Confront racism at every level in sport, says Peter Hain

Confront racism at every level in sport, says Peter Hain
  • PublishedOctober 12, 2021

For over 50 years, Peter Hain was the bane of Apartheid sport in South Africa and racism in sport the world over, especially in Britain, Australia and New Zealand. As he explains in his and co-author André Odendaal’s magnus opus, Pitch Battles: Sport, Racism and Resistance, the real breakthrough came with the use of militant direct action, of which he was the acknowledged architect. He is in conversation with Mushtak Parker.

To what extent is racism still institutionalised in global sports?

Given that sport was set up on a globalised basis, in tandem with colonialism, it is inevitable that it still retains its racist roots institutionally and in terms of its structures and attitudes.

A lot of progress has been made but there is still much to do. Racism is still a widespread thing. The booing of the England football team taking the knee is proof of that and there remains a kind of cultural identity clash here.

How effective has the Black Lives Matter movement been in contributing to the fight against racism in sport? Is it still relevant  that footballers such as Thierry Henry, John Barnes, Wilfried Zaha have expressed views against taking the knee, because progress towards eradicating racism in sport has been woefully slow?

Progress doesn’t happen overnight or because you take the knee. I have been involved in politics for over 50 years, from my childhood in South Africa, and I realised that change takes a long time. The impact of BLM and those players that have led the taking of the knee has been seismic. But it is insufficient because it is still a symbol, important as it is.

I understand and totally agree with Thierry and his colleagues. They are all Black players. I think it is important that White players across the leagues that are taking the knee are willing to do so knowing that they are doing so consciously.

Of course, all lives matter but Black sportsmen and women and their ancestors have suffered historically for a couple of centuries of sporting racism during organised sport, and political, social and economic racism for time immemorial.

I thought that it was outrageous that the Proteas [South Africa’s cricket team] did not take the knee. Of all the teams representing their countries globally, that was the one that should have done so.

There has been pushback by some White sports people and officials, whitewashing the wrongs of the past by selective amnesia or outright refusal. Golfer Gary Player wants to be a sports ambassador for South Africa. He was a staunch supporter of Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid, and his racist policies. He refuses to apologise. How do you change the attitudes of such people?

The idea of Gary Player being a sporting ambassador for the New South Africa is grotesque and would be intolerable given his proven record on Apartheid and his abject failure to apologise. If he had come out and said: “I was wrong”, Nelson Mandela was prepared to forgive but not to forget.

I am always up for people apologising as many have done so. Ali Bacher said to me only a few years after we fought each other over the rebel Mike Gatting cricket tour to South Africa in early 1990: “You were right and I was wrong.” I credit him for doing that. I deprecate Gary Player for uncompromisingly being stuck in the old Apartheid mode. And all the other players like that.

Institutionalised racism in sport reflects partly the structures, governance and socio-political mindset and consensus of the day. The fact that it keeps resurfacing till today, as shown by the racist vitriol unleashed against the Black England players Sterling, Saka and Sancho for missing penalties in the Euro finals, suggests that stakeholders in sport are either too complacent or not doing enough?

There has to be a reckoning and honesty here. We’ve made a start. But it’s only a year ago that US football star Colin Kaepernick was sacked for taking the knee and a few decades ago that Tommie Smith and John Carlos were sacked for their Black Power salute on the podium when receiving their Olympic medals.

Black South African sports people and non-racial sports administrators have suffered persecution for generations. Where there is proven racist abuse or amnesia, the perpetrators have to be exposed, called out and confronted.

Just as when I went to welcome the Springboks in Cardiff in 1994 playing Wales for the first time since we had stopped them playing in 1970, I noticed that in the match programme the Welsh Rugby Union commented: “Nice to see the Springboks back again.” There was no explanation of why they had been absent. It was great to see the Springbok fans armed with the new flag and placards hailing “Mandela’s Boks”.

The generation of sports people from overseas who toured South Africa during the Apartheid years need to acknowledge they were wrong. Most of them haven’t done so. To establish proper relationships and equal opportunities going forward, you need to acknowledge the mistakes, injustice and racism of the past in which you were culpable. 

Welsh rugby great, Gareth Edwards, was forced to confront that. We had a frank discussion in 2020. I don’t think he had really begun to understand the issue until that point.

Has the over-commercialisation of sports contributed to the other issues surrounding race, empowerment and access becoming more difficult to resolve? The failed European Super League (ESL) and developments in athletics and the IPL in cricket are just a few examples?

The ESL is the pinnacle of neo-liberalism in sport, where the richest, most successful clubs want to keep it all to themselves and pull up the drawbridges behind that.

I have argued in Pitch Battles and for my whole life in the sports struggle that you can’t divorce sports from life. There is racism in sports because there is racism in society. There is inequality with enormous riches at the top and poverty at the bottom. That reflects society.

The ESL clubs comprise the rich elites of British and European football. And yet they can’t exist without the feedstock of grassroots support. They thought they were a power unto themselves. They found out that ordinary fans have still got power. Public and political outrage came to bear.

The revolt against the ESL showed how powerful fan power is, no matter the wealth and status of the club owners. Ordinary fans pay for TV subscriptions to see matches, the clubs are nothing without this. It is the people’s movements – anti-Apartheid protests, BLM, votes for women – that force change.

What were the triggers for writing Pitch Battles now?

André and I are very close friends. We wanted the book to coincide with the 50th anniversary of stopping the 1970 cricket tour in May 2020. Covid scuppered that, but it allowed us to cover the impact of the pandemic on global sport, the recurring incidences of racist abuse on social media, the globalisation of sport and the nefarious roles of some governments.

What were the defining ones of all the activities in the struggle towards non-racial sport?

The absolute breakthrough came with the use of militant direct action. That was decisive because when we stopped the 1970 tour and we stopped the Springboks ever touring again until after the transition, we didn’t do it because the MCC and English Rugby Football Union changed their minds.

They changed because we made it physically impossible for them to tour. It was cathartic in that sense. We intensified this direct action into Australia and New Zealand.

When you invade the pitch and impose yourself amongst the players in direct but non-violent action you impose yourself in a Gandhian way to the heart of their project. It provoked violence from rugby fans and the police. It wasn’t us who initiated it.

What will Peter Hain’s legacy be in the global struggle against racism in sport?

That’s for others to judge. I hope I was able to make a difference! 

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Written By
Mushtak Parker

Mushtak Parker is Editor of Islamic Banker Magazine, one of the foremost journals in the industry with a global circulation in the major Islamic Financial institutions.

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