How will these resources help you?

Opposition to apartheid in South Africa took many forms, but sport, in particular, is an area that has the potential to engage many students. These resources discuss the nature of the segregated South African sporting experience, offering a balanced discussion of the international sports boycotts (which have perhaps attracted undue coverage) and the local opposition within South Africa. As sport was an obsession in white South Africa (mainly rugby and cricket) and a central cultural element within the nation, to ignore the significance of sporting boycotts and sporting isolation is to neglect a critical aspect of the anti-apartheid movement. By examining the opposition to whites-only South African sport at home and abroad, the political significance of sport can be understood. The importance of the role of Black opposition has often been underplayed in the historiography, and these resources also attempt to correct that. 

The role of sport in apartheid South Africa

Sport and Apartheid South Africa: Histories of Politics, Power, and Protest

by Michelle M. Sikes, Toby C. Rider and Matthew Llewellyn (edited by), published by Routledge, (2022), 9781003205272

This collection of essays contains the current scholarship on the role of sport in apartheid South Africa and an analysis of the international response, allowing a varied approach to teaching the topic. Students could choose a sport depending on their interests – the book has essays on cycling, mountaineering, athletics, football, boxing, rugby and even chess! – and make presentations on the impact of apartheid upon their chosen areas.  Chapter 1 examines how the sporting boycott movement was driven by the newly decolonised African states in the 1950s, not by Western nations. Its power was evident in the success of the Olympic sports ban and the cricket and rugby controversies of 1970. One result was the announcement of South African Prime Minister Vorster of a new ‘multi-national’ sports policy. Students could investigate the civil disobedience, pitch invasions and harsh police actions against protesters that were a feature of this time. You could also debate whether ‘constructive engagement’ (as promoted by the British government and sporting authorities) was justified or whether complete isolation for South Africa should have been pursued. This can be explored through Chapter 11, which assesses the role of fan community behaviour towards rugby in South Africa. This links to a broader discussion of sporting boycotts/protests and politics, possibly including the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign or the Russian war against Ukraine. As the Jamaican-born academic Stuart Hall suggested, the sports boycott ‘found a way of bringing home to people who thought that sport was time out from real life, that real life was in the centre of time out’.

Mandela’s role in the promotion of sport

Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that made a Nation

by John Carlin, published by Atlantic Books, (2010), 9781848876590

This book tells the story of the 1995 Rugby World Cup final, the role Nelson Mandela played, and the collapse of apartheid in the years up to 1994. Carlin addresses what is missing in many apartheid histories: ‘the human factor’. The driving figure throughout the book is Mandela himself, and the central idea is Mandela's observation that ‘sport is more powerful than governments in breaking down racial barriers’. Carlin offers a well-rounded observation of the key people involved in the last years of apartheid, including Mandela, Minister of Justice Coetsee, Conrad Viljoen (commander of the SADF), and President de Klerk.   This book allows you to trace the development of political change alongside that of sport. Linking Mandela’s tactics to sport shows how effectively he could exploit the Afrikaner psyche. He recognised that rugby was the ‘opium of the Boer’, so in the 1980s, his strategy was to deny white South Africa ‘the happy drug’ of sport. However, after Mandela’s release, he shifted this approach, and in 1992 he used rugby to allow South Africa back into the international community.  Though the 1995 World Cup final itself falls outside the extent of the GCSE syllabus, it nonetheless offers a powerful example of sport as nation-building and merits study to reflect Mandela’s significant contribution.  The video ‘The Real Invictus’ would be a good way to round off this topic. 

Sport’s impact on National Party policies

“Multinational sport participation replaces apartheid sport in South Africa - 1967 - 1978”: the role of BJ Vorster and PGJ Koornhof

by Juan Klee, published by University of Johannesburg, (2012)

This free-to-access paper opens up a fascinating area of debate among scholars, as it reveals the response taken by the South African government to the growing international boycott of South Africa. Though the National Party took a conservative position towards integrated sport in 1956 and 1965, Vorster overturned this in 1967, heralding a subtle change in the direction of apartheid policies after 1978. Many scholars claimed that while the National Party thought that by promoting ‘sporting integration’ the regime would help maintain international relations, what actually happened was that it increased pressure. However, Klee believes that the Vorster reforms were actually ‘the thin edge of the wedge’, which saw a shift in National Party policy. This ‘new approach in political thinking’ demonstrates how sport and politics were intertwined in South Africa and how international boycotts significantly impacted the apartheid regime.   

Further materials

Football in South Africa Timeline 1862-2012, published by South African History Online (SAHO), (ongoing project) Access this resource
Don't Scrum with a Racist Bum!, published by AAM Archives Committee, (2000-2023) Access this resource
The Olympic Boycott Against Apartheid South Africa, published by Michigan State University, (2021), (talk by Prof. Peter Alegi at the 'Africa and Olympics' seminar) Watch this video
Mark Robinson is a history teacher who has many years’ experience of teaching both History and Classical Civilisation. He has also been an examiner. He has written on a wide range of topics for the educational website TEDEd.

Text © Mark Robinson, 2021-2023