Appearing in the Australian – Review, 1 July 2017
What Happens on Tour, Stays on Tour
Pitched Battle: In the frontline of the 1971 Springbok tour of Australia
By Larry Writer
Scribe, $35, 336 pages, ISBN 9781925321616
1971 is not quite long enough ago to have assumed the neutrality of history but is beyond the clear memory of most people. Presumably, Writer’s intention in Pitched Battle is to reiterate a political conflict of the time before it slips into the mist.
For those not familiar with the period, in the early 1970s South Africa represented the apex – nadir might be the better term – of discrimination, with the system of apartheid dividing the country along racial lines, including in sport. Writer emphasises that rugby union was tied firmly into the Afrikaner political culture, with its emphasis on toughness, grit, and bloody-minded muscle. And the South African team, the Springboks, was very good at it.
For the left-leaning group of Australian protesters at the centre of Pitched Battle, operating under the rubric AAM, for Anti-Apartheid Movement, the issue was that a racially-chosen team, representing a racially-based government, should not be welcome in Australia. A central figure was Meredith Burgmann, who provides a good deal of first-hand comment throughout the book (she later became a senior Labor politician). On the other side of the debate were conservative forces arguing that sport and politics should be kept separate, and that singling out South Africa made little sense when teams from communist regimes, for example, were welcomed.
It is hard to not admire the principle and tenacity of the AAM, especially since opinion polls at the time did not show much support for them (although the numbers were often confusing). Drawing on the lessons of the American civil rights movement, they sought to be disruptive but non-violent. Some of their ideas to interfere with Springbok games even had a streak of humour – the plan to use a remote-controlled model airplane to drop smoke bombs on the field would have been something to see, but unfortunately it did not get off the ground.
As the tour got under way the protests gained momentum and numbers, spreading from the sports grounds into the streets and even to the hotels where the South African players stayed. Some of the members of the AAM were not unsympathetic to the players, who had been invited to play football and now could not leave their rooms without being spat on.
One problem facing the AAM organisers was that there was no way to monitor everyone who demonstrated in the name of opposing apartheid. Throughout the Springbok tour, police would confiscate tennis balls stuffed with tacks and broken glass; screwdrivers; knives, and lead pipes filled with gravel. Considering the arsenals of the combatants in the demonstrations and riots that would ensue all over Australia, the injury tolls should have been no surprise.
Writer should, one feels, have given this issue more attention. Who were these people, and what were they trying to do? While his focus on the liberal activists of the AAM gives the book a narrative coherence it means that many players in the story remains offstage. Writer is clearly a highly capable researcher, so why did he not seek to contact some of the radicals?
Unsurprisingly, the violence begat violence, with militants from the far-right as well as thuggish football fans wading in. As the tour ground on – the Boks had a consistent winning record, by the way – the atmosphere grew increasingly poisonous. And then the new-ish Premier of Queensland, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, upped the ante by declaring a state of emergency, which gave the police almost untrammelled powers. Law and order, and no matter the number of broken bones.
The last leg of the tour was relatively quiet, as if everyone was worn out. The Boks left quietly but it was clear they would not be returning. The story, however, was not quite over. The South African cricket team had been invited to tour Australia. Which brings Sir Donald Bradman – yes, the Donald Bradman – into the book. As the chair of the Australian Cricket Board, he was initially inclined to continue with the invitation but was keenly aware of the devastating consequences of the rugby tour. He contacted Burgmann to seek her views, and there was a significant correspondence between them.
Eventually, Bradman travelled to South Africa, and met with the country’s Prime Minister John Vorster. Vorster intimated that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites and therefore incapable of appreciating cricket, which prompted an angry Bradman to ask Vorster if he had ever heard of Garfield Sobers.
One way or another, the invitation was withdrawn, and South Africa found itself effectively locked out of international sport.
Did this constitute a win? The AAM activists seemed very willing to pat themselves on the back but it should be remembered that the apartheid system rolled on for another twenty years. It eventually collapsed due its own internal contradictions and mounting demographic strains, not because its sports teams could not come to Australia. This is a basic point, and it needs examination. The story that Writer tells is interesting enough but there is a yawning hole where the book’s conclusion should be.
Maybe Writer would say it was another brick in the wall, a symbolic victory. Ah, symbolism: is it what politics is really about or the last refuge of the unconvincing? Bit of both, perhaps. In the end, Pitched Battle is not a bad book, but a willingness to cast a broader net, and provide a wider historical view, would have made it a much better one.