the opening of the exhibition in Johannesburg that I will never forget. The official opener was the Rugby-mad Premier of Gauteng Province, David Makhura. When he spied a giant photo of Wallaby Anthony Abrahams jumping high in a line-out he insisted on being photographed with a surprised Abrahams in front of the picture. What’s more he insisted on replicating the line-out leap.
How do we feel about South Africa now? Well after my time in Cape Town, I believe that there is real hope for the future. We South Africa supporters had suffered during the Zuma period and are now quite hopeful about the new regime under Cyril Ramaphosa. Crime and corruption are still issues, but compared to the struggling democracies in other parts of Africa, South Africa is still the jewel in the African crown.
So switch forward to Yokohama in November 2019. And how do we feel?
A bunch of us who met through those hard days of 1971 have remained good friends and all of us emailed each other furiously during the World Cup.
There are the seven Wallabies who refused to make themselves available for the games against the Springboks and a number of them actively campaigned against the tour. They were all heroic characters and I have remained good friends with two in particular Jim Boyce and Anthony Abrahams.
Also in our email fraternity is John Myrtle, a bookish intellectual from Canberra, who was the leader in 1971 of an important organization called Campaign Against Racism in Sport (CARIS). The other person in this group of Springbok watchers is Larry Writer who several years ago wrote a rousing report about our 1971 campaigns called Pitched Battle.
The emails dropped like confetti after the historic South African win and we all admitted to emotional responses.
The other group that need to be brought into this discussion are those Aboriginal activists who worked so hard on the campaign to boycott the Springboks. Paul Coe, Gary Foley and Billy Craigie turned up at the demonstrations wearing Springbok jerseys which Jim Boyce had given them. Vorster’s quote was continually used in media stories about this confronting act, ‘A black man will never wear a Springbok jersey…’
Putting their own huge issues momentarily aside, they were relentless in the 1971 campaign and gave huge moral impetus to the campaign.
In fact a giant photo of Gary Foley wearing a borrowed Springbok jumper sitting in the rain with a sign saying ‘Pardon me for being born into a nation of Racists’ was the major photograph in the Johannesburg and Cape Town exhibitions.
Surely the photo of Siya Kolisi in his real Springbok jersey joyously raising the Webb Ellis trophy is the ‘top and tail’ of this significant story.
Dr Meredith Burgmann was a co-convenor of the 1971 ‘Stop the Tours’ campaign and was later an academic, a Labor MLC and President of the NSW Legislative Council