Hendrik Snyders. International Journal of the History of Sport. Volume 35, Issue 10. June 2018.
In the period from1976 to1990 during the international campaign against apartheid, some affiliate members of the USA Rugby Football Union, went out of their way to establish and maintain a strong relationship with the South African Rugby Football Board and its successor, the South African Rugby Board. Over the course of six reciprocal tours, they ignored the campaigns of the worldwide anti-apartheid movement and the British Commonwealth. In their dogged pursuit of a sporting relationship with a key South African cultural institution that buttressed apartheid in a sport that, at best, enjoyed minority status in the United States, they defied both their own national federation and the American Olympic Committee. By 1990 as the international campaign against apartheid became a truly worldwide affair, US-South Africa rugby relations were suspended in line with larger political developments both within and outside of the country. This essay, beyond mapping the trials and tribulations of that relationship, also foregrounds a largely hidden history in order to fill the existing gap in the official sporting histories of both the United States and South Africa.
Although a significant number of South Africans have competed with distinction in individual and team sports events in and against the United States, the formal relations between the two countries beyond encounters in the global sports events such as the Olympic games and world championships remained an under-researched subject in both South African and US sports history. Ironically, baseball—one of America’s key sports—developed a strong South African footing during the twentieth century. Indeed, since Simmer & Primrose played City & Robinson at the Old Wanderers Club in Johannesburg on Sunday, February 10, 1895, the game continued to flourish. The first official sporting contest between representative teams of the two countries took place on September 5, 1931. On that day a US athletics (or track-and-field) team that included Victor Williams, the world 440-yards champion, competed against an all-white South African national team in an official ‘test’ at the Green Point Track in Cape Town. The visitors emerged triumphant and set nine new South African records. In a dominating performance, field athlete Bernard ‘Barney’ Berlinger set four of the records (pole vault, shotput, discus, and javelin). This historic event, and all the other records listed between the pages of the Allied Book of South African Sport and Sports Records, is largely forgotten today. A significant number of the associated relationships between athletes from the two countries in question originated during the pre-apartheid period (pre-1948) and survived the difficult years of the international boycott campaign. Amongst these are sports such as golf, tennis, gymnastics, and wrestling. Their full extent, form, implications and interlinkages, however, remained unexplored.
Recent research on the history of South African baseball by Alston Booker and Josh Chetwynd has started to reverse the prevailing situation and has placed the often forgotten sporting relationship between the United States and South African firmly on the historical agenda. Despite the obvious limitations of these studies, their revisiting of a largely ‘unmapped historical landscape’, has brought the players, personalities, venues, and playing communities associated with this forgotten history back into focus and re-inserted them into the main discourse. The on-going research of Derek Catsam and Sebastian Potgieter about the controversial American and New Zealand tour by the South African national rugby team, the Springboks, in 1981 continued this work. Similarly, Heindrich Wyngaard’s recent biography of Errol Tobias (the only black player on the tour in question) also explored some aspects of the same subject. These studies benefitted immensely from the availability of the original archives of the former South African Rugby Board, now housed at the University of Stellenbosch, that provided critical new insights into the team and tour dynamics. In addition, access to the on-line newspaper archives of some of key media groups in the United States, South Africa, and New Zealand also assisted with developing a fuller understanding of a tour that Malcolm MacLean described as a ‘stand in for a much wider set of social and political changes’. Due to their narrow focus (i.e. 1981 tour), the existing body of knowledge gave inadequate attention to the evolution of South Africa’s rugby relations with the United States during the era of the international sports boycott. Access to a wider set of archives beyond that of the former South African Rugby Board (SARB) offers new insights beyond what previous scholarship has revealed. Particularly helpful was access to the on-line archives of the United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid and the records of the internal anti-apartheid sports movement (part of the South African Institute for Race Relations collection) deposited with the Witwatersrand University in Johannesburg. These archives, coupled with those of the American anti-apartheid movement housed in the African Activists Archives at Michigan State University, opened both a new window on a previously unresearched topic and offered fresh insights into the nature, dynamics, and implications of a critical sporting relationship during a significant period in world history.
South Africa/America—A Long-Desired Relationship
The first recorded game of any form of football in South Africa took place in Port Elizabeth on May 24, 1862. As the result of a growing interest amongst the white population, the first coordinating structure, the South African Rugby Football Board (SARFB), was founded by three districts of the Cape Colony (Western Province, Eastern Province, and Griqualand West) and the independent South African Republic (Transvaal) in 1889. Social segregation and the ‘patriarchal apportioning’ of space on both racial and gender grounds that was the prevailing social custom at the time, however, prevented blacks from obtaining membership of the same club, playing in the same leagues, or representing their town, ‘country’, or colony in representative matches. At best, they were allowed to play the odd inter-racial cricket or soccer challenge match organized by sympathetic and paternalistic parties. Clubs in particular served as spaces of ‘social status but also of political domination’ in which ‘the imperialists celebrated their Britishness, authority and imperial lifestyle’.
The black colonial elite (both players and administrators) were ardent supporters of the idea that ‘good sport, manliness, and love of “fair play” should be promoted amongst all classes of society’. Sport and the demonstration of prowess, fair play, and sportsmanship potentially provided them with an opportunity to prove their ‘fitness to be accepted as full citizens’ in colonial society. Local media such as the Cape Town-based Cape Argus, however, suggested that ‘the races are best socially apart, each good in their own way, but a terribly bad mixture’. Black rugby players as a result established their own governing body, the South African Coloured Rugby Football Board (SACRFB), in 1896. This racial divide survived until the last decade of the twentieth century.
Although English rugby reached North America during the late nineteenth century, it took nearly a century before a national body, the United States Rugby Football Union, was established in 1975. Prior to that, a number of regional bodies such as the California Rugby Union controlled the local game. With the initiation of international tours by representative teams of New Zealand, Canada, and Australia by the turn of the twentieth century, the US expressed an interest to participate. This was a natural development since America sportsmen, according to Mark Dyreson, were ‘already well-practiced in crafting patriotism on playing fields’. Furthermore, various initiatives were launched to either bring touring teams to America or to build local rugby capacity. Stanford University, for example, sent members of their coaching staff to Australia to ‘acquire knowledge of rugby football’. To encourage the growth of the American game, Australian and New Zealand teams visited and played a variety of ‘missionary games’ during their stay. Although some of these games came about because of a detour by the visitors, there is enough evidence of reciprocity on the part of the parties concerned. In March of 1910, following a game between Leland Stanford University and the visiting Australian Wallabies after a tour of the United Kingdom twelve months earlier, the New South Wales Rugby Football Union (NSWRFU) invited a Combined American Universities team to tour Australia and New Zealand. The Americans readily accepted this invitation as a means of ‘stimulating the British game on the Pacific Coast’. By July of 1912, the California Rugby Union invited the Australian Rugby Union to send a fully representative national team to the United States to play a series of matches against some of the universities and colleges, including a ‘test’ against an American national team or alternatively, a California state team. When the tourists finally arrived during the season, they suffered at least one defeat at the hands of Stanford University. This was followed by a tour of the New Zealand All Blacks in 1913. According to the Australasian newspaper, the visitors swamped the University of Southern California by ’40 tries (120 points) to nothing’ in a one-sided game.
South Africa, the other emerging rugby-playing nation, had no contact with the US. Indeed, the first approach by the California Rugby Football Union (CRFU) to initiate a formal relationship and reciprocal tours in 1914 failed because of disinterest on the part of the SA Rugby Football Board. The SARFB’s responding letter dated May 25, i.e. two months before the start of the First World War, contained no specific reasons other than to note ‘we could not see our way clear to arrange the visit if invited’. This response was probably motivated by the fact that the Springboks had only completed their annual tour of the British Isles in January of 1913. In addition, 1914 was earmarked as a non-tour year to be dedicated to the staging of the national domestic competition, the Currie Cup. Overseas tours also involved substantial costs and the provision of certain [and costly] financial guarantees by the hosting unions at a time that most were struggling to fund their own operations. Similarly, according to a report in a South African newspaper quoted by the editor of the Referee in Australia, an appeal by Billy Millar, a former South African national captain, for his compatriots to take note of rugby developments in the US and to initiate a competitive relationship before the latter became fully competitive, fell on deaf ears. The next formal approach as a result only followed 42 years later.
Sport, Apartheid, and Resistance
Following its electoral victory in 1948, the National Party of D.F. Malan promulgated various laws such as the Reservation of Separate Amenities Act (Act 49 of 1953) to institutionalize the segregation of the races. Sport officially became a segregated affair with the best sports facilities and the right to represent South Africa internationally reserved for white athletes. Black demands for equality voiced by the Coordinating Committee for International Recognition (CCIR—est. 1955) led by Port Elizabeth activist Dennis Brutus were ignored. Thus, when Stanford University enquired about a possible tour by a California All-Star team in 1956, South African sport and politics was already inseparable. Because of prior commitments, the SARFB declined the offer.
With the establishment of the South African Sports Association (SASA) in 1958 following the demise of the CCIR because of state repression, the anti-apartheid sports struggle entered its second phase. Despite significant support amongst affiliates based within the oppressed communities, SASA’s attempts to negotiate fundamental change from within failed dismally. This forced the organization’s leadership to lobby the various international control bodies directly in the hope of forcing a change of the status quo. In addition, SASA attempted to persuade corporate sponsors to make rejection of racism a precondition for their support of white sports events. This was met by further state repression and the denial of travel document to black anti-apartheid sports administrators.
The white sporting fraternity fully collaborated in the marginalization of their black counterparts. In the early 1960s, the SA Rugby Football Board (SARFB) not only refused to assist the SA Coloured Rugby Football Board (SACRFB) with plans for an overseas tour but also appropriated the national sports emblem, the Springbok, for white amateur rugby players through heraldic registration. Such a tour, in the words of the SACRFB’s leadership, ‘would probably have been the acme of non-white ambition’. American support of the anti-apartheid movement at that particular point, like in most countries in Europe, was still negligible and confined to small groups of activists whose overall impact was limited.
Intensification of the Anti-Apartheid Struggle
The 1960s witnessed a renewed push by black political organizations to force political change. One of the key campaigns, an anti-pass law march aimed at forcing the abolishment of restrictions on the freedom of movement of blacks, ended tragically on March 21, 1960 when the police killed 69 demonstrators at Sharpeville on the Witwatersrand. In its wake, various political organizations, including the African National Congress and Pan Africanist Congress, were outlawed under the Unlawful Organisations Act (Act 34 of 1960). The subsequent state of emergency increased the law enforcement powers of the state security establishment to aid the repression of the anti-apartheid opposition. These were used to good effect to detain, kill or exile scores of activists in the aftermath of a number of so-called ‘backlash demonstrations’.
The Sharpeville shootings gave fresh impetus to the worldwide anti-apartheid struggle. One of the most significant events in the U.S. was the issuing of an Appeal for Action Against Apartheid (AAAA) in 1962 by the American Committee on Africa (ACOA). This was a direct response to a collective call for broad-based global action against apartheid by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. of the civil rights movement and Oliver Tambo, president of the exiled African National Congress. The AAAA was further motivated by the apartheid government’s earlier rejection of both the 1957 Declaration of Conscience against Apartheid (DOCAA) and the call of its international campaign led by Eleanor Roosevelt, former First Lady and its chairperson, and Dr. King, who was vice-chairperson, for South Africa to align its policies with the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In 1966, the ACOA and the University Christian Movement (UCM) initiated the Committee of Conscience Against Apartheid (COCAA) to better coordinate their on-going campaigns. The COCAA united a wide range of organizations and prominent personalities in the religious, political, labour, sports, and entertainment spheres. Smaller advocacy initiatives such as the Olympic Project for Human Rights (OPHR) whose key objective was ‘to raise awareness of institutionalized racism by organizing an African American boycott of the 1968 Olympics’ also added their weight.
Soon after its formation, the COCAA spearheaded a disinvestment campaign against corporates such Chase Manhattan and First National City Bank whom they accused of being apartheid collaborators. Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a university-based pressure group, echoed this sentiment and extended the disinvestment call to include universities and motor manufacturers such as Chrysler and General Motors. The organization also accused big business in both South Africa and America of alienating, brutalizing, and dehumanizing ordinary people.
Because of the involvement of a significant number of high-profile black sports personalities, athletes, and civil rights activists such as tennis star Arthur Ashe, the first African-American in Major League Baseball (MLB) Jackie Robinson, and 1968 Olympic gold-medal athlete Tommy Smith, apartheid and the resistance engendered by it were strongly foregrounded. The entrance of these protestors into the fray fully politicized amateur sports and turned amateur athletes into ‘symbols of the broader conflicts among nations’ with all its associated legal dilemmas. The unfolding developments were not only denounced by conservatives as rebellious and tradition breaking, but also rejected as unintelligent and ludicrous activities. This notwithstanding, these campaigns failed to decisively influence national opinion and official American policy towards South Africa.
Following its ejection from South Africa, the SA Non-racial Olympic Committee (SANROC) with the support of the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa (SCSA), London-based Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), the Australian Campaign against Racial Exploitation (ACARE), New Zealand-based Citizens Association for Racial Equality (CARE), and the American Committee on Africa (ACOA), called for a worldwide boycott of all-white South African teams. In addition, they threatened to disrupt all scheduled events with a South African presence. Because of this coordinated action, the number of official rugby tours to and from South Africa decreased by the end of the 1970s. More disturbing from a South African rugby perspective was the formation in 1969 of a new organization, Halt All Racist Tours (HART), by student groups to unite all New Zealanders against sporting contacts with the apartheid state. Beyond infusing a new energy upon their joining of the struggle, they forced a new approach to supporting the anti-apartheid forces in South African in general. Based on their founding commitment to be a non-partisan body, they actively promoted the principle that all South African opposition groups needed to be equally supported. This was in direct opposition to the established practice to favour the African National Congress (ANC) as the main representative of the anti-apartheid struggle. Furthermore, HART’s very focussed agenda in comparison to CARE’s wider one of also raising awareness (both domestically and internationally) about racial issues in general allowed the newcomers to build a substantial domestic support base over a short time and to establish them as the leading and largest formation in the race for popular support. Because of these events and the re-alignment of the modus operandi of the global anti-apartheid opposition, both the South African rugby and political authorities were forced to undertake a major reassessment of both their policy and strategy. Amongst the changes initiated was a new flexibility that allowed for limited racial mixing on the playing field and the establishment of a formal playing relationship with the USA that facilitated the South African tour of the Eastern American Eagles (EAE) in 1976.
The Landing of the Eastern American Eagles—1976
The late 1960s and early 1970s witnessed an unprecedented growth in the number of active rugby clubs in the United States of America. This development, observed Timothy Chandler, represented both a rejection of the authoritarian and administration-centered culture of American university football and a search for an alternative masculinity by American students. Bolstered by the increase in player and clubs, four regional rugby bodies founded the USA Rugby Football Union (USARFU) in Chicago in June of 1975. From the onset, the new body, like its affiliates, aspired to become a force in world rugby. An early initiative that formed part of the ‘push towards excellence’ was the tour of the Northern Californian All-Stars (or ‘Golden Poppies’) to the United Kingdom six months before the establishment of the national body. Over the course of two months (from March through April) the ‘Poppies’ played seven games with mixed results. Despite only winning three and drawing one game, their performances sufficiently impressed the Scottish newspaper Glasgow Herald to caution other rugby nations about the progress of American rugby. In reflecting on the performance of the tourists against the Scottish Borders which they narrowly lost by 19-16, the paper’s rugby correspondent noted that not only was the Poppies’ performance ‘a taste at Netherdale’ but also an indicator ‘of what might be in store when they [the Americans] can add tactical astuteness to their enviable physique’. In January of 1976, almost a year later, the American national team, the Eagles, played in its first official international test match against Australia. Despite losing their first official ‘test’, local rugby opinion as articulated by Evening Independent‘s John Meyer was largely positive. ‘The loss to Australia’, noted Meyer ‘was a moral victory in America’s battle to become competitive again in world rugby.’ South Africa, one of world’s leading rugby nations, therefore became a natural destination for the fledgling rugby nation.
The Eastern Rugby Union of America (ERFUA) which included Pennsylvania, Kentucky, Alabama, Tennessee, West Virginia, Mississippi, and Louisiana, was the first to accept an invitation to send a representative team (the ‘Eastern American Eagles’) to tour South Africa in March of 1976. The tour coincided with South Africa’s implementation of a comprehensive international propaganda and anti-sanctions campaign (1974-1978). This particular campaign was aimed at improving the country’s image and position worldwide and to influence the state of geopolitics. Key in this regard were the Departments of Information (DOI), of Foreign Affairs (DFA), and of Sport and Recreation (DSR), and the Bureau for State Security (BOSS) supported by the so-called National Security Management System that coordinated intelligence gathering and containment of the opposition until the 1990s. In addition, a number of secret front-organizations such as the Committee For Fairness in Sport (CFFS), Foreign Affairs Association (FAA), South Africa Foundation (SAF), and the Southern African Freedom Association (SAFA) who were answerable to the highest echelons of authority in the previously-mentioned departments and, ultimately, Prime Minister B.J. Vorster had responsibility for a range of sectoral tasks. The DOI as the lead department determined methods, resources, and actions and coordinated its activities with the Department of Foreign Affairs where its activities crossed international borders.
Because of the determined effort of the anti-apartheid movement to secure South Africa’s expulsion from the international sports arena, BOSS established the Committee for Fairness in Sport (CFFS) in 1974. From 1975, this body under the leadership of former provincial rugby player and Johannesburg executive Louis Luyt was tasked with the promotion of South Africa’s sports bona fides in the Americas and Europe. Beyond the regular publication of progress reports about integrated sport in targeted newspapers as a means to ‘regain lost ground as a result of the anti-apartheid pressures’, the CFFS supplied information to sports administrators, editors, and politicians globally. Aided by the South African diplomatic corps internationally, the CFFS (and other front organizations) also used advocacy and lobbying through paid agents such as advertising and public relations firms, lobbyists, government-funded publications, businessmen and women, organizations, and documentary filmmakers to promote the country. It also used sympathetic and often well-meaning as well as pro-apartheid personalities such as golfer Gary Player to promote a narrative that the sports boycott and international isolation were detrimental to the aspirations of black sportspersons.
The South Africa Foundation (SAF), a body of professional and business leaders whose key objective was ‘to promote international understanding of South Africa, her achievements, her problems and her potential’, supported the activities of the CFFS. Departing from the premise that the country’s main sporting contacts and partners were by far also her most important trading partners, the SAF used their sponsorship of white sporting events to advance their own long-term financial interests. Collectively these activities created a situation in which the fledgling American rugby fraternity felt comfortable enough to search for a formal relationship with South African rugby. Documentation that came into the possession of the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) years later indeed established a credible link between the activities of the Department of Information and its front organizations and the tour of the Eastern American Eagles.
Chosen from clubs under the jurisdiction of the Eastern Rugby Football Union of America, the 25-member, all-white team entered South Africa at the end of February of 1976 against the background of the international sports boycott. The venture followed shortly after Anthony Lewis of Spokesman Review and New York Times and a known apartheid critic, called on Americans to ‘do what they can to bring this country [South Africa] into the world and make it measure up to the world’s minimum standards of decency’. More ominously, the touring party arrived while the gloom of the shadow of the postponement and cancellation of the 1973 South African tour to New Zealand still lingered. This notwithstanding, the Americans from the onset made it abundantly clear that they were in the country to learn from what they believed was the world’s best rugby nation.
Upon their departure from New York on February 26, 1976, the tourists had their first taste of the world’s abhorrence of the obnoxious system of apartheid. Because of aviation sanctions against South African Airways, especially the denial of transit rights, the Eastern American Eagles were subjected to a two-day long and circuitous trans-continental flight from Kennedy Airport to Jan Smuts International Airport (now O.R. Tambo). These sanctions were a direct result of a resolution taken at the Second Conference of Independent African States held in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, in June of 1960 where members were asked to enforce diplomatic, port, and aviation sanctions against all South African aircraft. This left South African Airways without any transit facilities and fly-over rights over most of the continent. Faced with these challenges, SA Airways were forced to establish alternative stopovers for refueling purposes. This had a knock-on effect and increased not only operational costs but also travel time, distance, and tariffs. It also complicated the task of maintaining contact with trading partners, the major hubs of commerce, innovation, and industry as well as the world of culture. In the United States, the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) and the United Nations Special Committee on Apartheid (UNSCA) both on a continuous basis opposed plans by SA Airways and local operators to expand services from and to South Africa. In addition, the ACOA petitioned the White House and the Civil Aeronautics Board (CAB) to withdraw SAA’s landing licence. Given the foreign relations implications of the requests and its implications for bilateral air agreements between the nations, Congress’ Foreign Affairs sub-Committee on Africa also debated the matter. This allowed members of Congress, especially the Congressional Black Caucus, to push for total American disinvestment. Against this background, the Eastern American Eagles started their tour that was sponsored by Kentucky Fried Chicken as guests of the Northern Transvaal Rugby Football Union (NTvl.) and the South African Rugby Football Board (SARFB).
The involvement of KFC in particular was significant since the company, which opened its first South African store in 1971, was still in the process of expanding its market share at the time of the tour. In 1976, as it entered its sixth year of local operations, its owners, the Heublein Group, were in the process of implementing new initiatives to increase profitability. Sponsoring rugby, the most popular sports amongst whites across the country, offered a natural opportunity to expand their reach. The successful marketing campaign of car manufacturer General Motors launched in 1974 that deliberately linked the quintessential outdoor lifestyle of whites characterized by braaivleis (barbecue), rugby, and ‘sunny skies’ to their car, and the associated increase in sales recorded, probably also motivated KFC’s venture.
The tour sponsorship of R20,000 itself represented KFC’s first venture into rugby. The balance of R25,000 according to the available information was underwritten by the hosts Northern Transvaal. As part of its marketing activities during the tour, KFC provided the food, entertainment, and American-style ‘razzmatazz’ such as dancing girls during games and at post-match parties. Whereas the company carried the bulk of the tour costs, the balance had to be discounted against the gate receipts. Information that became available during the 1980s, however, suggested that this portion might have come from the coffers of the Department of Information as part of their propaganda campaign against the boycott movement.
Realizing the political implications and nature of the venture, both hosts and sponsors embarked on a nationwide advertising campaign to make sure that there was no confusion about the status of the team as a representative team from the Eastern Rugby Union of America (ERFUA) and not the United States. The South Africa rugby media, however, persisted in referring to the team as the American Eagles, which in the public mind translated into the US national team. Although the tour preceded the launch of the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid’s register of sports contacts for the ‘blacklisting’ of transgressors that maintain contact with apartheid, South Africa’s pariah status in world sport forced others for fear of punitive measures to be cautious. The US Rugby Football Union as evidenced by its pursuit of a strong relationship with South Africa was clearly one of the exceptions at a time that both the Soviet Union and Romania as members of the Federation of International Rugby Associations (FIRA) demanded that France, a fellow member, terminated her continued relationship with apartheid rugby. Similarly, on-going media reports of punitive international measures against transgressors of the sports boycott caused further uneasiness.
Given the politics underpinning the tour, the American diplomatic mission in South Africa preferred to follow the tour from a distance. Although the US consul hosted the team during their Durban visit, the reception was unofficial and financed from personal funds. The tour report compiled by team manager Keith Wood is silent about the nature and interactions among the players and the diplomatic staff during this event. A close reading of the document, however, indicated that politics and the unfolding political developments inserted itself within the team environment. This was inevitable given Coach Jack Stolk’s status as a South African career diplomat based at the country’s embassy in Washington, DC and that of Colonel J.J. De Wet Basson, the team’s local liaison officer, who was a high-ranking officer in the South African Police (SAP). Both diplomats and police were central in the battle against the anti-apartheid forces both at home and abroad. The South African embassy in Washington in particular was one of the country’s key diplomatic missions in the world and therefore a key player in the ongoing propaganda war. The South African police together with the state security apparatus, BOSS, on the other hand, were not only known for their modus operandi of arbitrary detention-without-trial and the monitoring and intimidation of anti-apartheid political activists but also for the brutal repression including the use of ‘political murder (‘demonic economies of violence’).
The tour generated unprecedented interest amongst local clubs who were eager to tour the United States. With due consideration to the prevailing geo-political situation, Wood encouraged all interested parties to inquire but cautioned that ‘politics might not allow an all-white representative side to tour‘ (emphasis in the original). He further advised that while such tours would be uncomplicated for ordinary clubs, hosting all-white representative national teams might be problematic. This notwithstanding, valuable new relationships were established between the tourists and the white rugby fraternity.
Throughout the tour that lasted from March to April, the team was sheltered from events in surrounding society and royally treated. Confronted by a congested programme, the Eagles over the course of 25 days played eight matches and shuttled between four provinces and six cities. This left them with little freedom to explore the various destinations they visited. Most could therefore not form an independent opinion about local conditions. This was aggravated by the need to maintain a low public profile at a time that various visiting sports teams and individuals became the victims of punitive sanctions. A lack of off-field diversions other than a few short excursions and some South African-style barbecues coupled with a number of consecutive defeats in the scheduled tour matches created a volatile situation. This situation was, however, characteristic of most fact-finding tours for foreign visitors arranged by the Bureau of Information and its secret front organizations.
During the final phase of the tour, various notable incidents including a refusal to adhere to a strict training and disciplinary regime, public displays of anger as well as feelings of ‘resentment rather than cooperation’ occurred. In addition, a ‘lack of special effort at improving fitness’, ‘some foot-dragging’, and players’ not giving enough thought ‘to their obligations in light of the sponsorship given and the strength of the opposing teams’ embarrassed the tour management. Team Manager Wood ascribed these incidents as probably related to American rugby players’ well-developed ‘anti-discipline tradition’ and a limited understanding of the demands of an overseas tour. This, however, had all the characteristics of acts of resistance as described by Hollander & Einwhoner’s in their detailed typology. Although the behaviour manifested had intent and a target, no motivation for its expression was mentioned. It was still significant enough for Wood to describe it as ’embarrassing’ and subversive’ especially since, in his own words, it left the tour management ‘helpless’. Although no anti-apartheid political statements or stance was recorded, the actions noted in the tour report strongly suggested that the tour was more affected by the South African reality than what the official report suggested. Bob Causey, a team member in reflecting on his tour experiences, recalled that ‘the color divide was evident and along four categories: white, non-white, colored, black’ and that the few South Africans whom they met ‘lived in a protected world with few liberties’. He also remembered his thoughts whilst in the Orange Free State that ‘in comparison with the Afrikaaners, the black population was small in stature’ and ‘that because of the physical stature and historical relationships to the game, South Africa’s international team will probably remain predominantly white for the foreseeable future’. Since the tourists were part of America’s privileged academic elite and alumni of some of that nation’s most prestigious universities, the reader is left with the distinct impression that the events witnessed by the tour management at the tail end of the trip was indeed acts of attempted resistance as described in the literature. Both the tour management and their hosts, however, either honestly failed to acknowledge it as related to the political context or deliberately chose to downplay the significance thereof.
Judging by the contents of the post-tour report, the tourists were ignorant of the fact that a scheduled match against a mixed-race or ‘Coloured’ team formed part of the official effort to promote limited inter-racial mixing under the apartheid government’s multi-national sports policy. This policy, due to its uses as a tool for the promotion of multi-racialism as opposed to non-racialism, a counter against the international sports boycott and as showcase of the apartheid regime’s bona fides as a reforming government and the general viability of integrated sport, placed the tour squarely within the political domain. The tour management, however, consistently downplayed the political context and content of their tour and in media interviews chose to emphasize their primary learning mission. From a competitive perspective, the tour in general was meaningless. It, however, served the political agenda of the South African hosts.
Beyond references in the Bangor Daily News in July of 1976, the Eastern American Eagle tour raised no particular interest from either the anti-apartheid movement or the mainstream international media. As a tour of club players that, with two exceptions, played mainly against university teams, the tour attracted very little adverse international and local media and political attention. Attention to this venture was largely deflected because of its coincidence with a number of high-profile parallel tours involving the South African national cricket and football teams. The tour of the International Wanderers Cricket Team and that of the Argentinean Invitation Soccer Team that created a split and engendered protest action from within the ranks of the non-establishment sports fraternity, in particular, dominated the headlines and kept the media focus elsewhere. Furthermore, the emerging controversy around the scheduled New Zealand rugby tour of South Africa in June of 1976 prior to the Montreal Olympic games also contributed to keep the tour in the background. The tourists were therefore able to conclude their pioneering tour without any serious repercussions.
Flags of Friendship and Multi-racial Sport—1977
In January of 1977, the South African Minister of Sport and Recreation, Dr. Piet Koornhof, announced that the South African government agreed to allow sports bodies to select racially mixed representative national teams. Government opponents such as Peter Hain of the London-based Stop All Racists Tours (SART) denounced the move as politically motivated and stemming from political pressure rather than a sincere commitment to non-racialism. Koornhof roundly denied this and maintained that the change was aimed at creating more opportunities for all athletes.
The new policy coincided with the announcement of the foreign policy guidelines of the new Carter Administration of the US. America’s foreign policy approach with regards to Africa as articulated by US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was to be guided by its concern for human rights in general and Southern Africa in particular. The new administration was especially committed to ‘speak frankly about injustice at home and abroad’ and to promote ‘freedom for all people’. Furthermore, Vice President Walter Mondale was tasked with engaging the South African government about ending racism, the establishment of Black majority rule, and conveying America’s ‘unalterably’ opposition to apartheid.
Political developments within the British Commonwealth, however, had the most direct and immediate impact on South Africa’s political and sports future and relations with USA rugby. During June of 1977 at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in Gleneagles, Scotland, apartheid dominated the agenda. At this gathering, sport-specifically New Zealand’s continued rugby relationship with the apartheid state that resulted in the boycott of the Montreal Olympic Games by 22 African states—proved a particularly contentious issue.
Following intensive deliberations, the CHOGM on June 15, 1977 issued the Gleneagles Agreement on Apartheid Sport. This was the first multilateral decision to ban South African sport on a global scale. It also unequivocally declared the continuation of such contacts as an endorsement of apartheid. This position was certainly an important one since individually most members, especially African and Caribbean countries, lacked significant influence and power to change the direction of major political developments. Realizing this weakness, they started to use their collective power as a geopolitical power bloc within the Commonwealth far more effectively in an attempt to better able to influence major decisions and to pressure the likes of New Zealand and the United Kingdom towards conformity. The ban, however, had no effect on the United States as a non-member of the Commonwealth.
Despite suggestions of insincerity, the SA Rugby Football Board (SARFB) pressed ahead with efforts to establish a multi-racial rugby body with its ethnic counterparts in the SA Rugby Football Federation and SA African Rugby Football Board. In the wake of the government’s insistence on continued white control in a federal structure, the non-racial SA Rugby Union (SARU), due to its commitment to the total destruction of apartheid, refused to participate. This notwithstanding, on November 11, 1977 the SARFB, the SA Rugby Federation and the all-African SA Rugby Association (formerly the SA African Rugby Football Board), formed the SA Rugby Board (SARB). This development was signalled three months earlier by American Congressman Caldwell Butler of Virginia who in August, requested that a flag be flown over the Capitol in honour of the SARB. An attempt by the Orange Free State rugby union to send a team to the US in its wake, however, foundered because of strong anti-apartheid activity. This pulled American rugby further into the maelstrom of South African rugby politics. Against this background, the American Cougars-the second representative American rugby team to tour South Africa-arrived.
‘Eagles’ Not ‘Cougars’—1978
The American Cougars tour in July-August 1978 coincided with the World Conference to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination (WCCRRD) held in Geneva, Switzerland. At this conference, apartheid was declared a crime against humanity and a threat to world peace. The Cougar tour raised further controversy for its inclusion of a match against Rhodesia, a country at the receiving end of international economic and diplomatic sanctions. Furthermore, continued media references to the team as the US national team and the players as national representative or ‘Eagles’ and not ‘Cougars’, further complicated matters. This perception was strengthen by the presence of key USARFU representatives such as Vic Hilarov (president) and Edmund Lee (secretary) as part of the tour management. In addition, 11 members of the 25-player squad either already represented the United States in official test matches or were part of the various team squads for the international matches against Canada, France, or Australia that were played between 1975 and 1978. Another complicating factor was the fact that the team were representative of most of the core rugby playing regions and 20 of the top clubs in the country and had Ray Cornbill, the national coach, at the helm. In the light of the Olympic games boycott two years earlier in response to the New Zealand tour of South Africa, a clear distinction between club and country in international sporting contact was not only desirable but also of critical importance.
The Rhodesia game, scheduled for August, was from the onset advertised as a full international contest. It provided for what was essentially a besieged community an opportunity to affirm their status as a distinct people and to display their physical prowess, patriotism, and fortitude. This was particularly important since all Rhodesian rugby players were conscripted soldiers and therefore regular participants in the war against ‘terrorism’ and black majority-rule. Local clubs were also an integral part of fundraising for the Terrorist Victims Relief Fund. The match therefore had major political significance and unsurprisingly the SARB and the tour management decided to proceed with the playing thereof. For the Rhodesians this game at the Salisbury Police Grounds on August 28, 1978, was indeed a fully representative international game that fully justified its prominence in the local media prominently as ‘Rhodesia versus the United States of America’. Matters were certainly not helped by media reports in early August that the Rhodesian security forces were using a new armoured vehicle equipped with 36 machine guns and an electronic firing mechanism called the ‘Cougar’ in their battle against the Zimbabwe liberation forces.
Despite calls for its abandonment, the South African rugby authorities and their US counterparts refused to abort the scheduled tour. For the US contingent led by Hilarov, the tour was aimed at the further promotion of their game. As such, they chose to ignore bomb explosions at shopping complexes, the termination of South Africa’s rugby links with France, and the suspension of seventeen of their boxing compatriots for touring South Africa. A report in the South African Rugby Annual for 1978 noted that the team had no match practice as a unit for a period of six weeks prior to the tour and only met on the flight to South Africa. This suggested that this tour, like the Eastern American Eagles one, was deliberately meant to be a low-key one. The USARFU resolve to proceed with the tour was probably further strengthened by an announcement of the South African Sports Federation (the umbrella body for white sports) in July that all South Africans irrespective of race would forthwith be eligible for the receipt of full national colours.
The official tour reports indicated that the Cougars played seven matches against three provincial teams (Natal, Northern Transvaal, and Griqualand-West), three select combinations (South African Country Districts, Combined Southern Universities, and the national Under 24 team, the Gazelles), and Rhodesia. The team performed credibly throughout their itinerary, and although they only won one game (against a Northern Transvaal XV), they lost four games with small margins of between four and nine points against teams that contained some of the most exciting emerging young talent of white rugby. Their performance against the Gazelles (sometimes called the ‘Junior Springboks’) that they lost by 20-16 in particular won them admiration of the local rugby fraternity. Like its predecessor, the Cougars played against a racially mixed team (SA Country Districts) in aid of advancing their hosts’ programme of inter-racial mixing. They also had very little free time or the opportunity to acquaint themselves with the surrounding community. During their stay and sometimes on the eve of a number of major matches, however, various significant events hit the media headlines. The match in Cape Town against the Combined Universities was preceded by news of the Federation of International Rugby Association’s (FIRA), undertaking to terminate relations with South Africa. Similarly, on the day of their match against the Country Districts in East London, the police defused three explosive devices at a major shopping complex in Durban.
As a direct result of the Cougar’s performances and willingness to face criticism, the SA Rugby Board committed to hosting a fully representative US national team in the near future. The local leadership also thanked the tourists as a ‘collective of courageous people’ for defying their many critics in order to tour South Africa. Although the venture had very few financial or positive rugby spin-offs, it provided South Africans and kindred spirits in neighbouring Rhodesia with an opportunity to side-step total sporting isolation.
Springboks in America—1981
As South Africa entered the 1980s, the number of official tours decreased dramatically. Following the visits of the British Lions and England (1980), the only scheduled tours were the incoming tour of Ireland and South Africa’s outbound tour to New Zealand (1981). Domestically, the four-year-old South African Rugby Board was still struggling to fully consolidate its structures amidst criticism of window-dressing and a lack of commitment towards fundamental change.
In 1981, the South African national team, despite serious domestic and international opposition, toured New Zealand for seven-and-a-half weeks. The tour was characterized by continuous anti-apartheid demonstrations—violent street battles and rioting that deeply divided New Zealand society. By the end of the tour that lasted from July to the second week of September, the tourists were thoroughly exhausted and eager to go home. They, however, were scheduled to play three matches in the United States. For most players, this detour was ‘a waste of time and money in rugby terms’.
This tour was a payback to the Americans for their earlier tours and was an honouring of the commitment by the SA Rugby Board to visit America in an official capacity. The principal actors behind the tour were Louis Luyt on behalf the SARB and Tom Selfridge, president of the Eastern Rugby Union. The latter was a staunch supporter of the idea that American players should play against and learn from the best team in the world. Luyt, on the other hand, was an active member of apartheid-funded front organizations such as Association International (AI) and the Committee For Fairness in Sport (CFFS), which were part of a larger project to counter political and sporting isolation.
Initially, the scheduled Springbok tour did not attract particular attention in the American media. This raised the hope that the US leg would escape the New Zealand controversy. This hope was shattered by the announcement by the American Coordinating Committee for Equality in Sports and Society (ACCESS) in July of 1981 of their determination to spearhead the same ‘determined opposition’ to the tour as in New Zealand. ACCESS, together with the United Nation Special Committee against Apartheid (UNSCAA), unsuccessfully attempted to persuade the US State Department to refuse entry to the visitors. The department cited its ‘policy of non-interference in private sporting events’ as justification for its action but was at pains to emphasize their rejection of apartheid. This decision triggered anger over a wide front and united ACCESS, the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and various chapters of the civil rights movement in an attempt to persuade the city authorities in New York and Chicago to deny facilities to the Springboks.
Beyond the politically active, the scheduled tour also attracted opposition from ordinary citizens, fans, and the organized sport sector. Selfridge’s insistence in the media that sports and politics should be kept separated and his suggestions that the Springboks were a club and not a national team were particularly contentious. Ronald Gutfleish, a New York Times reader, attacked this deliberate attempt to conceal the truth and pointed out that the Springboks were not only a national team but also served a political function. He further warned that hosting the Springboks would turn Americans into apologists for apartheid and would gave credibility to a racist and oppressive regime. This sentiment was strongly supported by another reader, Paul Duguid, who suggested that the lie about the real status of the Springboks was an attempt to hide the politics behind the tour.
Within American rugby’s own ranks, various voices of concern were raised. Some individuals within the Eastern RFU appealed to the organization to cancel the tour in protest against apartheid. There were also suggestions of a lack of consultation and that ‘member clubs were not consulted in the decision to invite the Springboks, and we want to get the word out that this is not what the rugby community wants’. This, seemingly, was a minority view since no groundswell of opposition to the tour within rugby circles was recorded. Neither was a wide-range of rugby club opinion solicited. One of the few clubs who publicly objected was the Boston-based Ten Good Men Rugby Football Club under the leadership of Dr. John (Richard) Logan. Logan, who was a founding member of the Stop the Apartheid Rugby Tour Coalition (SARTC), in testimony before the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid after the tour described the lack of real opposition amongst clubs as the result of domestic racism. He specifically noted that the majority of American ‘rugby clubs are all white because very few black people are involved in rugby. So, therefore South African teams that are all white racists raise few eyebrows among the uninformed rugby people in this country’. Furthermore, ‘most players never make a territorial or national select side so the issue of South African apartheid as manifested in visiting clubs never comes up’ and as a result the majority ‘are interested only in the game and the party afterwards. International considerations are virtually nonexistent’. Documents obtained by the SARTC confirmed this internal unhappiness and resistance. A particular bone of contention was a monetary contribution of $25,000 made by Louis Luyt to the Eastern Rugby Football Union (ERFU) in December of 1980 and which coincided with the tour invitation. The donation not only boosted the ERFU’s annual budget for the 1981 season from a low of $7000 to $32,000 but also raised questions about the motives behind the contribution. It also questioned the origins of the spending on the two preceding tours in 1976 and 1978. In the view of the SARTC, both past tours and the scheduled Springbok tour were financed by the apartheid government with Louis Luyt of the Committee for Fairness in Sport as its conduit.
Misgivings about the tour also extended into the United States Olympic Committee (USOC) who feared a repeat of the 1976 Montreal Games. As the organizers of the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games, the USOC were desirous of a trouble-free event. Lacking the power to stop the tour, they appealed to the Eastern Rugby Football Union to reconsider their decision. The latter not only dismissed the appeal but reiterated its stance that sport and politics should not mix.
As the arrival of the Springboks drew nearer, the political temperature increased concomitantly. The use of facilities in particular dominated the political agenda in both New York and Chicago. In this process, all manner of opponents and supporters ranging from the Neo-Nazi National Socialist Party of America (NSPA), the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), and the NAACP mobilized. With all groups attempting to sway public opinion, matters hovered close to breaking point. With the involvement of the NSPA that threatened to defend the Springboks against physical attack by protesters, the spectre of violence also loomed large. In addition, the matter of playing opportunity for the visiting team’s only black player, Errol Tobias, also started to enter the debate.
During the New Zealand tour, Tobias frequently became the target of protestors and critics who regarded his inclusion as an exercise in political appeasement. This resulted in a close monitoring of his performances and a general sensitivity about any exclusion from the match day squad. Prior to their first match, the US rugby authorities, as quoted in the Cape Argus, hinted to the tour management that allowing the player to play at least two of the three scheduled games, would ‘help to diffuse a lot of the heat on us’. As a result, the matter was strategically taken up by the Afrikaans rugby reporter Quintus Van Rooyen who suggested that since injury has ruled out some of the first choice players Tobias should also receive consideration for at least the opening game. The use of Van Rooyen, an influential journalist from the largest Afrikaans newspaper group in the country, was the right person to place this matter in the public. With only three games, including one full international match, the likelihood of playing Tobias in the majority of the games for political convenience was always doubtful. Although he made it into the starting line-up for the first match of the tour against a Midwest XV, the pressure on the team continued unabated.
Initial attempts to persuade the hosting cities to deny facilities to the tourists failed. This generated further tension and threats, which forced the organizers to adopt a policy of secrecy about the match scheduled for Chicago. Within this highly polarized situation, New York Mayor Ed Koch’s decision not to stop the match scheduled for the Downing Stadium in the city was severely criticized by blacks who, according to sports reporter Ira Berkow, were not a significant part of his electoral support base. In Chicago, activists similarly protested against the use of the city’s facilities, all of which collectively increased the political pressure and persuaded Koch to finally revoke permission for the EARFU to use Downing Stadium. An avalanche of criticism followed this action. Beyond accusations of political expediency and attempts at vote catching, the action opened a new debate involving sport, constitutional rights, and the setting of foreign policy.
The New York Civil Liberties Union denounced Koch’s action as both an infringement of the right to free speech and as setting a dangerous precedent. Its main fear was that the public safety rationale ‘could easily become a device for denying access to City facilities for all but the most noncontroversial user’. Dick Young of the Evening Independent in turn, argued for mutual tolerance. Selfridge, the man with the most at stake, accused Koch of delegating the setting of city foreign policy to political protestors. The EARFU therefore resolved to play the match as a ‘private game’ and shifted it to the Holleder Stadium, another city-owned stadium but leased to the Rochester Flash soccer club. For the club in question, the possibility of deriving profit from the game mattered more than politics. The Christian Science Monitor criticized this determination to host the matches at all costs and suggested that politics rather than sporting considerations were behind all the manoeuvring. Selfridge, in turn, challenged his critics to stop ‘being hypocritical and saying let’s go all the way with politics in sports’.
By the time that the Springboks arrived in the US in September, they expected a repeat of the New Zealand events and even worse—new and much more serious mass protests. This sense of imminent danger was heightened by the team’s accommodation in the secured surroundings of the Chicago Athletic Association. On the diplomatic level, while no official welcome was extended to the tourists, the City Council passed a resolution to distance Chicago from the scheduled match and declared apartheid ‘the shame of the century’. It, however, stopped short of banning the game outright for fear of acting unconstitutionally. The Council’s action, however, galvanized further protests and pressure on the organizers to cancel the game. The on-going furore led Christian Science Monitor correspondent Lucia Mouat to label the game as an instrument of South African political propaganda. Matters were also not helped by the pronouncements of Ed Lee, the liaison person of the Springboks, that the organizers were determined to continue with the game scheduled for 19 September. In the background, the plans were afoot to shift the game to an alternative venue.
Although logistical arrangements were kept secret, leaks were inevitable, resulting in the cancellation of reservations of several potential match venues. In the end, the Chicago game was played at Roosevelt Park on the shore of Lake Michigan under conditions that were far from ideal. Indeed, noted Bob Jeffries, the match qualify as ‘one of the stranger events of 1981’ and had all the features of ‘a bad spy movie given all the intrigue’. Although a small group of protestors made it to the venue, their protest was ineffective and was terminated by their arrest. The political pressure in the run-up to the second match scheduled for the Bleeker Stadium in Albany on 22 September therefore soared.
Days before the game, New York Governor Hugh Carey, appealed to the mayor of Albany to consider cancelling the scheduled game in the interest of public order and security. Official advice also indicated that there were enough legal grounds and security concerns to justify such action. On the strength of these and deliberately interpreting the governor’s advice as a prohibitive order, Mayor Erastus Corning formally cancelled the game, four days before kick-off. The EARFU immediately challenged the decision in court as an infringement of their right to freedom of speech under the First Amendment of the American constitution. This approach was entirely novel. Both the legal questions of whether ‘an ostensibly apolitical sporting event is protected by the right of free speech’ or the extent to which rugby qualified as a form of speech was at that stage pretty much the subject of academic debate. Given the precedent-setting nature of the case, the NYCLU and the CDCAA joined the action as friends of the court. This coincided with the House Foreign Affairs Committee’s adoption of a resolution that expressed ‘the “sense of Congress” that the Springboks should not play in the United States’. The Reagan Administration, however, differed from this approach and regarded the matter as a private affair and therefore outside of federal jurisdiction. The administration furthermore held the view that ‘Pretoria will be more receptive to friendly gestures than hostility’.
Despite varying opinions amongst legal academics, the court ruled in favour of the EARFU for the match, now designated as ‘an exhibition game’, to proceed. It also set a new legal standard as far as the position of sport as a form of free expression was concerned. Despite this legal victory, the battle was far from over since the last game of the tour was still three days away. As before, all information about the venue and the associated logistical arrangements were kept secret. Matters were pushed to a point following a bomb blast at the clubhouse of the Evansville RFC in Indiana. The second such event connected to the tour, it forced the organizers to reschedule the match to one day earlier. In addition, it was shifted to a private polo field in Glenville, just north of Schenectady, without the knowledge of the local police, players, or the larger media. The only exceptions were the state police, two reporters, and the governor.
At the Owl Creek Polo Ground, Glenville, the USA Eagles and Springboks played the first ‘secret test match’ in rugby history in the presence of about 40 spectators and two media representatives as well as a standby contingent of state police officers. Although the Americans included two black players (Lin Walton and Roy Helu) on their side, the critics continued their protests. The tour therefore concluded on 25 September with the Springboks recording their first victory (38-7) over the US national team. This tour left American rugby fully exposed. Forthwith, their every move would be under greater scrutiny. This notwithstanding, rugby exchanges between the two countries continued on club level. At least three South African rugby clubs toured the US during the 1981 season—often under false identities. In turn, the Orange Free State and Natal rugby unions in cooperation with Anglo-American Corporation and Durban Collegians RFC hosted a visit by Detroit RFC for 15 days in August of 1981. Secret documentation obtained by the Stop the Apartheid Rugby Tour Coalition (SARTC) and the American Committee on Africa (ACOA) indicated that these and earlier activities were directly related to the secret activities and apartheid propaganda campaign and secret funding activities of the various front organizations, especially the Committee for Fairness in Sport (CFS). For their trouble, the USARFU as an organization, Tom Selfridge in his personal capacity, and the Detroit RFC, together with a significant number of other American sportsmen and women, earned a place on the UN blacklist of active associates of apartheid. The UN Special Committee matter of factly also noted that ‘the United States Government, for its part, took no action to discourage exchanges with apartheid sports teams’ and failed to record ‘even an expression of disapproval’. The committee further observed that ‘the United Kingdom and the United States of America remain the main collaborators with apartheid’ and therefore needed to be educated ‘in close co-operation with all organizations opposed to apartheid, to make the public aware of the overriding moral issues involved’.
‘Grizzlies’ Not ‘Eagles’—1988
When the West Coast Grizzlies from the Pacific Coast of the US arrived in South Africa in the winter of 1988, the global political scene had changed fundamentally. With South African sport fully excluded from all international contests following a range of tour cancellations, rebel tours to the country became the norm. The common denominator in all these tours was Louis Luyt who either financed specific tours from his own pocket or acted as an intermediary between the SA Rugby Board and potential sponsors like First National Bank of South Africa, the key sponsor of the incoming American tour. Luyt was known for availing several of his business accounts as conduits for the channelling of secret government funding for a range of front organizations involved in the apartheid government’s propaganda war. The Grizzlie tour, the third representative American team to visit South Africa, in fact followed the highly controversial New Zealand Cavaliers rebel tour. It also took place shortly after the New Zealand visit for 1985, the British Lions, Welsh and French tours scheduled for 1986 were cancelled, and South Africa formally was excluded from the inaugural Rugby World Cup tournament in 1987. All these events were the result of international solidarity against apartheid and collective action and initiatives from a diverse range of organizations from across the political and social spectrum and flowed from continued appeals for an active disassociation from race-based rugby. The existence of the UN blacklist or register of sports contacts with South Africa also played its role. This notwithstanding, a report in the New York Times just prior to the Grizzlie tour indicated that the list of Americans (both athletes and officials) with formal links or association with apartheid has grown to over 600 between 1980 and 1987. Furthermore, media reports about attempts by two South African rugby players Naas Botha and Cliffie Brown to break into American football (Botha by the Dallas Cowboys of the National Football League and the San Antonio Gunslingers of the United States Football League, and Brown by the New Orleans Saints of the National Football League) kept America’s close fraternization with apartheid rugby in the public eye.
Given their previous experiences and the state of international politics, the USA Rugby Football Union (USARFU) formally opposed the tour. American rugby administrators, acutely aware of their sport’s minority status in comparison to that of gridiron football, depended on continuous and sustainable corporate investment to grow their game. The Pacific Coast’s active association with apartheid sport threatened this project. The tour also had certain geo-political implications since it also threatened to derail a planned rugby series between the American Eagles and Soviet Union, a first in the new era of ‘Glasnost’. It also endangered America’s participation in the both the 1991 Rugby World Cup and the Seoul summer Olympics. The USARFU therefore appealed to the Pacific Coast Rugby Football Union (PCRFU) to reconsider—either delay or ‘withdraw’ until after the Olympics. The PCRFU, however, refused to cancel their seven-match tour that was to include matches against black opponents and which they had set as a precondition for touring South Africa.
While the PCRFU acknowledged that the tour was a risky undertaking, they defended it as an opportunity to ‘break the color line through rugby’ and to learn more about the game and South African society. When the mother body, the USARFU, revoked its original approval of the tour, the pro-tour group accused the mother body of interference, of ‘nannyism’, and of being in breach of its own charter. Whereas the Eastern American Eagles could describe their tour as a learning venture, the Grizzlies by their own declaration, embarked on a missionary political expedition. This created new issues but was not a surprising development given the composition of the touring party.
The tour group of 24 players and four team officials differed fundamentally from their predecessors both in terms of national origin and, arguably, also in terms of political consciousness and outlook. Within their ranks were at least eight foreign-born and double passport-carrying individuals who had learn the game overseas. In addition, the team included three South Africans in the persons of Graham Downes, Shaun Lipman, and Peter Kuttel as well as players from Wales, New Zealand, American Samoa, Scotland, and Australia. The South African presence alone added a significant political dimension to the tour. A large percentage of team members also had experience of playing the game for fixed periods or during tours in Australia, New Zealand, England, Argentina, and Europe during the 1980s at a time that the South African question dominated the news headlines. In addition, the disastrous American tour of the Springboks was within living memory. It is therefore safe to assume that most of the Grizzlie players had a greater awareness of the South African question than any of their predecessors.
The tour coincided with the start of an urban bombing campaign by the anti-apartheid exiled forces engaged in the armed liberation struggle. A massive car bomb explosion at Johannesburg’s Ellispark Rugby Stadium killed two and injured 35 others. Similarly, an Air Force building in Pretoria suffered damage and a number of civilians were injured after a similar explosion. Fearing an escalation of urban terror, Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu offered to mediate between the opposing forces. The tourists upon enquiry, however, reported that they felt safe and saw no reason to discontinue their tour.
Upon their arrival in Durban for the Natal part of the tour, a local anti-apartheid group called Victims of Apartheid (VOA) confronted the Grizzlies. Claiming to be engaged in endeavours to resettle ‘those who wish to escape from apartheid by resettlement in the Western Democracies’, VOA ‘offered’ the team an ‘opportunity’ to ‘redeem’ itself for their decision to tour South Africa. The price for absolution in this case, involved paying ‘the cost of a one-way airline ticket for one isolated Black South African sportsman from the point of departure at Jan Smuts Airport, to the point of arrival at any destination.’ Although this incident might have brought the realities of South Africa home to the tourists it, however, did not make any difference since they continued with their tour.
As the Grizzlies departed for Cape Town and matches against black opposition, the regional newspapers reported the granting of a court order allowing the Mandela Birthday Committee the right to celebrate the 70th birthday of Nelson Mandela. In addition, the largest Afrikaans daily newspaper, Die Burger, reported the detention of a number of athletes for participating in a road race honouring the incarcerated Mandela. Unperturbed by these events, the Grizzlies continued their quest for learning and the advancement of the multi-racial rugby agenda of their hosts.
Off the pitch, the tourists enjoyed the full benefits of a rugby tour, inclusive of wildlife safaris, wine tours, and barbecues. Learning about the game and the complexities of life under apartheid in the process were pushed to the background. The tourists seeming had no problem with the firing of ‘machine guns and throw grenades by the side of the road’ after a party in Cape Town at a time that the iron-grip of apartheid repression and military and police violence dominated the headlines. From a monetary perspective the Grizzlie tour, like its predecessors, was a complete loss. It, however, ensured a taste of international contact to a number of South African rugby players, both seasoned and inexperienced. It further strengthened the hand of the SARB to portray itself as a progressive body committed to racial integration.
As the Americans headed for home, the International Olympic Committee in late June issued a call for all international sports organizations to cut off contact with South Africa. Within weeks, the IOC appointed a special commission to study ways to increase the isolation of South Africa. This measure was aimed at finding ways to exclude athletes who have transgressed the international sports boycott. These campaigns in combination with punitive economic sanctions finally undermined the status quo and forced various white interest groups, including the SA Rugby Board, to initiate direct talks with the main anti-apartheid political groups.
Following a series of exploratory talks in Europe during 1988, the SARB and SARU met in October in Harare, Zimbabwe, under the leadership of the banned African National Congress to discuss the formation of a united and non-racial rugby body. This meeting was followed by detailed unity talks inside South Africa and a moratorium on further international tours. With the unbanning of the ANC, SA Communist Party, and PAC in February 1990, apartheid entered its last phase. The release of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners soon after made this process irreversible and pushed South Africa on the final path towards democracy.
Assessing US-South Africa Rugby Relations during the Era of Anti-Apartheid Boycotts
The desire of American rugby players to learn from and to compete against the best was a natural development and mirrored that of others elsewhere. Having had an opportunity to play against all the leading rugby nations by the mid-1970s, South Africa was regarded by many, including the Americans, as one of the leading rugby nations. Visiting and competing against the Springboks therefore literally represented the crossing of one of rugby’s final frontiers. The Eastern American Eagles tour was the culmination of a long and exhaustive search for a definite relationship with South African rugby. Unfortunately, it coincided with the last stand of apartheid. Unperturbed, American administrators stayed on their chosen course and created the impression that apartheid politics was merely a minor inconvenience and of no consequence to their rugby ambitions.
For most of the visiting players, from the first to the last American team (young adults in the early stages of their professional careers), the social side of the rugby tour was paramount. Favourable statistics, seemingly, was an important but not the be all and end all on these learning adventures. Despite strict management control by both the tour management and their hosts and an isolated environment, the tourists as university-educated graduates and professionals arrived with certain prior technical knowledge and life experiences and were therefore still able to form independent opinions about the host country. Lacking any other way to express their concerns, some amongst the early tourists attempted to give expression to their feelings through resistance against a strict training regime and tour discipline, disinterest in competitive play, and a carefree attitude. This notwithstanding, these tours from an American player perspective remained merely social and recreational visits. The case was different for South African administrators and players.
For South Africa’s rugby establishment, the contact with American rugby served a definite political purpose. It provided them with an opportunity to display their efforts to reform in a controlled fashion. It also provided young emerging players with an opportunity to get a taste of international rugby. The SA Rugby Board and its predecessor, however, also exploited these tours for political expediency. For the black rugby fraternity especially the SA Rugby Union and the boycott movement, these tours were a threat and an obstacle in their fight for social justice and freedom from racial discrimination. It therefore became a legitimate target of protest and agitation and therefore fueled the flames of anti-apartheid resistance.
The American rugby fraternity’s insistence on maintaining a strong relationship with South Africa and defending it as part of their constitutional rights, inadvertently found themselves in the company of the apologists for apartheid. Whilst the legal proceedings around the right to host the Springboks assisted in deepening American constitutional democracy and gave clarity with regard to sport as a form of freedom of speech, it also deepened the divide within the domestic game and between the anti-apartheid and civil rights groups and conservatives.
From a statistical perspective, none of the tours undertaken was particularly successful for the visitors with more game defeats than victories. This emphasized the competitive gap that existed between South Africa as a rugby powerhouse and emerging rugby nations such as America. This gave further credence and, to a certain extent, even justified the decision of Selfridge and others to use South Africa as the ultimate yardstick in their quest for excellence. With the turning of the political tide at the end of the 1980s, contact between the two countries had to give way to the dictates of ‘big politics’. As a result of the political processes, South Africa’s return to full international competition against her traditional rivals (1992 onwards) and the advent of full professionalism in the game after the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the budding relationship started between the two countries in 1976 was suspended until 2001 and the conclusion of South Africa’s transition to democracy.