Sport and political struggles, beyond the great men


I had a heart sinking moment when I turned on the radio on Thursday night (5 December) to find that the discussion was all about the death of Nelson Mandela – not because I felt a personal sense of loss, I didn’t know the man, but because, unchecked, the first thought that came to mind was: let the beatification begin. I winced at the thought, it felt unkind, uncharitable and rude – after all, here was an icon of the late 20th century of whom the satirical US publication The Onion said “Nelson Mandela Becomes First Politician To Be Missed”. The subsequent news reporting, in the UK at least, has borne out my worry. We have the slightly bizarre sight of major political figures on the right – David Cameron and Nigel Farage – singing the praises of the man and the struggle he stands in for (Marina Hyde, in The Guardian, explores this hypocrisy at as does Bill Berkowitz in the US at Truth Out) while few commentators have had the gumption of James Bloodworth at Left Foot Forward to highlight things he disagreed with Mandela about. The really frustrating thing though has been the equation of the icon with the struggle, an equation that mirrors the writing of South African history to minimise the role of anti-apartheid forces that were not part of groupings clustered around the African National Congress (ANC).

Don’t get me wrong here, Mandela’s death is significant – it deprives us of a living, breathing, moral icon (and therefore already partly beatified) who could challenge the forces that seek to oppress and denigrate the vast mass of the world’s population. As an honorary Elder, along with Desmond Tutu, Mandela gave us a moral reference point, although like many icons there is a sense that this was a reference point that we could often define to suit our own needs. It should be taken as no sign of disrespect to Ela Bhatt, Lakhdar Brahimi, Gro Harlem Brundtland, Jimmy Carter, Hina Jilani, Graça Machel, Mary Robinson or any of the other Elders that they do not evoke the sense of emotional, moral or political power that Mandela does.

It suits the interests of Power, however, to have this narrative run as the tale of a single man, for the icon to become the movement. Doing so minimises the role of activists whose small and not so small acts of dissent reveal courage in the face of power. I’m thinking here of people like Cheeky Watson, whose Christian convictions and belief in a common humanity led him to refuse the offer of a trial for the 1976 Springboks to play New Zealand in favour a move to a club that played in small non-racial competition in the Eastern Cape. Non-racial sport was usually ruled illegal under the apartheid era’s Group Areas Act that designated various parts of South Africa for the use of it four distinct ‘racial’ groups. Watson’s decision resulted in social, economic and cultural costs in his White community. I‘m thinking also of Graeme Mourie, the All Black captain who refused to play against South Africa when the Springboks visited New Zealand in 1981 and with the exception of tours later that year to Romania and France, was, as a consequence, effectively excluded from any significant involvement in rugby for over 15 years. The official line was that he was excluded from rugby because accepting royalties for his autobiography breached rugby’s amateur rule; in practice, this rule was noted more for its breach than its honouring, except for those who rocked the boat. These dominant discussions of political activity emphasise the iconic leaders and not the daily stories of struggle by the great mass of people who consciously or unconsciously resist, desist, refuse to take it anymore and chip away at the edifice of power until it can be pulled down, whose wars of position create the circumstances for a war of movement, to use Gramsci’s terms. In doing so, those élite focussed stories weaken our ability to resist.

These are the struggles that get lost in the ways these public discussions emphasise the leaders of that resistance; there is no doubt that Mandela’s adoption of Springbok iconography during the 1995 Rugby World Cup, wearing the captain’s jersey for instance, was an inspired move towards reconciliation in the post-apartheid era – but this was the stance of the statesman, not the freedom fighter. We can make a compelling case that the ANC did not have much to do with the sport related anti-apartheid struggles within the country and many of its leaders we remember were in exile or in prison; it had little on-the-ground presence in much of South Africa during the 1970s, for instance, coming very late to the mass activist movement emerging from the school children’s rebellion in Soweto in 1976. On-the-ground organising was more likely to be seen by the ANC’s rival groups, the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC), the admittedly small but effective Unity Movement of South Africa (UMSA) or most obviously the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania (BCMA), whose equally iconic figurehead Steve Biko had been killed in a Port Elizabeth police station in 1977. On-the-ground sports-related organising was predominantly seen in non-racial groups – not the internationally focussed South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee (whose Olympic focus means it is well studied in sports scholarship – and that’s another story), but groups like the Spring Rose Rugby Football Club affiliated with KwaZakhele Rugby Union (Kwaru), the club Cheeky Watson played for. Elsewhere we saw similar struggles in groups such as the Western Province Senior Schools Sports Union, now being explored by Francois Cleophas. As scholars we have barely scratched the surface of this issue.

These ‘small’ stories are the important ones, they are the ones that made and make other political changes possible. During the anti-apartheid struggle they played out beyond South Africa, for instance, we see them in the phone call I received from the elderly mother of a friend and fellow protest leader on the morning that the Springboks played in Palmerston North, where I lived during their tumultuous 1981 tour of New Zealand. This tour saw riot police in the streets of major cities (we hadn’t seen this since 1951 and even then they were just ‘ordinary’ police, not dedicated riot squads), the army building barbed wire barriers around rugby fields to keep protestors out, the threat of martial law to ensure rugby matches were played; it saw families torn apart with supporters and opponents in many cases unable to talk to each other; it saw massive social dislocation as part of an election ploy by the conservative National Party to shore up its flagging support (unbelievably, the current National Party Prime Minister claims not to remember whether he supported or opposed the tour). My friend’s mother called to ask me to keep an eye on him, just in case there was any trouble; this unsettled me – I was a wimpish student and had been nervous even when we did our how-to-hold-the-line-when-the-riot-police-charge training; my friend worked in the local meat packing factory, freezing works as they’re known in New Zealand – he wasn’t a big guy, but he was tougher than me and I’d hoped he’d be one to stick close to if there was trouble of the kind we’d seen three days beforehand when riot police attacked a march in Wellington’s Molesworth Street. We lost the battle – the tour ran its course – but the extent of dissent and the intensity of the struggle meant we never saw an apartheid era Springbok team again and the cultural edifice that was apartheid-endorsing rugby union was significantly undermined; by itself this was nowhere near fatal, but in concert with a wider global struggle this campaign helped bring down the régime and create the conditions for Mandela the statesman.

So, Mandela’s death and the (at the time of writing, two days of) reporting we’ve seen around it has prompted me to look back at one small aspect of the anti-apartheid movement, although it is a part that is close to home and a major part of my research work. Doing so reminds me of the stories, the histories that do not get told when icons become the mode of reporting and doing the past. We should, of course, honour Madiba-the-icon, remember that he stood for a just world and offered hope and an image for many in tough times, but we should remember also that before he was the iconic figure adopted by the Right as well as the Left, he was a freedom fighter hated by the Right and advocating an analysis hotly contested on the Left; after becoming an icon he remained a politician whose party is increasingly in collaboration with the oppressive forces he challenges as an icon. We should make sure also that the public discourse that highlights the icon, the great man, is not allowed to obscure the daily moments of banal cultural (including sporting) resistance by the people who prefer not to abide by the rules laid down by Power but to be the mad people in the forest who decide to do things differently. But then we’re unlikely to see the current dominant discussions remind us that Mandela also told us that “No single person can liberate a country. You can only liberate a country if you act as a collective” or “When a man is denied the right to live the life he believes in, he has no choice but to become an outlaw”.

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Malcolm MacLean is an historian by training with a first degree in anthropology and has worked in the public service and universities in the UK, New Zealand and Australia. Malcolm has research and teaching interests in popular culture, popular movements and colonial and imperial history. He is a former Chair of the British Society of Sports History and is currently Vice President of the International Society for the History of Physical Education and Sport and Special Issue Editor of the International Journal of the History of Sport.


  1. Thanks for this read. I walked beside you on so many of these events. Your own mother phoned me – a then tiny 16/17 year old to ask me to keep an eye out for you! You was frightened for you, but also so very proud.

    Thank you for reminding us that it is the collective action, on any issue, that makes the difference.

    Your essay reminded me of the Anne Frank quote – ”Isn’t it wonderful that none of us need wait a moment before starting to change the world.”


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