Nelson Mandela's Release Almost Ruined by Greedy Cricketers

Jon GemmellCorrespondent IFebruary 20, 2010

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA - APRIL 19:  Former South African President Nelson Mandela rides in a golf cart with ANC presidential favorite Jacob Zuma (L), while arriving at a campaign rally April 19, 2009 in Johannesburg, South Africa. Mandela, age 90, made a surprise appearance at the final major election rally for the ruling African National Congress ahead of national elections on Wednesday. The ANC is expected to win by a wide margin but faces its toughest competition from rival parties yet, since it came to power in 1994. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
John Moore/Getty Images

The French philosopher Albert Camus argued that the true rebel is not the man who conforms to orthodoxy, but one who could say “no” to injustice.

ANC leader Nelson Mandela refused to bow to injustice, spent 27 years incarcerated for his beliefs in humanity and now celebrates twenty years of political and personal liberation.

His release from prison in 1990 was a consequence of strong political pressure, economic and cultural sanctions, and an economy that could not sustain a small consumer base and the costs of revolt.

Twenty years ago also marks the last of the so-called rebel tours to South Africa. The England tour of 1989-90 proved the most volatile, heightened the role of the racist state in securing these visits and created such opposition that it threatened to derail peace negotiations.

The rebel tours came after a decade of isolation for sports-mad white South Africans. For the Springbok authorities the tours were about sustaining cricket in their “homeland,” for starved of international competition the sport was declining in popularity.

The opportunist cricket authorities dressed their arguments in the language of multi-racialism, emphasising efforts to promote cricket through development programmes in the townships.

The lack of international competition, it therefore flowed, would undermine attempts to introduce the black population to cricket and remove an important means of integration.

This naïve view completely ignores not only long history of black cricket, but also the political function performed by mercenary cricketers, whose sole inspiration was the fortunes on offer.

Sport gives meaning to political concepts such as national pride and nationhood. The apartheid state could certainly have done with an injection of “national” pride. Irrevocable damage had been caused by the township rebellions, the increasing strike wave, and international sanctions.

The white power structure was under severe pressure, and cricket was coming to its aid.

Cricket fans though must have wondered what the organisers had spent their hundreds of thousands on. The first “Test”, which was over in three days, was watched by a total of only 16,000 people, leaving the South African Cricket Union (SACU ) well short of the 200,000 crowd figure for which it had budgeted.

The South African Broadcasting Company commentators noted that nearly half of the exceptionally small crowd was made up of police officers.

Still, those bankrolling the tour wouldn’t lose much sleep, for the government covered 90 per cent of their expenditure in tax incentives, highlighting the bankruptcy of the arguments of those who argued that politics and sport shouldn’t mix.

Sport has the ability to provide a lift to a nation and helped to keep Mandela, the ANC and the township revolts off of the front pages. It was the classic bread and circus, but because it was seen as a means to show “business as usual” and therefore to prop up the ailing white nationalist regime, it proved counter-productive .

The England cricketers were snubbed throughout their visit. At two luxury hotels, where they stayed, there were protest strikes. Where they did play, demonstrations ensured that the tour remained on the front pages of the press.

Throughout the visit, the protests against the England cricketers actually received more international coverage than the government’s reform proposals. One of these measures was to allow demonstrations, so cricket provided a focal-point for the first-ever legal protests allowed in South Africa.

The development programme was suspended and subsequently wrecked in most of the townships.

On Sunday 11 February, 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. On the same day SACU conceded a second “Test” and the planned return of the English “rebels” in favour of a stay of execution for the one day games, and an end to the demonstrations.

Its president, Geoff Dakin, stated that in the present political climate tours run counter “to the wider interests of South Africa as a whole.”

Indeed, the tour actually complicated the environment for negotiations. The government’s primary purpose now with the release of Mandela and the legalising of political opposition was to dampen down social unrest. The last thing it wanted was a focal point that could allow a wider expression of discontent.

Recently Mike Gatting, who captained the England side, wrote that “there has to be a very serious dilemma about representing your country on the cricket field in a land where people are suffering so much at the hands of their government.”

He was talking of black-led Zimbabwe though rather than regretting his experiences in white-led South Africa.

He always claimed that he knew little of South African politics; that statement suggests that we know something of his.

That injustice is a secondary consideration to making money is nothing new. That it was blatantly exploited through rebel tours of South Africa provides a sorry episode in the history of sport.