Peter Hain, one of the leaders of the South African sporting boycott, was at Lord’s to see last week’s historic Test. He spoke to Paul Martin
IT WAS a demo’s dream, a moment of final victory. Peter Hain was chatting to Peter Pollock, whom he had kept out of England in 1970 by threats to disrupt the tour. Pollock told him: “You were right and we were wrong.”
Music to the ears of … yes, a closet Peter Pollock fan. “He was my boyhood hero,” says Hain, after they had chatted outside the wrought-iron WG Grace gates at Lord’s, scene of more than one picket protest during cricket authority meetings in the Bad Old Days.
“As a kid back in Pretoria, I bowled in the garden and pretended I was Peter Pollock. And when I batted I pretended I was Graeme. We were similar, you see — in that we both batted left-handed,” jokes Hain, adding: “That ages me a bit, doesn’t it?”
It does. Hain’s exile began in 1966, a year of South African cricketing success, when his parents were jailed, then banned, and, he recalls, John Vorster’s government stopped architectural firms from offering his father a job.
“I left as a teenager in the bleak, dark days. Prospects for change were nowhere to be seen. It transpired I played a more significant role in changing South Africa from the outside than I possibly could have if I had stayed on. I’d have ended up in a jail cell, for sure.” Because he never expected to return, Hain now feels no tug of conscience or desire to go “home”.
At Lord’s, Hain was anxious that South Africa’s triumphant return to the Home of Cricket should not be an occasion of pure bonhomie and reminiscence, glossing over the troubled past. “We need to be reminded of history, of where we came from, why we’re here,” opines the sage. “We would not be here at all if it were not for the 1970 boycott. The boycott campaign was 100 percent successful. (United Cricket Board managing director) Ali Bacher recognises that.”
What annoys, even alarms Hain, though, is the attitude of the England cricket authorities, and of the English Establishment.
“There is a certain sense of amnesia here, though not in South Africa itself. The moment I entered Lord’s I could sense complacency,” he says. “The match programme says nothing about the momentous events of the boycott — just that the 1970 tour was stopped ‘due to vandalism’. For them it really is just an interruption in the normal course of events. They never understood, and they still don’t. For them, it’s now just resuming business as usual.”
In his hands, he brandishes his (complimentary) match ticket, which still displays the old South African flag alongside the English Cross of St George. The official explanation for this lapse is that they were printed before the new flag became official. Though the cost would have been small, the idea of reprinting at least some of them after May 10 seemingly did not enter the minds of the Lord’s mandarins.
They did manage to run up a “proper” flag over the Pavilion, but we all know about the ticking off Mike Procter got for waving his one on the first day. He did it again defiantly after the South African win, to general public approbation. “I thought it was excellent — a riposte to the typically stuffy men at Lord’s,” says Hain.
“South African cricket chiefs, and South African politicians, are well ahead of the English Establishment,” Hain declares.
He points out that the process began, in his eyes, with a major concession by the ANC. “They were incredibly generous in allowing sporting links with South Africa to be established before it was justified,” he says.
“We are building a new South Africa on the basis of thin ice. There’s always a danger that old antagonisms break out again,” maintains Hain, who uses the personal pronoun regarding his native land increasingly often, despite being a British parliamentarian. “The mutual generosity I find here, and as we see in South Africa today, is important in the building of a new country.”
As a young man and Young Liberal leader Hain made his name tilting at windmills — and eventually they did topple. Now that he’s a Labour MP of three years’ standing his Welsh constituents have “forgiven” him for disrupting their beloved rugby encounters with the Springboks. It has become part of local folklore in Neath, he says, that “people keep coming over to me and claiming they carried me off during a demo. Strangely, though, I was in fact never there in those days!”
Yet his tangles with the rugby establishment, so bitter in 1968, are not over, it seems. He has been championing the cause of Stuart Evans, one of his constituents, who has been banned from returning to Welsh “amateur” rugby.
Evans switched to professional Rugby League in 1987, at the height of his very considerable powers, and is now seeking to become “amateur” again. “When he first came to me I said to myself: Oh hell, not again! Surely not another clash between me and the Welsh Rugby Union!”
It turns out that Hain is something of a purist, perhaps even a conservative, when it comes to the amateur status of the game.
“At first I was a bit hostile to Evans. I rather like the amateur ethos,” he says. “It has a certain purity. At Neath, the spectators clap even a try by the opposition. You wouldn’t find that in football… The kids run on to the field at half-time, and when the whistle blows they’re off again.”
But back to the cricket at Lord’s, as they say on the radio. Hain had divided loyalties (the Welsh county of Glamorgan has produced, oddly, a good number of England players, including the ex-captain Tony Lewis), but now the truth can be told. “I got caught up in the extraordinary mood of the event, the wonderful atmosphere of support,” says the British MP. “Yes, I’m glad South Africa won.”
The former politician Norman Tebbitt once reflected a common view here when he declared that those immigrants or their descendants who did not support England when their “native” cricket teams toured here, were disloyal and not truly English. Hain has just failed the Tebbitt “cricket test”, but then with a constituency majority of 24 000 he can probably afford to upset a few locals. He’s never been afraid to do that.