“I was a source of great hatred,” Peter Hain says with a wry smile as he remembers how, 50 years ago this month, he led passionate anti-apartheid protests against the Springbok rugby tour of Britain and Ireland. “I was seen as a traitor by South Africa’s white volk [people] and the newspapers described me as public enemy No 1. They felt I’d completely betrayed them and, because this meant white supremacy and apartheid, I was proud to do so.”
Hain, the former Labour cabinet minister who sits in the House of Lords, looks out of his Millbank office on a cold but sunlit December morning. The Houses of Parliament are just across the road and here, in the heart of the British political establishment, his white South African accent remains clear as he reflects on demonstrations that dented apartheid. Hain was 19 in 1969 when he confronted white South Africans in the sporting arena to highlight the brutal injustice of apartheid. He became a despised figure in his home country and among conservative British society.
“It was startling but I soon realised it came with the territory,” Hain says. “There was no social media in 1969, so it came in different forms of a vicious kind. It started with letters written in green ink and led to direct threats to kill me.”
A new film called Stop the Tour, a powerful documentary by the director Louis Myles, captures the impact of the protests. It also explains how Hain’s motivation was to block the South Africa cricket tour of England in 1970 – and how the touring Springbok rugby team became a dress rehearsal of vehement anti-apartheid protests from early November 1969 to late January 1970.
I was eight when the tour ended and, as a boy living near Johannesburg, it was the first time I realised the outside world hated South Africa. Our white suburban lives were shaped by racism and privilege and it needed the sports protests and eventual boycotts to force boys like me to wonder what was wrong with our country.
Hain was a bogeyman in white South Africa and so, 50 years on, with our shared background and enduring love of sport, it feels evocative we should meet a month after the Springboks won the 2019 Rugby World Cup with a black captain, an Afrikaans coach and a truly mixed team picked on merit.
The 1969 protests marked a seminal moment in the rise of the anti-apartheid movement in Britain. It needed another 25 years for Nelson Mandela, who was a friend of Hain’s parents, to become South Africa’s first democratically elected president. But the global struggle against apartheid gained impetus from Hain’s actions.
“It was decisive,” Hain says. “When the anti-apartheid struggle was only on the news pages it could be dismissed by white South Africans but when you stopped their rugby and cricket teams it hit them right in the gut. They were shunned by the rest of the world politically but their cricket and rugby teams were feted in sports stadia around the world. I was cricket-mad and a real Graeme Pollock fan – but I knew sport was the one arena where we could expose white South Africans.”
Hain’s critics condemned him for mixing “sport and politics”. Yet sport, like everything else under apartheid, was deeply political. “My brother and I were football-mad youngsters although we went to Pretoria Boys High – a rugby-playing school,” Hain says. “Our local team was Arcadia Shepherds. We supported Arcs every Saturday they were at home. My mom and dad would somtimes come with us and we’d go to the ground with black friends involved in the anti-apartheid struggle. Then we’d separate because there were white and black sections. The black section was vociferous and full of the most partisan cheerleaders for the all-white Arcadia Shepherds.
“In 1962, they brought in a proclamation to ban black spectators from white stadia. But these guys shinned up trees overlooking the grounds, so they could see the game. The police used alsatian dogs to pull them down and they were dragged away screaming in agony, with blood pouring from their arms and legs – just because they wanted to watch their football team. The horror of it burnt deep into my memory. So the idea of politics not being mixed with South African sport was a complete absurdity. Yet we were repeatedly accused of bringing politics into sport.”
Hain’s parents were arrested for their work against apartheid and served with banning orders – a Kafkaesque sentence where they were effectively under house arrest.
Rather than being frightened, Hain’s family circumstances forged in him “a determination not to be beaten, a determination to keep fighting the cause in whatever way I could. This meant supporting my incredibly courageous parents.”
When his father’s political work cost him his job in 1966, the Hains were forced into exile in England. “None of us wanted to go. We were leaving our friends and never coming back. That was the pain of it. We went to England by boat and sailed past Robben Island. The Cape rollers threw the boat all over the place and I remember looking at Robben Island and thinking, ‘What can it possibly be like for Mandela and his comrades?’ They were only two years into their prison sentence and I was just 16.”
Three years later, in London, Hain resolved to lead direct action against South Africa’s cricket tour of England in 1970. He had been galvanized by the South African government’s refusal to allow the England team to tour in 1968 – because they called up Basil D’Oliveria as a replacement. D’Oliviera had been born in Cape Town and classified as a “Coloured” who could not play cricket in white areas. He left South Africa and forged a new life as a cricketer in England.
“Having been barred from South Africa because they included a ‘non-white’ player in D’Oliviera the English cricket authorities issued an invitation to the South Africans three months later to tour in the summer of 1970. I was outraged and issued a statement saying we’ll stop this tour by direct action.
“Then we realised the rugby tour was happening and decided to use it as a dummy run. From the opening match, which was switched from Oxford to Twickenham at the last minute in an attempt to defend the ground against demonstrations, we made huge news. That continued through the 25-match tour from Manchester, Leicester, Edinburgh, Swansea, Dublin, wherever the Springboks were due to play. We mobilised local anti-apartheid groups which gave it an enormous power.”
The Springboks did not win any of their four Tests and they returned to South Africa in humiliation and disgrace. Hain kept up the pressure and early in 1970 the British government persuaded the cricket authorities to cancel South Africa’s cricket tour. “I’m very proud of that campaign,” Hain says. “Unlike most progressive campaigns for justice it achieved its objectives 100%.”
Hain and the South African cricket historian, Andre Odendaal, have written a book about that campaign called Pitch Battles: Protest, Play and Prejudice which will be published next May. The resonance of his work against apartheid is felt even more acutely this week as the first Test of England’s cricket tour of South Africa begins on Boxing Day. And memories of the Springboks winning the Rugby World Cup are still so vivid. How did that victory make Hain feel – exactly 50 years on from his 1969 campaign?
“It was sheer ecstasy and exhilaration because we’d disrupted that whites-only team and ensured it was the last one to tour on a racist basis. So to have a genuinely multi-racial 2019 Springbok team with a black captain, and both tries scored by Mapimpi and Kolbe, world-class black players, was what we were fighting for.
“We can’t say that it healed the nation but it was much more significant than 1995 – when Mandela wore the Springbok jersey. Very few blacks supported the Springboks in 1995. By 2019 the whole nation supported them. But it’s a struggle unfulfilled. As a boy, Siya Kolisi, the World Cup-winning captain, went to bed starving in his black township. He was plucked out of that abject poverty because of his rugby potential. Huge change is still needed in South Africa. You’ve got to constantly press for it. So there is unfinished business in South Africa.”
Hain’s home is now in Britain and he smiles when I ask him what his 19-year-old self would have made of him being Lord Hain with an office deep in Westminster? “He might say, ‘What happened to you?’ My answer to the 19-year-old me is that I’m still really him. I continued the same struggle, for the same values, in different settings.
“I exposed in the Lords the corruption in South Africa under president Zuma and the Gupta brothers. I focused on the international dimension of a malicious racist campaign – the Bell Pottingers [the disbanded UK PR company], the HSBCs and so on. It was horrible. I got a flood of emails from white South Africans of a certain age, saying ‘I still hate you for what you did to the Springboks but this was fantastic.’
“I always replied, saying, ‘Thank you very much but please understand the values that motivated me to speak out against corruption today are exactly the same values of integrity, morality, justice and equality that motivated me to stop the 1970 cricket tour. I hope that, in the end, they agreed.”
Stop the Tour is on BT Sport 2, Saturday 28 December, 7.30pm.