The Springbok Reception Committee: “no normal sport in an abnormal society”

When it was announced that the South African Springboks rugby team were due to tour Britain during the autumn of 1992, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group sprung into action. Specifically, they responded to the call from South African anti-apartheid organisations for the tour to be challenged and opposed. Despite the ongoing multi-party talks and negotiations in South Africa that were attempting to manage the transition to a post-apartheid state, the non-racial South African Council on Sport (SACOS) asserted that apartheid was not over and the sports boycott should stay in place.

Support for City Group’s stance came from various quarters. Mpotseng Jairus Kgokong, the Secretary General of the Black Consciousness Movement (of Azania) faxed City Group from Harare on 29 September stating,

The BCM(A) is pleased to note that not everybody is duped by the tricks of De Klerk. It is in this light to the BCM(A) takes this opportunity to fully support your campaign against the coming Springbok tour in November this year. The BCM(A)’s firm standpoint coincides with yours: there should be no sporting contact with South Africa until there is  democratically elected Constituent Assembly in place.

Springbok Reception Committee banner (Source: City Group)

Along with British-based members of the BCM(A) and the Pan-Africanist Congress, City Group helped convene the Springbok Reception Committee to oppose the tour. An undated fax from SACOS to City Group offered their “heartfelt gratitude for your support”. Between August and early November, City Group assembled international support for the Springbok Reception Committee from the Azania Komitee of the Netherlands, the Azania Committee in Sweden, and South African organisations including the National and Olympic Sports Congress of South Africa, the Amateur Swimming Association of South Africa, and the South African Amateur Athletics Board. On 6 October, Don Nkadimeng, the Secretary General of AZAPO (the main Black Consciousness organisation inside South Africa) added his support with this statement:

AZAPO is fully behind your efforts to  promote our slogan “No normal sport in an abnormal society”, and we will be watching events from here with keen interests. I can confidently tell you that over 40 million Blacks wish you success in your efforts.

Over the summer, ahead of the tour, City Group circulated letters to local anti-apartheid groups, trade union branches and student unions calling for demonstrations to greet the Springbok team on their arrival in the UK and in every location where they were due to play (Bath, Bristol, Leeds, Leicester and Twickenham).  In those cities outside London where the Springboks had matches scheduled, the Springbok Reception Committee received the most positive support from a group of activists in Leicester that included Ross Galbraith and Gary Sherriff (who City Group had previously worked closely with when they refused to work on a contract for South Africa at the factory where they worked).

Throughout this period, the public announcements from the British Anti-Apartheid Movement were muted and (potentially) contradictory.  In large part, this appears to be because they did not want to be seen to publicly contradict the ANC who had appeared to suggest that the sports boycott was no longer necessary as the South African government had begun repealing apartheid legislation. In 1992, the ANC position appeared to be that they were not opposed to international sporting fixtures against South African teams as long as they were played non-racially.  According to Roger Fieldhouse (2005: 455), in his history of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, in private, leading AAM members questioned the logic of this position with the ANC leadership. On 9 October, the AAM issued a confusing statement to its local groups, seemingly suggesting that they were no longer participating in a boycott of sporting links with South Africa but would protest President De Klerk’s presence at the match he was due to attend.  However, later that month, the ANC appeared to rethink its position yet again.  On 27 October, Richard Roques, from the Springbok Reception Committee, wrote to the London ANC in following terms:

We welcome the announcement by the ANC to discontinue their support for the forthcoming tour of the Springbok Rugby team to Britain. Following a unanimous decision at our AGM last year the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group wrote to the ANC to inform them that we felt the decision to suspend the sports boycott was premature. Earlier this year we ran on the track when Zola Budd ran (and dropped out) of a race at Crystal Palace. We ran on the pitch and pulled up the stumps when the Transvaal cricket team played at Lords. When we learnt of the forthcoming Springbok tour we formed the Springbok Reception Committee with the support of the [PAC], AZAPO and the South African Council on Sport. The response of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement was to phone the local Leicester Group who are active members of the Committee to tell them that the sports boycott was a ‘grey area’. We welcome their renewed commitment to the sports boycott but deplore their attempts to discourage what action was taking place before it received
their ‘official’ seal of approval…

Even without the clear support of the ANC, the Springbok Reception Committee was a dynamic and militant campaign (in City Group’s established tradition of direct action to enforce the sports boycott).  Francis described the campaign like this:

We hounded the players wherever they went, not only holding rowdy demos, but letting off stink bombs, egging and flouring them etc. (Interview with Francis Squire, 25 November 2011).

On 5 November 1992, The Independent and other papers reported that nine anti-apartheid activists had been arrested in the vicinity of the Leicester Tigers’ rugby stadium.  The nine, who became known as the Springbok 9, were supporters of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group.  They were arrested by the police as they approached central Leicester in a white van, with a ladder attached to the back, containing items that the police believed were to be used to cause criminal damage to the rugby pitch.  When they were committed for trial, in March 1993, the Leicester Mercury (24 March) reported that,

Members of City of London AA group – including its secretary and a photographer … were in a van which contained bags of broken glass, metal tacks, balaclavas, gloves and two notices which read “Danger, do not play on the pitch”.

As Ross Galbraith explained in a recent interview, the local group in Leicester were expecting a delegation from City Group and had arranged accommodation for them in the city at the Socialist Centre, but had not enquired too closely as to what their exact plans were.  Their first inkling of the arrests came when it became apparent that the group had not arrived to use their city-centre crash accommodation. The Leicester group became central to the work of the Springbok 9 Defence Campaign, supporting them through their initial court hearings in Leicester and their eventual trial at Nottingham Crown Court.  As Andy Privett, one of the nine told me,

We were arrested and charged with “being in possession of articles likely to cause damage to the Leicester rugby football ground”. It sounds innocuous but carried maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. Quite an experience! …  [There was a] two-week crown court trial …  We argued a political case. I remember arriving in court on last day carrying a little bag with my toothbrush in, fully expecting to get sent to prison – but there was a hung jury and the judge bound us over to keep peace for two years. (Interview with Andy Privett, 12 March 2012).

[Note: Thabo, the South African photographer with the group was found not guilty].

Detail from Springbok 9 Defence Campaign leaflet, 1993 (Source: City Group)

With the prospect of nine of their long-term activists being imprisoned for lengthy sentences, the Springbok 9 Defence Campaign became one of the main aspects of City Group’s campaigning during the last year of its existence.  What began as an act of solidarity with the Black majority in South Africa in during the final period of apartheid, ended as a campaign building solidarity for militant British anti-apartheid activists. At a time when the ANC were prepared to make concessions to the negotiations process in South Africa, City Group took its lead from those sections of the liberation movement in South Africa who were more suspicious about what the negotiations would deliver.

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About Gavin Brown

Lecturer in Human Geography University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research, Interview material and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to The Springbok Reception Committee: “no normal sport in an abnormal society”

  1. Pingback: Lessons of the anti-apartheid sports boycott for Palestinian solidarity | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

  2. Pingback: Enacting Change – Attacking the Heart of a Nation | QU 301 South Africa

  3. Pingback: Enacting Change – Attacking the Heart of a Nation |

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