A series of confidential Foreign Office telegrams just released by the British Public Record Office sheds dramatic new light on the political storm that blew up in 1967 over England’s proposed touring party to South Africa. Alan Travis reports
It was an urgent secret telegram from the Foreign Office in London to the British ambassador in Pretoria: “The one thing we must hope for is that Mr d’Oliveira keeps his form and the Marylebone Cricket Club [MCC] keep their nerve.” And, for once, the British establishment meant it.
For the next 18 months, as John Vorster’s apartheid government repeatedly tried to woo the MCC – cricket’s then governing body under whose banner England used to tour – the Foreign Office refused to compromise over the biggest crisis to hit sport during Harold Wilson’s premiership, the Labour Party prime minister in the Sixties and Seventies.
As confidential Foreign Office telegrams and papers from the Sixties just released by the British Public Record Office show, the result was to shape Britain and indeed the world’s sporting relations with South Africa for the next 25 years.
The “D’Oliveira affair” began in January 1967 when the South African-born coloured all- rounder, Basil d’Oliveira, who had had an outstanding career playing in the Lancashire League and for Worcestershire, looked a likely prospect for the England touring party the following winter.
D’Oliveira had come to England in 1960 precisely because apartheid meant he was banned in his own country from playing cricket at the highest levels.
The “crisis” began on January 23 when the hard-right Pieter le Roux, the South African interior minister, made clear that D’Oliveira would not be welcome: “We won’t allow mixed teams to play against our white teams here. If this player were chosen, he would not be allowed to come here. That is our policy.”
There was an immediate outcry in Britain, with the former England cricket captain, David Sheppard, later to be the bishop of Liverpool, leading the protest.
And for once the Foreign Office shared his disgust: “While generalised attacks on apartheid do no good in South Africa (however well they may go down at the United Nations), we should not hesitate to attack for all we are worth when we catch the South Africans on ground which the better among them feel to be indefensible,” the Foreign Office instructed the British ambassador in Pretoria.
So it was little surprise when the first ever British sports minister, Denis Howell, was loudly cheered in the Commons when he announced his government was to take a firm stand, while officially not mixing sport and politics of course: “The MCC have informed the government that the team to tour South Africa will be chosen on merit, and in this respect any pre-conditions that the host country lays down will be totally disregarded. The government is confident that if any chosen player is rejected by the host country the tour would be abandoned.”
His words had an even bigger impact than was realised at the time behind the scenes in South Africa. The British embassy in Pretoria reported: “There are rumours that the Prime Minister has actually reprimanded the Minister of the Interior for his statement and ordered that all questions related to `apartheid in sport’ should in future be referred to him personally for consideration.” Vorster had taken charge.
“I do not think that, apart from the embarrassment which it has caused Mr d’Oliveira, we have any particular reason to regret this incident. It is no bad thing that these people should have been made to feel embarrassed by Mr le Roux’s ineptitude. Nor did Mr Howell’s statement do us any harm,” was the private Foreign Office view.
Vorster was desperate to try to rescue the situation because, again in the confidential words of the Foreign Office: “He wants to change the pattern of apartheid in sport . but only to overcome the sort of difficulties that have arisen over tours by the All Blacks and the MCC and over South Africa’s participation in the Olympic Games.”
After three months of internal political battle inside the National Party, Vorster announced he was introducing some “flexibility” in the policy of apartheid in sport.
With one eye on the MCC and another on the International Olympic Committee and the 1968 Mexico Olympics, he said that he would accept racially mixed teams to tour South Africa from countries with which it had traditional sporting ties. He also announced that non- white South African athletes would wear the same uniform and march behind the same flag if they were allowed to go to the Olympics. Non-whites could not compete with whites at home, however.
The British embassy said this development might open the door to D’Oliveira being allowed to tour, although the ambassador warned London that nothing had been said about non-segregated facilities for the spectators. He sent the Foreign Office details of how “coloured” spectators at Rodenbosch Tennis Club had been marched out of the crowd by armed police officers. The reason given was that there were “no separate permanent toilet facilities” for them.
In the summer of 1968, the Anti-Apartheid Movement and the South African Non-Racial Open Committee (Sanroc) stepped up the pressure in London and David Steel, David Winnick, Denis Brutus and others met the sports minister to press him to go further and cut all taxpayers’ aid to sports bodies that sent teams to South Africa.
The government refused, saying their policy was “to avoid appearing to condone apartheid but not to pursue an active policy of ostracism”.
At the same time, D’Oliveira’s performance in two Tests against Australia in England appeared to make an unanswerable case for a place for him on the South African tour. In the first Test he made 87 not out and in the last, at The Oval, he ran into his best form with a magnificent innings of 158 runs.
So it was that much more of a shock when, three weeks later, the MCC announced the touring party without including D’Oliveira: “We think we have rather better players in the side,” declared Doug Insole, the chair of selectors. D’Oliveira himself broke down at the news that his cherished lifetime dream had been dashed.
The MCC’s secretary, Billy Griffith, insisted the decision was a cricketing one and had not been to appease the very apartheid policies that had driven D’Oliveira to England in the first place. His explanation was not widely believed as a howl of protest greeted what was described by The Guardian as a craven piece of expediency on the part of the MCC.
Colin Cowdrey, the England captain, defended the decision, saying there was little point in a boycott: “I dislike the whole principle of apartheid. But I am happy with the pre- tour conditions which have been clearly established and I can see no gain in refusing to go.” At a special meeting of the MCC, several members resigned in protest.
Amazingly it was the News of the World newspaper which actually applied the most effective pressure. They mischievously announced that they had offered D’Oliveira a contract to cover the four-month tour as a cricket commentator. The prospect was daunting. As a non-white journalist, he would have to buy his own ticket for a seat in the non-white section of the ground.
He would not be allowed into the press box, the pavilion, the restaurant, the changing rooms or the press conferences.
Vorster was not having it. He exploded: “Guests are expected to observe the rules not make them. Guests who have ulterior motives, or who were sponsored by people who have ulterior motives, usually find they are not invited.” But the outburst of indignation continued.
Howell said that when it came to team selection, as a minister: `I am expected to be officially speechless, and I certainly am that at the moment.” The MCC bowed to the pressure. It tried to mend matters by announcing that an injury to the bowler, Tom Cartwright, meant that a place had been found, after all, for D’Oliveira.
The next day, Vorster exploded: “The team as it now stands is not the team of the MCC selection committee. It is the team of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, of Sanroc, of Bishop Reeves and of the political opponents of South Africa.” He told an NP meeting in Bloemfontein that, “once a certain gentleman of colour had been omitted on merit by the MCC”, he was no longer a sportsman but “a cricket ball and from then on it was political bodyline bowling all the way”. Vorster declared disingenuously: “When I play sport, I play sport, and when I play politics, I play politics.”
But this time Griffith stood firm: “If the chosen team is not acceptable to South Africa, the MCC will call off the tour,” he said. So the tour was cancelled.
The Foreign Office’s private view was that Vorster was more shaken by the whole episode than he admitted, and that his mistake had been to believe the MCC had “yielded to the importunities of a small pressure group spearheaded by the Anti-Apartheid Movement. He has shown no signs of realising that a very broad spectrum of opinion in this country is ranged against the racial policies of his government.”
It was John Arlott in The Guardian, however, who invested the moment with its proper historical significance: it meant that “countless coloured children born in Britain of West Indian, Indian, Pakistani or African parents will now know that their British citizenship is not a fiction as far as cricket is concerned. It is as simple and important as that.”
It was to be another 27 years before an official England cricket team set foot in South Africa again.