Cover of book: Pitched Battle

Larry Writer
Pitched Battle

It’s nearly a half-century since the South African Springbok sporting tours of Australia were bailed up by a series of protests. The campaign, and that in Britain, foreshadowed the Gleneagles agreement, which locked the sports-mad apartheid nation out of international competition. Protesters from the sports world, the anti-Vietnam left and the Black Power movement rallied outside the Springboks’ hotels and charged the pitches, disrupting the games. Throughout the protests’ vicissitudes, the abuse, the arrests and the risk to life and limb, one suspects the thing that most tormented and infuriated was the stock response of the tours’ many supporters that they just wanted to “keep sport out of politics”.

That platitude was still echoing a decade later when the increasingly beleaguered regime organised rebel tours of international cricketers in need of a quick buck. Fainter by then, in the ’80s, but still current, it was the measure of a wilful blitheness that the South Africans relied on in seeing a kindred spirit in Australia. Where their racism was assertive, explicit and crazed, we hid ours from ourselves. 

No wonder the Springbok rugby players were surprised in 1971 when they met not only demonstrations but mass social resistance in cities such as Adelaide. By the time the tour had limped to Queensland, hillbilly dictator Joh Bjelke-Petersen had declared a “state of emergency”. As one of the protest leaders, Meredith Burgmann, noted, this made the police response near lethal but put the campaign on the global map. A planned tour by the cricketing Springboks was then cancelled, with ACB chairman Donald Bradman explicitly stating the whites-only recruitment policy of South Africa as a reason. 

Larry Writer has pulled the history together into a rollicking tale, if a little too smoothly. He leads from the sporting side of events, and though he has ably documented the politics of the main white protest group, the Anti-Apartheid Movement, he only briefly touches on the divisions within the campaign – particularly the complex relations between white protesters and the Black Power groups, led by Paul Coe, which confronted the AAM with its inattention to Aboriginal oppression – divisions that supercharged activism here. It deserves more of a run in what is nevertheless a reminder of a time when we led the world in human rights, what seems like a lot longer than a half-century ago.  XS

Scribe, 336pp, $35

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 15, 2016 as "Larry Writer, Pitched Battle".

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