Basil D'Oliviera Had a Much Larger Significance

By Leonard Gentle · 2 Dec 2011

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“What do they know of cricket, who only cricket know?” the famous injunction by Trinidadian socialist writer, C.L.R James, in his book Beyond a Boundary, widely regarded as the best work of social analysis of sport ever, may well be apt in the case of media coverage here in South Africa on the death of Basil D’Oliviera.

Tributes were confined to the sports pages where everyone picked up on the significance of the D’Oliviera affair, which led to the cancellation of the 1968 England tour of South Africa. Thereafter the dominant narrative was one of how dignified he was in the midst of the political turmoil and how much this opened the eyes of the outside world to the viciousness of apartheid and eventually led to its collapse.

But there is a yawning chasm in this narrative…

D’Oliviera’s death should have been an occasion for reflecting on the non-racial sports movement here in South Africa and how far we’ve come in achieving a truly non-racial sport and social life.

After all, D’Oliviera’s own life and times and his active involvement - often quite awkwardly – in larger political debates, reflect the successes of this movement as well as the ongoing frustrations today at the absence of significant social change in life and in sport.

The truth is apartheid didn’t simply collapse, nor was its demise primarily due to a change of heart or the indignation of an “international community”. It was primarily the struggles right here in South Africa of millions of ordinary women and men, including thousands of passionate sportsmen and women, that overcame apartheid. And the resistance movement grew to its height not so much when apartheid was at its most nakedly racist, but when it was trying to reform -- to cynically preserve power whilst tinkering with racial exclusion in certain aspects of social life. Here the non-racial sports movement played an important role fighting racist sport as well as the politics of reformed apartheid in the 1960s and 70s.

These are the struggles that drove the apartheid regime to the negotiations table. We live, today, in the successes of those struggles, but also in the frustrations of the compromises made to get us here.

This was the story of the last decades of apartheid, not the simple “kragdadigheit” of the 1950s and 60s, but a series of reforms. Suddenly, people were no longer satisfied with reforms (which appeared to be all they wanted before). Instead the reforms only solicited more protests and the poison in the reforms became the subject of new struggles. And those who were willing to take the reforms at face value suddenly found themselves being discredited.

This was the context of the early independent black trade unions of the 1970s and of the United Democratic Front (UDF) in the politics of internal resistance, which emerged as a challenge to the reforms of the apartheid regime.

But it is often forgotten today that the first attempt at reforms on the part of the apartheid regime was in sport – the then infamous “multinational” sports policy.

Cricket had been divided by race by the time of the Union in 1910. This division was cemented between 1910-1948 when the state introduced segregation on land, in cities, in the workplace, and in government. South Africa continued to play against England and Australia, with whom they had an unwritten agreement that teams would consist only of whites. Thus K.S. Duleepsinhji was omitted from the England team during South Africa's tour of England in 1929, and excluded from the English touring party to South Africa the following year.

By the time the National Party came to power in 1948, race was already deeply entrenched in South African sport. Whites who were the only ones seen as the South African nation, represented the country in sport.

For many years sporting teams from England, New Zealand and Australia disgraced themselves by accepting that South Africa consisted of white people only. All the international bodies regarded our segregated white sports bodies as representative of South Africa. New Zealand rugby teams dutifully left out Maori players from their touring parties whilst the MCC rulers over the International Cricket Council (ICC) were quite content to have two racial streams of tours – the white countries would tour South Africa and vice versa, whilst having a separate tour circuit for India, Pakistan and the West Indies.

But in both football and cricket, blacks also sought forms of “international” competition – albeit along the divisions that apartheid had created amongst the black majority. So there were cricket competitions between South African coloureds and South African Africans and even tours to African countries such as Kenya, then not a member of the ICC and, which the white South African Cricket Union (SACU) showed no desire to relate to anyway. D’Oliviera went on to captain the “SA Non whites” on one such a tour to Kenya in 1956.

D’Oliviera first showed his prodigious talent as a batsman on the treacherous matting wickets that black cricketers played on until the 1990s. He played for St Augustines in the 1950s, regarded as the "golden age" of Black cricket, with great players like Frank Roro and Ben Malamba that graced the fields.

At the time of D’Oliviera’s departure to England, however, there was a sea change happening within black sports associations. Black cricketers united in one body, the South African Cricket Board of Control (SACBOC), and in the context of the political campaigns of the 1950s, abandoned these racial categories and pronounced themselves non-racial and in direct opposition to the international legitimacy enjoyed by the white body.

Inside South Africa, the white sporting bodies were not – as they now portray themselves – mere victims of apartheid’s laws. The Danie Cravens, the Boon Wallaces, the FASAs (Football Association of South Africa) and the SACU’s were active protagonists of racial exclusion.

But by the mid-1960s this situation became intolerable, particularly after the Sharpeville massacre. Boycott campaigns of South African exiles such as Dennis Brutus’ SANROC (South African Non-Racial Olympic Committee) had led to South Africa’s expulsion from the International Olympic Committee and FIFA. Nevertheless, rugby and cricket remained under the rule of colonial diehards until the “D’Oliviera affair of 1968” brought the racist collusion of these bodies to the fore, and so a soft option had to be found.

Before the labour market reforms - from the liaison committees all the way to the more ambitious Labour Relations Act of 1979, before the bogus voting rights of the Tricameral Parliament of 1983, came the sports reforms, which the Nats hoped would re-open the door to international tours.

What was then known as “multinational sport” was touted by the Nationalists as the way to have racial mixing in sport (a concession necessary for international tours to take place) combined with preserving apartheid’s ideological rationale that South Africa actually consisted of many “nations”.

The multinational sports policy licensed bona fide sports bodies to have mixed teams and even mixed social activities at venues, which were given an “international licence” to temporarily set aside apartheid liquor laws, for instance.

The non-racial SACBOC had for many years sought to play cricket with and against the white SACU only to be rebuffed. Then, that was all they wanted. SACBOC’s Hassan Howa often remarked how he would offer SACU’s Western Province’s affiliate leader, Boon Wallace, that SACBOC members would not socialise, would even change under the trees and in the car parks, as long as they could play cricket together. The appeal was shunned.

But when the new multinational sports policy came about it was now SACU that approached SACBOC with offers of playing together -- but keeping socialisation separate. This was called, in the language of the policy of the day, “normalising sport”. But after the D’Oliviera affair, all the non-racial codes had hardened their attitudes on this question and so the answer was, “No”.

Throughout the 1970s there were rounds of such sports reforms from the state and increasingly desperate attempts, particularly by SACU, to “normalise” sport while arguing that they could not be held responsible for the laws of the country.

D’Oliviera was an important part in all this for an additional, more personal, reason. His brother-in-law, Frank Brache, broke ranks with SACBOC and joined the new SACU. So SACU sought him out as a person who could soften the militancy of SACBOC and make a success of the new multinational sports policy. D’Oliviera, on a family visit, met with Hassen Howa and the offer of such a new “normalisation” was made.

To D’Oliviera’s eternal credit, and what must have been a difficult personal conundrum for him, he and Howa took the matter to a public debate held at the William Herbert sport’s ground where all sports people were invited to take a view and argue their case.

By this time the events of Soweto 1976 were much underway, radicalising communities whose children were involved via their schools. The sportspeople who came to the public meeting overwhelmingly argued against the idea of having mixed sport whilst the broader society was segregated. Out of this event was coined the slogan “No Normal Sport in an abnormal society”, which was to become the slogan of Howa’s SACBOC and the South African Council on Sport (SACOS), founded in 1973. SACOS was to be pivotal in building the non-racial sports resistance movement in the 1970s and 1980s.

D’Oliviera was at the centre of these debates, not, to be honest, as a radical sports activist, but as someone who chose to do the right thing and not make deals behind closed doors.

D’Oliviera spanned the period of classic "kragdadig" apartheid (1950s and 1960s) with the period of its reforms (1970s). He also spanned the period where the internal sports bodies were happy to play sport on apartheid’s terms with the period where sportsmen and women had themselves become activists for social change, where they combined all the passion and the pursuit of excellence of sport with the ideals of a people fighting oppression.

He left in one period but lived through, and was unwittingly drawn into all the blood and thunder of the reform period and the struggles that the period brought about. But he never compromised his integrity by becoming the face of apartheid’s sports reforms.

Soon after his death, on SABC TV, Kepler Wessels and Robin Jackman led the tributes to D’Oliviera. Yet Wessels left South Africa to play in Australia as a white person seeking to escape the international sports boycott of apartheid South Africa. Robin Jackman, an ex-Rhodesian who qualified to play for England, played in an English sanctions-busting tour party to South Africa. In echoes of the D’Oliviera affair (but from the opposite moral side of the spectrum) he became the centre of his own international brouhaha during England’s 1980-81 tour of the West Indies. Guyana, in sympathy with the international campaign to isolate South Africa, decided to stop that leg of the tour and so precipitated the ending of the whole tour.

Basil D’Oliviera’s old club, St Augustine’s, has long moved from then working class Bokaap/Greenpoint to middleclass Elfindale and enjoys good representation in the “age-group” provincial teams. But underneath the excellence of the Proteas and the Springbok international teams, cricket, as a broad-based sport in post-apartheid South Africa, has collapsed and the old black rugby clubs now struggle to survive while their players seethe with resentment at their marginalisation in what is supposed to be a new non-racial era.

In the middle of the 2011 domestic rugby season, journalists made much of their shock at black South African spectators booing the Stormers and cheering for the All Blacks. And in the same week as D’Oliviera’s death, Sports Minster, Filike Mbalula, convened a major sports indaba aimed at looking at the vexed issue of transformation in sport once again. Meanwhile the Malema saga dragged on, poisoning the atmosphere of reconciliation (some would say) or highlighting the ongoing disparities (many others would swear) between black and white.

It appears, over and over again, that beneath the surface of the complacency of the new rainbow nation, something darker still simmers.

Gentle is the director of the International Labour Research and Information Group (ILRIG), an NGO that produces educational materials for activists in social movements and trade unions.

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