Peter Hain and Co were ‘taking the knee’ decades ago
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CAPE TOWN - He was the scourge of privileged white sportsmen, administrators, politicians and fans in apartheid South Africa.
How dare this upstart from a white middle class family in Johannesburg turn traitor against his own community! Despite threats of attacks and imprisonment, he was one of the architects of a militant direct action and political activism movement in exile that brought apartheid sports to its knees, depriving sports-mad white South Africans of any international competition in cricket and rugby in the five decades leading up to democracy in 1994.
In the UK, Peter Hain and his fellow activists achieved this through the effective disruptive tactic of pitch invasions that were the bane of apartheid sport, especially in Britain, Australia and New Zealand.
“When you invade the pitch and impose yourself in a Gandhian way among the players in direct but non-violent action to the heart of their project, it is effective. It provoked violence from rugby fans and the police. It wasn’t us who initiated it.”
Little did they know they were metaphorically already taking the knee, which has become a defining symbol of rooting out racism in global sport today.
That racist abuse in sport on the field, in the stands and on social media platforms is alive and kicking today is a reminder, says Hain, that the struggle towards non-racial sport must continue and requires constant vigilance, pressure and calling out.
Today Lord (Peter) Hain cuts a dapper figure of a grandee of British politics – a prominent ex-Labour MP, cabinet minister in Tony Blair’s administration and now a peer in the British House of Lords.
That militant activism of yesteryear remains in his DNA, albeit much tempered.
“Given that sport was set up on a globalised basis, in tandem with colonialism,” he reminds, “it is inevitable that it still retains its racist roots institutionally, and in terms of its structures and attitudes. A lot of progress has been made, but there is still much to do. Racism is still a widespread thing. The booing of the England football team taking the knee is proof that there remains a kind of cultural identity clash here.”
Hain teamed up with his close friend, Andre Odendaal, a prominent Cape non-racial sports activist, to pen Pitch Battles (published in July by Rowman & Littlefield).
It is a riveting account “of the making of the most racist sports system in the world – South African sports apartheid and the ensuing six-decade long struggle to overthrow that iniquitous system and its effects”.
They wanted the book to coincide with the 50th anniversary of stopping the 1970 white South African cricket tour of England in May 2020.
Covid-19 scuppered that, but it allowed them to cover the impact of the pandemic on global sport, the recurring incidents of racist abuse on social media, the globalisation of sport and the nefarious roles of some governments.
The book “rests on little known contextual detail stretching from early colonialism to the coronavirus to explain the deep connections between the 19th century British origins of globalisation, racism and gender discrimination in sport, and contemporary developments – and why sports can never be divorced from politics or society’s values”.
No wonder he strongly opposes the over-commercialisation of sport and it’s disconnect from community and society.
The recent failed attempt to establish the European Super League (ESL) is a case in point, “because it is the pinnacle of neoliberalism in sport, where the richest and most successful clubs want to keep it all to themselves. I have always argued that you can’t divorce sports from life. There is racism in sports because there is racism in society. There is inequality and enormous riches at the top and poverty at the bottom. That reflects society.
“The ESL clubs are the rich elites of British and European football. Yet they can’t exist without grassroots support. The revolt against the ESL showed how powerful fan power is no matter the wealth and status of the club owners. Unless ordinary fans pay for TV subscriptions to see matches, the clubs are nothing without this. It is the people’s movements – Anti-Apartheid Protests, Black Lives Matter (BLM), Votes for Women – that force change.”
In South Africa, however, there remain reactionary forces who despise the Springbok emblem as a symbol of white supremacy when generations of black and brown players have aspired to wear the same jersey on merit for more than a century.
“This is not what the non-racial sports movement in South Africa fought for. The Zuma supporters, Magashule and the reactionary factions – they are about grabbing power and wealth for themselves and not about transforming power for the people. They are about corruption, state capture and personal enrichment.”
Hain is sanguine about post-apartheid’s sports transformation progress. He agrees that much needs to be done to transform grassroots sports, especially in deprived areas in terms of accessibility and affordability. The government and administrators, he says, have to be honest about this.
Siya Kolisi was an exception, plucked out of abject poverty and destitution.
“If he hadn’t been, who knows what would have happened. But we have to celebrate the advances that have been achieved. Kolisi hoisting the World Cup in Japan is an extraordinary change, but it is only the tip of the iceberg, underneath which massive inequality still exists.”
Is the BLM movement a distraction as highlighted by the pushback by some whitewashing the wrongs of the past by selective amnesia, or outright refusal to apologise, such as golfer Gary Player?
“Progress,” he adds, “doesn’t happen overnight or because you take a knee. I have long realised that change takes a long time. The impact of BLM and those players who have led the taking of the knee has been seismic. But it is insufficient because it is still a symbol. It is important that white players across the English leagues who are taking the knee are willing to do so knowing that they are doing so consciously. Of course, all lives matter, but black sportsmen and women and their ancestors have suffered historically for a couple of centuries of sporting racism. It was outrageous that the Proteas did not take the knee. Of all the teams representing their countries globally, that was the one that should have done so.”
To Hain, the idea of Gary Player being a sporting ambassador for the New South Africa is grotesque and would be intolerable given his proven record on apartheid and his abject failure to apologise.
“If he had come out and said: ’I was wrong’, Nelson Mandela was prepared to forgive, but not to forget. Ali Bacher said to me after we fought each other over the rebel Mike Gatting Cricket Tour of South Africa in early 1990: ’You were right and I was wrong.’ I credit him for doing that. I deprecate Gary Player for uncompromisingly being stuck in the old apartheid moral.”
* Parker is an economist and writer based in London