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England’s Owen Farrell in action during the Autumn International match at Twickenham Stadium, London, 2018. Adam Davy/PA Archive/PA Images

England v South Africa – a history of tough tackling and political turmoil

The final of the ninth Rugby World Cup will be contested by England and South Africa on November 2, 2019 – a sporting spectacle that will be celebrated in both countries and further afield. But rugby matches between England and the Springboks have not always been such positive affairs. During apartheid, UK rugby teams were some the biggest violators of the sports boycott against South Africa and faced domestic and international condemnation.

Cricket is often at the forefront of reflections on UK-South African sporting ties during apartheid. This is not particularly surprising, owing to the seven “rebel” tours which took place from 1982 to 1990. These now infamous tours saw stars like Graham Gooch, Mike Gatting and Geoffrey Boycott ignore the international ban on cricketing contact with South Africa. The embargo was brought in after the controversy caused by Basil D’Oliveira’s exclusion from the initial 1968/69 tour, due to his South African and mixed race heritage.

When D'Oliveira was eventually brought into the squad due to injuries to other players (and the domestic controversy his exclusion had caused) the South African government made it clear he would not be welcome and the tour was cancelled. This was followed in 1970 by the forced cancellation of the the South African cricket tour of England due to fierce protests by anti-apartheid activists. Later that year, the International Cricket Council (ICC) implemented a moratorium on contact with South Africa which was maintained until the early 1990s.

But the so-called rebels ignored the ban and were heavily criticised by those pushing for meaningful change in the country. They were even accused by some campaigners of chasing “blood money”.

Nazi salutes

But rugby was, in the words of historian Roger Fieldhouse, the “elusive goal” of anti-apartheid activists. Indeed, many of the protestors involved in the campaign against the 1970 cricket tour had cut their activist teeth during the Springboks’ 1969 visit.

Although this tour was successfully completed, several matches had to be called off due to pitch invasions and clashes between protestors, police and “vigilante” rugby fans. In the first match against a University of Oxford side, the Springbok players were taunted by large sections of the crowd with Nazi salutes and chants of “sieg heil”.

One of the main victories of the activists was getting the issue of apartheid back into the public eye in the UK. South African exile Peter Hain, a leading figure in the protests, stated that the press interest in this event was “absolutely crucial to the fantastic growth … of the campaign”. Hain’s position as the public face of the demonstrations made him a target for attack by South African agents. He was sent a letter bomb and there was even an attempt to frame him for robbing a bank.

While the UK’s cricket authorities abided by the ICC’s tour ban, the four home Rugby Football Unions (RFUs) showed little interest in ostracising South Africa. They were unmoved by calls from the Labour government to cancel the 1974 British Lions tour. Even after the 1977 Commonwealth statement (often referred to as the Gleneagles Agreement) called on all member states to “take every practical step” to stop their citizens competing against South Africans, the RFUs maintained that such contact helped break down barriers and promoted positive changes in the country.

This was a line supported by many right-wing Conservative MPs (who conveniently ignored the fact that rugby was the least integrated sport in South Africa). While Margaret Thatcher’s government upheld the Commonwealth statement, it was not an enthusiastic advocate of the sports boycott. Labour MP and Anti-Apartheid Movement chairperson Robert Hughes even argued that “merely going through the motions of quoting the Gleneagles Agreement is beginning to be regarded as a wink and a nod to go ahead” with fixtures against South African sides.

The most controversial contact under Thatcher’s government was the 1980 Lions tour. This coincided with the US boycott of the Moscow Olympics in response to the USSR’s invasion of Afghanistan. While the Conservative government condemned both the Lions tour and the USSR’s actions, Thatcher personally intervened in support of the Moscow boycott making it clear where her priorities lay.

In May 1984, the England rugby team embarked on what would be the last major tour of South Africa by an international side. This tour, the controversy caused by the decision to grant a UK passport to South African runner Zola Budd, and the British government’s general attitude towards South Africa led to 32 of the 59 eligible countries boycotting the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth Games in protest.

Reconciliation through rugby

Despite the criticism the British government received for its limited action against South Africa, its continued ties with Pretoria gave it an important role in the negotiations which brought apartheid to an end. By maintaining economic links with South Africa, Britain was able to place moderate pressure on the National Party to negotiate with the African National Congress (ANC).

The ANC also held certain British officials in high esteem, most notably Robin Renwick. Renwick was the UK ambassador from 1987 to 1991 with whom Nelson Mandela developed a particularly warm relationship. Renwick convinced Mandela that ending the sports boycott would help ease white South African fears of a multiracial future and it was agreed that a Springboks tour of England would be arranged to encourage the white electorate to vote in favour of implementing negotiated reforms in the March 1992 referendum.

Mandela became convinced that sport, and in particular rugby, could play an important role in the post-apartheid reconciliation process. He believed success in the 1995 Rugby World Cup (held in South Africa) was vital in helping to bring the country together. The image of Mandela, proudly wearing a Springboks jersey and cap – in front of a largely white crowd – as he handed the trophy to white captain Francois Pienaar went on to become iconic. Pienaar later realled: “When the final whistle blew, this country changed for ever.”

The journalist and author John Carlin later wrote a book about it which went on to be made into the Hollywood movie, Invictus. Now – 25 years after apartheid’s end – South Africa is still experiencing unrest largely due to gross social inequalities. Carlin hopes the 2019 final can provide a similarly uniting influence. It’s not clear whether an England victory will help unite the country over Brexit. But South Africa has shown the world, there’s always hope.

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