Basil d’Oliveira and the fall of apartheid
The death of Basil d’Oliveira, one of the greatest South African cricketers who never played for South Africa, calls to mind one of the ironies in the history of the struggle against apartheid.
His obituary (which is well worth reading in full) describes an incident that gained a great deal of publicity Basil D’Oliveira obituary | Sport | The Guardian:
Though Basil D’Oliveira, who has died aged 80 after suffering from Parkinson’s disease, was one of the greatest cricketers ever to come out of South Africa, he will be best remembered for the dramatic role he played in helping to defy apartheid in sport. As a mixed-race – in South African terms, “coloured” – player of exceptional ability in his native Cape Town, he was denied the chance to play for the country of his birth by the racial segregation of the apartheid regime. When he went to play in England and became a Test player there, his eventual selection for the 1968-69 England tour to South Africa so offended the warped sensibilities of John Vorster’s government that it refused to allow him to play, and the tour was cancelled. As a result, South Africa was exiled from international cricket until the fall of apartheid in 1994.
There is a minor inaccuracy there, in that South Africa returned to international cricket in 1992, and participated in the cricket world cup that year, on the understanding that the team would be selected on merit and not on race.
The irony is that Vorster’s banning of the MCC cricket tour was the top news story on the weekend of 21-22 September 1968, and thus upstaged the Message to the people of South Africa, which had been publicly released on Friday 20 September.
The Message to the people of South Africa had been produced by a group of theologians, supported by the South African Council of Churches and the Christian Institute, and damned apartheid as not merely a heresy, but a pseudogospel. It was released that weekend in the hope that it would stimulate debate among all South African Christians on whether any Christian could support an ideology like apartheaid, which was not merely unChristian, but antiChristian.
A summary of the “Message” appeared as a paid advertisement in some of the Sunday papers, but the main news story was the cancellation of the cricket tour, and the news of the “Message” was relegated to the inside pages. The timing could not have been worse. Far more publicity was given to Vorster’s denunciation of the “Message” a week or two later than to the message itself, and by that time most people had thrown away their copy of the newspaper with the summary of the “Message” and so could no longer see what it said, and so the debate got off to a shaky start.
None of this was Basil d’Oliveira’s fault, of course, and he was probably quite unaware of it at the time. He was basically Vorster’s political football, and it enabled Vorster to kick the Message into touch.