The Journey of South Africa from Whiteness to Humanity

Wray Vamplew
Universities of Edinburgh and Stirling

Peter Hain & André Odendaal
Pitch Battles: Sport, Racism and Resistance
503 pages, hardcover, ill.
Oxford, Oxon.: Rowman & Littlefield Education 2021
ISBN 978-1-78661-522-0

This book should be read by anyone with an interest in sport and social justice. Pitch Battlesdebunks (yet again) the adage – used to deflect criticism from those who object to discrimination in sport and teams playing against sides representing abhorrent (to them) regimes – that sport and politics don’t mix. Those who argue that sport is apolitical and is not a suitable setting for the expression of political opinions and protest are wrong. Indeed, those who state that politics should be kept out of sport are actually making political statements. The reality is that, although that they might not mix well, the two are deeply intertwined.

The authors focus on sport and racism in Apartheid South Africa, but it should be noted that racism in sport was not invented in South Africa and even in South African sport it did not begin in the Apartheid era, but under English rule. Indeed, one chapter shows how black sportsmen were excluded from participating in elite cricket from the early days of colonial rule. However, it was the Apartheid regime which explicitly formalised it under law.

Both authors are white men who supported the Anti-Apartheid movement, one from within the country, the other from London where his parents had fled after being harassed into leaving South Africa in 1966 because of their political views. Aged sixteen when he left, only three years later Peter Hain became  chairman and principal spokesman of the Stop the Seventy Tour, using non-violent direct action aimed at preventing tours of Britain by South African cricket and rugby teams. Historian and activist, Andr  Odendaal played first-class cricket and was the only white player to join the non-racial South African Council on Sport. He later became foundation director of the Robben Island Museum established at the site where many black political activists had been imprisoned. He has a long-standing commitment to bring sport, especially cricket, to the non-white population of his homeland. What shines through is the political acumen of one author and the deep knowledge of South African sports history by the other. Both men write from experience and from the heart.

Hain’s view was that attacking sport might be the way to undermine apartheid given the Afrikaner love of cricket and rugby rather than challenge the interests of international capital or military alliances, both of which underpinned the white supremacist state. His organisation of the militant (but non-violent) protests against the Springbok rugby tour disrupted many of the planned matches and led the British government to pressurise the Marylebone Cricket Club, an arch-conservative body, to drop its invitation for the South African cricket tour, resulting in the Guardian memorably declaring that ‘Hain Stopped Play’. More than that it provided a template for future anti-apartheid protests around the world.

The book provides an analytical narrative of events within South Africa and details how both whites and blacks reacted to the external forces being applied by the political activists determined to change the regime.

Although referenced, the book is not strictly an academic tome, but a highly readable political history detailing the decades of relentless campaigning both internationally but – not to be understated – also within South Africa by many who by doing so risked imprisonment and physical harm. Their efforts led to South Africa becoming a pariah sporting nation, excluded from the Olympics, cricket test matches, and the Rugby World Cup and ultimately was a key factor in the abandonment of apartheid and the coming of democracy to South Africa. The book provides an analytical narrative of events within South Africa and details how both whites and blacks reacted to the external forces being applied by the political activists determined to change the regime. It shows how attitudes changed, not just those of South African politicians and sports administrators, but those external sports institutions who initially did not object to racism, then argued that contact would improve the situation, to finally admitting that boycotts and exclusions were the only way forward. The story is interspersed with a wide range of examples often with personal testimony from the authors, contemporary comment by those involved (on both sides of the argument), and later reflective contributions (again from both sides). One admirable feature of the book is the voice that it gives to black and ‘coloured’ South African sportspersons, and especially sports administrators, previously made invisible and unheard by a regime that had no time for non-white sport.

I was disappointed by the last chapter supposedly ‘making sense of sport and globalisation today’. In it the authors conflate neo-liberal corporate capitalism and racism via growing inequalities within sport and in wider society, though without specifying the mechanism by which this takes place. Nor, surprisingly given the earlier chapters, do they appear to acknowledge the significant inequalities that existed before sport became ‘big business’.

In their concluding paragraph the authors admit that ‘the struggle goes on’.  Despite the valiant efforts of anti-racist sports bodies and the positive leadership exerted by many in sports organisations, the authors show that racism in and around sport is still there and might even be on the rise, though its nature is possibly changing from being stadium based to online trolling. To my mind the future looks bleak, but, looking back to the South African struggles, the authors perhaps are more optimistic about what can be achieved.

Copyright © Wray Vamplew 2021

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