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FIRST PUBLISHED IN SUNDAY TIMES LIFESTYLE ON MARCH 25, 2007

One man, one big boycott


NO HONOUR AT HOME:  Basil D’Oliveira meets Queen Elizabeth at his international début at Lord’s on June 16, 1966  PICTURE: © BAILEY’S HISTORY ARCHIVE 

In 1968, then Prime Minister John Vorster made a decision that exiled a talented South African batsman and plunged the country into two decades of sporting isolation. SUE VALENTINE looks back in anger

IN August 1968, at a National Party congress in Potchefstroom, cheers greeted the news that the black Cape Town-born cricketer, Basil D’Oliveira, would not be part of the English team to tour SA later that summer.

After a glittering career in the segregated black leagues and captaining a "black Springbok" side that toured Rhodesia and East Africa, D’Oliveira had left his home in 1960 to pursue his career in a country without a colour bar.

D’Oliveira earned his first cap for England in a test against the West Indies at Lord’s in 1966. At the end of 1967, Wisden, the Bible of international cricket, listed him as one of the top five cricketers of the year.

The possible inclusion of D’Oliveira in the 1968 English touring side had provoked much debate and considerable back-room manoeuvring within the ruling NP.

Apartheid was at its height, and Prime Minister John Vorster was adamant that black and white South Africans could not play sport against each other. But, at the same time, the government wished to avoid international isolation because of its policies. Obfuscation and double-speak characterised official communications.

Vorster’s government intimated that any touring team selected on its merits would be accepted, but in reality it wanted to avoid contact between mixed sides and all-white Springbok teams - and the possible implications for race relations among South Africans.

In the interests of preserving this status quo, white SA administrators and some sympathisers in the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) were anxious to avoid D’Oliveira’s possible inclusion in the squad.

When the UK manager of the Carreras Tobacco Company, Tienie Oosthuizen, approached D’Oliveira with a coaching offer that included a car, a house and an allowance of £40 000, D’Oliveira refused[end pullquote]

According to Bruce Murray, a Wits University historian, the plot to dissuade D’Oliveira from continuing his career in England was hatched in Vorster’s office. A "well wisher" linked to Anton Rupert’s tobacco empire would offer D’Oliveira a lucrative contract to coach black players for the SA Sport Foundation (of which Rupert was patron), provided he did not make himself available for the English tour to SA.

However, when the UK manager of the Carreras Tobacco Company, Tienie Oosthuizen, approached D’Oliveira with a coaching offer that included a car, a house and an allowance of £40 000, D’Oliveira refused.

Weeks later, on the evening of August 27, following the final match in a test series against Australia, the MCC selection committee met at Lord’s. Ironically, on the same day, a hand-written National Party Cabinet minute reads: "As D’Oliveira gekies word, is die toer af." (If D’Oliveira is selected, the tour is off.)

The MCC selection committee sat into the early hours of the morning. When the team was announced, D’Oliveira was not included.

There was an outcry in England and some members of the MCC resigned in protest. It was widely suspected that English cricket authorities had left D’Oliveira out because it would upset their SA hosts.

British journalist Michael Parkinson wrote in the London Sunday Times: "Last Wednesday a group of Englishmen picked a cricket team and ended up doing this country a disservice of such magnitude that one could only feel a burning anger at their madness and a cold shame for their folly."

Shortly afterwards, when the English bowler Tom Wainwright withdrew from the team because of injury, the MCC named D’Oliveira as his replacement.

The NP establishment was outraged. Vorster denounced the side as the team of the anti-apartheid movement and not the MCC. To tumultuous applause at an NP congress in Bloemfontein, Vorster said, "We are not prepared to accept a team thrust upon us by people whose interests are not the game, but to gain certain political objectives which they do not even attempt to hide."

In a move that sealed its sporting isolation for the next two decades, SA cancelled the English tour.

However, the precedence for political interference and the enforcement of a colour bar in SA cricket was set long before the D’Oliveira incident.

Prime Minister John Vorster was adamant that black and white South Africans could not play sport against each other

In his book, The Story of an African Game, André Odendaal, a historian linked to the University of the Western Cape, recounts the exclusion of Krom Hendricks (a "Malay") from the first SA team to tour England in 1894.

A pace bowler, Hendricks was singled out by the visiting English captain of 1892 as central to any SA side that might be selected to tour England. Some white members of the SA Cricket Association, as well as The Star newspaper, advocated for his inclusion. By contrast, the Cape Times suggested Hendricks go along as the "baggage man" so that there could be no objection to his presence.

The matter was closed when the head of SA cricket, Sir William Milton, after consulting the Cape Prime Minister, Cecil John Rhodes, vetoed Hendricks’s selection.

Odendaal observes that the Krom Hendricks saga "entrenched segregation in South African cricket and confirmed that the English political and sports establishments were responsible for this, and not the apartheid government of the Afrikaners, a myth perpetuated by some journalists even today".

Cricket in SA was a game that developed among all South Africans who came into contact with British culture — whether by choice or by conquest. Odendaal, who is also head of Western Province Cricket, cites as one important influence on the history of SA cricket the mid-19th-century prophecy of Nongqawuse, which led to the cattle killing and contributed to the destruction of Xhosa independence.

In the wake of the tragedy, Sir George Grey, the Cape governor, pressed home his mission to "civilise" the Xhosa. He persuaded various chiefs to allow their children to receive a British education. School attendance rose from 2 827 pupils in 1856 to 15 568 pupils at some 700 mission schools by 1885.

In 1858, Grey sailed from East London to Cape Town, accompanied by 35 Xhosa "princes and princesses" bound for a new college located briefly at Bishops Court and then at Zonnebloem on the edge of District Six.

In 1864, Zonnebloem College fielded two teams of young black cricketers in their first away games against Rondebosch in 1864 and Wynberg in 1865.

Sport played a significant role in all public schools in the Cape Colony, as well as in the extensive network of mission schools in the Eastern Cape.

The most famous mission school was Lovedale College, established near Alice in 1841. It became a nursery for an African elite — who also had a deep love of cricket. Until World War Two, more than half of all African matriculants in SA came from the British-influenced Eastern Cape schools.

"The mission generation of the late 1800s were achievers beyond what they were supposed to be," Odendaal says. "They started newspapers, they studied overseas and they became lawyers. They had a universal vision that was unbelievable."

In the decades that followed, black cricketers with minimal institutional support organised clubs, leagues and inter-provincial tournaments.

Odendaal argues that black South Africans were as much the pioneers of cricket administration as their local or international counterparts.

What is remarkable, he says, is the "amazing resilience and dignity of people" in the face of persistently thwarted opportunities and blatant inequalities.

"When you look at D’Oliveira’s SACBOC team from the 1950s, six of them currently live in New Zealand, Australia, Britain and Canada. This is one example of the devastating loss of potential and talent that [SA] has experienced."

It’s been less than two decades since cricket was officially desegregated in SA, scarcely enough time to unlock the potential that was suppressed for so long. But the cheers of the NP faithful in Potchefstroom have long since faded, and as the Proteas take to the pitch in the West Indies in 2007, South Africans can cheer for a team that represents us all.


» Archive Photo Gallery 
Spotlight on a reluctant hero: Basil D’Oliveira in action on the field and in top hat and tails at Buckingham Palace 
» Map 
How to get to the memorial
» Panorama 
Take a 360° tour of the memorial site at the entrance to Newlands 
» Video Archive 
Footage of the 1968 England-Australia test, and of BJ Vorster explaining why D’Oliveira could not play in his own country