Moving sport into the political arena

Stuart Mole

Although the 1971 Singapore Declaration of Commonwealth Principles expressed the Commonwealth’s opposition to apartheid, it took another seven years – and the determined efforts of the international sporting community – to turn the Commonwealth’s rhetoric into action.

As the 1977 Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) conclud­ed its formal sessions in Lancaster House, London, it was to the Gleneagles Hotel, “a Riviera in the Highlands”, that leaders es­caped for their informal retreat. Up to that point, the summit had been described as “a sober, low-key affair” and “a rather quiet heads of government gathering”. But Gle­neagles would be the setting for a landmark Commonwealth agreement on apartheid in sport that would have far-reaching political implications.

The departure of South Africa from the Commonwealth in 1961, in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre, did not remove the issue of apartheid from the Commonwealth agenda – the Rhodesian rebellion and the apartheid regime in South Africa were seen as the two sides of a white supremacist coin. In the wake of the British government’s de­cision to resume arms sales to South Africa, a major row erupted at the 1971 Singapore CHOGM. The result, unanimously adopt­ed, was the Singapore Declaration of Com­monwealth Principles. This made clear the Commonwealth’s abhorrence of racism and took the organisation a step closer to a for­mal code of ethics.

At the same time, the impact of South Africa’s racial policies on sport had been growing. As early as 1956, the Interna­tional Table Tennis Federation had expelled the white South African body because of racial discrimination, recognising instead the non-racial South African Table Tennis Board (SATTB). The South African regime responded by making absolutely clear that its racial policies extended to the heart of sport – the following year it refused pass­ports to members of the SATTB team who had qualified for the World Championships in Stockholm.

With attempts at a gradualist approach repeatedly frustrated, the leaders of non-ra­cial sport decided to campaign for the total abolition of racism and to seek international recognition. A major breakthrough came in 1963, with the suspension – and ultimately the expulsion – of South Africa from the Olympic Movement.

In the UK, public opinion was power­fully influenced by the D’Oliveira affair. In 1968, with an England cricket team about to visit South Africa, the apartheid govern­ment stated that if Basil D’Oliveira (an all-rounder of mixed-race origins) was select­ed, the team would be refused entry. Amid a public outcry, the Marylebone Cricket Club finally cancelled the tour.

A year later, the South African rugby team, the Springboks, came to the UK, in the face of protest and disruption. In 1970, the South African cricket team was also due to tour. Under the banner of ‘Stop the Seventy Tour’, headed by anti-apartheid activist Peter Hain, a wholesale campaign of non-violent direct action was planned. With days to go, the MCC finally bowed to pressure and the tour was called off.

By the early 1970s, the campaign for non-racial sport had seen South Africa challenged in virtually every interna­tional sporting discipline, and expelled or suspended from many. As a sporting na­tion, New Zealand had been criticised for its South African links. In the 1975 New Zealand general election, race and sport became an election issue. National Party leader Robert Muldoon emerged victori­ous, having promised “the re-instatement of sports exchanges with South Africa”.

Months later, the government officially waved off the All Blacks as they embarked for South Africa. The timing could not have been worse – the Soweto uprising by black school students had just begun and scores had been killed and hundreds injured. In immediate response, 28 African nations announced a boycott of the 1976 Olym­pic Games in Montreal. Quite apart from New Zealand’s plummeting international reputation, it was increasingly evident that unless something was done, the impact on the 1977 CHOGM, the Queen’s Silver Ju­bilee celebrations and the Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, Canada, in 1978 would be disastrous.

As the London summit approached, Secretary-General Shridath Ramphal was determined that the Commonwealth should transform its rhetoric on apartheid into practical action, particularly as regards sporting contact. After five days in formal session, heads decamped to the Gleneagles Hotel in Perthshire, for two wet and windy days in retreat.

For Ramphal, this was his “first excur­sion into quiet diplomacy” and he fol­lowed a pattern he would use at subsequent CHOGM retreats. While the majority of Commonwealth leaders were encouraged to play golf or relax, Ramphal assembled a small group of heads, including Muldoon, under the leadership of Jamaican Prime Minister Michael Manley, to find a way forward. In the end, it was left to Manley to close the deal. Two final concessions were made. One was that the agreement should draw “a curtain across the past”; the other was to agree that any past misunder­standings and difficulties should in part be blamed on “inadequate inter-governmental consultations”. In spite of the personal dig, Ramphal felt this was a price worth paying.

The agreement reaffirmed the Common­wealth’s fundamental opposition to rac­ism and to apartheid in sport. It committed its leaders to the “urgent duty” to combat apartheid “by withholding any form of sup­port for, and by taking every practical step to discourage contact or competition by, their nationals” with those who practise apartheid. While acknowledging that it was for each government to determine imple­mentation of the agreement “in accord with its law”, they warned that the “effective ful­filment of their commitment” was essential to the future harmony of Commonwealth sport. They added that they did not expect to see in future any sporting contact “of any significance” with apartheid South Africa.

By the evening, the draft had been circu­lated to all the other heads. The next day, in London, the agreement was swiftly adopted in formal session.

For Ramphal, the Gleneagles Agreement was a “substantial achievement”. It made safe the 1978 Commonwealth Games in Edmonton, but it also had an immediate and significant effect in diminishing sport­ing contact with South Africa. Months later, the UN General Assembly adopted the In­ternational Declaration against Apartheid in Sports, with overwhelming support. How­ever, the agreement faced a major challenge in 1981 when the New Zealand Rugby Un­ion, against the advice of the government, invited the Springboks to tour. The team was met by marches, pitch invasions and acts of civil disobedience. It left New Zea­land bitterly divided. Prime Minister Mul­doon protested that Gleneagles “had fallen on evil times”. Ramphal responded that it was Muldoon who had let the side down by failing to stand up for the Commonwealth’s highest principles.

Out of this crisis came the adoption by the Commonwealth Games Federation of a code of conduct dealing with breaches of Glenea­gles. This was not the end of the matter; sport­ing contact continued at individual level and, in a new tactic, with ‘rebel’ tours. But, by the mid-1980s, the official sporting boycott was complete. The battleground had, by then, moved to the willingness of countries to im­pose economic and financial sanctions.

What was the lasting legacy of Glenea­gles? Some argue that its impact was mod­est, and that the agreement represented the limit of the Commonwealth’s actions. Oth­ers saw the sporting boycott as part of a pattern of escalation, which intensified into widespread economic sanctions after the Commonwealth Eminent Persons Group’s mission to South Africa, and the publication of its influential report in 1986. Excluding South Africans from international sport was not, in itself, what brought down apartheid; but it did contribute to the country’s gen­eral isolation, which had its own consid­erable psychological impact. Gleneagles also helped settle the argument that ‘sport should be kept out of politics’. In the view of Ramphal, to talk of not bringing politics into sport when it was already politicised, was “an alibi for perversity”.

In 1987, as apartheid began to crum­ble, South Africa was excluded from the inaugural Rugby World Cup. Just one year after the first free and fair elections, which brought Nelson Mandela to power, the Springboks won the 1995 World Cup, cheered on by their new president. Sport had become a source of unity for the new, non-racial nation.

About the author:

Stuart Mole is Honorary Fellow in Politics at Exeter University and the former Director of the Commonwealth Secretary-General's Office


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International