Rob Steen, sportswriter and senior lecturer in sports journalism at the University of Brighton (England), reports in a May 9 Cricinfo article “A classic turns fifty”, that scores of delegates and speakers gathered at the University of Glasgow, Scotland (May 9-11) to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the publication of CLR James’ Beyond a Boundary, regarded as one of the greatest sports books ever written.
The host university’s website explained that the conference was convened with the intention of both celebrating and questioning, drawing out the book’s intellectual legacies and identifying the issues it leaves unanswered.
One thing is not in doubt. CLR James, a Trinidadian historian, journalist, social theorist and essayist, believed that politics and sport were indivisible.
However, one of the enduring and perhaps unanswered issues these past 50 years revolves around James’ assertion that the outside world should have at all material times engaged apartheid South Africa in sport.
Steen says that in this regard, CLR disagreed vehemently with one of his most important subjects, his one-time English landlord, friend and fellow Trinidadian, and the man who took the first West Indian wicket in tests, Sir Learie Constantine.
When in 1959 the Frank Worrell-led West Indies team aborted its first proposed tour of South Africa, Sir Learie said the trip should never have been contemplated in the first place. It was his view that accepting the conditions laid down by Pretoria, the heartland of apartheid, in effect would have endorsed that abhorrent regime.
“Do the Africans who live under apartheid thereby accept it?” “Surely that is absurd. Do our boys accept it? I cannot see that at all,” Steen quotes James as saying.
He said that James offered that he once spent six months in the United States organizing a strike of sharecroppers. There, he said, he was kicked around as usual, eating in kitchens when he travelled, sitting in the rear seats of buses. Did I “accept “segregation? Did I strengthen it? The facts are that I did exactly the opposite. The sharecroppers who I worked with had a bigger objective, he said.
Steen quotes James as having said then: “The whole world is talking about it.”“It is a brilliant political step.”“I want to see an African make a century in his first Test, bowl Sobers and Kanhai for 0 in the same over.”
“It would be in a good cause inspiring headlines outside Africa and more importantly, within.”
“Think of what it will mean to the African masses, their pride, their joy, their contact with the world outside, and the anger at this first proof before the whole world, of the shameful suppression to which they are subjected. Will this strengthen apartheid? To believe that, is to substitute the laws of human emotions.”
He claims that in CLR’s view the tour was already “a political bombshell.” He wanted it to go on “exploding and exploding.”
Steen asserts that when CLR expressed those viewpoints in early 1959, the merits and demerits of isolating South Africa were only just gestating. A few months later, however, on March 21, 1960, 69 black demonstrators would be massacred outside Sharpeville police station. From then on, resistance would harden, organize and spread, in and out of Africa – and it all came to a head 8 years later with the Basil D’ Oliveira Affair.
D’ Oliveira, a Cape “coloured” cricketer barred from first class cricket under the apartheid system, emigrated to England in 1960 and represented his adopted country in 44 test matches after debuting against the West Indies at Lords in 1966. Ahead of a proposed English tour in 1968, South Africa Prime Minister B J Vorster made it clear that D’Oliveira’s inclusion was not acceptable. Despite many negotiations the tour was cancelled, and became a watershed in the sporting boycott of apartheid South Africa. This had a massive impact in turning international opinion against the oppressive apartheid system, and prompted changes in South African sport and eventually in society.
Steen says that when D’Oliviera was (initially) excluded from the England party, CLR was not in favour of aborting the trip. Rightly or wrongly, he believed in constructive engagement. Fifteen years later, a band of 18 West Indian cricketers led by Lawrence Rowe made the first of two trips to South Africa. The tours were called Rebel Tours, because they were organized and conducted in spite of the express disapproval of national cricket boards and governments, the International Cricket Conference (ICC), and international organisations including the United Nations.
Still, it’s worth asking. What impact, if any, did these tours and the constructive engagement of the so-called “rebels”, have in James’ perceived explosion and eventual dismantling of apartheid? Shouldn’t we actively search for answers?
Wikipedia reports that many of the West Indian players commented on a warm reception from both blacks and whites, and they surmised that the tour may have been a positive influence on relations between races. After all, it was one of the few occasions when white and black people had played sport together in South Africa.
In the 30 years since, a fierce battle has raged over the wisdom of the West Indian tours. Wikipedia asks: Were the rebels, as they themselves insisted, showing white South Africans that black men were their equals as the republic stumbled towards democracy? Or, as the detractors still maintain, had they sold themselves and their dignity to extend the life of a disgraced and barbarous government?
Truth is, we don’t know. And with the passing of years, we may never be able to fully quantify the pros and cons. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try.
Within 10 years of the tours, and after 46 years of institutionalized apartheid (since 1948), the walls came tumbling down, and Mandela was elected first black president.
It is common knowledge that Beyond a Boundary’s key question, frequently quoted by modern journalists and essayists, is – “What do they know of cricket who only cricket know?” James acknowledged that “To answer involves ideas as well as facts.”
In October 2011, the Jamaica Cricket Association (JCA) revoked a decision to name the pavilion at Sabina Park after Rebel Tours captain Lawrence Rowe. The decision came after Rowe reportedly told a radio station that he had not done anything wrong by participating in the West Indies rebel tours to South Africa in 1983 and 1984. In June he had apologized for touring South Africa during apartheid while being honoured by the JCA.
“The Board of the JCA after much consideration decided at its last Board Meeting to revoke the decision it took on June 20, 2011 to name the players’ pavilion at Sabina Park in honour of Mr. Lawrence Rowe. By virtue of what he said he showed no remorse,” JCA president Lindel Wright said.
“The people of Jamaica have been hurt, and as a national sporting body we have been embarrassed by his statements in the interview.” Wright continued, “while it was a hot issue in the media, we didn’t want to rush to a decision so it took us some time (4 months) to deliberate the issue.”
Clearly there are still more questions than answers.
Inspite of all, West Indian cricket administrators, politicians and the people of the region must learn three important principles. One, we are not God. Two, “hurt” kills. And three, while we cannot forget, we must forgive. The last is the enduring message from Nelson Mandela’s life.
F.W. de Klerk, the seventh and last president of apartheid-era South Africa helped engineer the end of apartheid and the transformation of South Africa into a multi-racial democracy. He was jointly awarded the 1993 Nobel Peace prize with his nemesis Mandela, the father of modern day South Africa, then captor and captive put the past behind them by participating in Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and South Africa has moved on as a Rainbow Nation.
Mandela said “the Commission helped us move away from the past to concentrate on the present and the future.” We, Caribbean people, need to do the same.
This Sunday (May 19) marks 24 years since CLR passed.
It has been 30 years since the so-called Rebel Tours.
While the University of Glasgow has taken leave to discuss these pertinent and unexplored issues, we in the region are no clearer on the little-discussed idea (and apparently taboo subject) raised by the region’s foremost cricket writer in his 1963 classic: Would (Did) the constructive engagement of West Indian cricketers in South Africa hasten or hinder the dismantling of apartheid?
Thirty years is a long, long time to wait for answers.
The three leading institutions in the region – the University of the West Indies (UWI), the West Indies Cricket Board (WICB), and CARICOM – need to jointly organize a mini-version of South Africa’s Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to help us find
answers and peace of mind.
That would be an honour to CLR’s legacy.
The so-called “rebel cricketers” (minus Sylvester Clarke, now deceased) should not be allowed to take their stories to the grave.
Time for Truth and Reconciliation.