Radio National's The Sports Factor

with Amanda Smith

Springboks 1971


Thirty years ago, the South African rugby team, the Springboks, arrived in Australia for a six week match tour.

Although supported by the Federal Government, the Springbok tour was deeply contoversial and divisive. It sparked anti-apartheid protests around the country, and a state of emergency was declared in Queensland.

On this 30th anniversary, a range of people involved offer their recollections, and views on how this tour changed Australia.

Lawyer TONY ABRAHAMS played with the Australian rugby team in South Africa in 1969, but became one of seven anti-apartheid Wallabies who spoke out against the 1971 tour. MEREDITH BURGMANN, now President of the New South Wales Legislative Council, was one of the organisers of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, arrested numerous times during the Springbok tour. Accountant JOHN HOWARD was the Treasurer of the New South Wales Rugby Union, and in charge of the Springboks' travel and security during the tour - a job that turned out to be much bigger than he'd expected!

And barrister LLOYD McDERMOTT was the first Aborigine to play with the Wallabies, in 1962, but was barred from touring to South Africa with the team in 1963. He's the patron of a young Aboriginal rugby team, about to play in South Africa. In his view it's the culmination of what all the protests were about in 1971.

Details or Transcript:


Amanda Smith: On The Sports Factor this week, we’re remembering a quite extraordinary period in our sporting history: the Springboks’ visit to Australia in 1971. It’s 30 years ago this week that the South African Rugby team arrived in Perth, to begin their six-week match tour around the country, a tour that divided Australia, that sparked bitter and violent anti-apartheid demonstrations and brought about a state of emergency in Queensland.


CHANTING: ‘Go home racists, go home racists….

Newsreader: The Prime Minister, Mr McMahon said in Canberra today that Australia’s international image had not been endangered by the tour of the Springbok Rugby Union team. Mr McMahon said the idea that Australia’s image had been endangered was a false one, created by those who were disrupting the tour.

Commentator: Police have still got those noisy demonstrations on the Hill under control, and play goes its hard way.

Man: I don’t think in the history of the world, most certainly not in the history of Australia has a state of emergency ever been declared over a game of football.


Amanda Smith: Well in recollecting the Springboks’ tour of 1971, the reactions to that tour, and what it all meant, we’ll hear from a number of people who were involved in quite different ways.

Tony Abrahams was a Rugby player who became known as one of the seven ‘anti-apartheid Wallabies’. For him, the issue began in 1969, when he was selected to tour South Africa with the Wallabies. There was very little agitation against that tour at the time, but for Tony Abrahams, whether to go or not was a difficult personal decision.

Tony Abrahams: I thought a lot about it. I’d been in the Wallabies for the two years previously and had a pretty good chance of being selected, and it was a deep worry to me. I think probably what persuaded me to go in the end was that I couldn’t get any real support for making a stand, and any stand without having seen the situation, would have been considered to be just a foolish gesture of one who didn’t know.

Amanda Smith: Well as well as being a Rugby player Tony, were you a student radical type?

Tony Abrahams: No, in fact that was one of the things that marked all the Wallabies that made the stand in the end; none of us were heavily involved in active political life. I guess I was deeply engaged emotionally in the issue of politics and the social side of politics, but I wasn’t an activist.

Amanda Smith: How did going to South Africa on that Wallabies’ tour in 1969 then further increase your feelings, your opposition to the issue of racially selected sports teams and the apartheid regime?

Tony Abrahams: Well from the moment you got off the plane, you were conscious of this grotesque compromise in being there, and it was fascinating to me that it wasn’t more obvious to the Rugby Union authorities. Every aspect of South African life was completely affected by apartheid and not least in the sporting arena, where we played against white teams in front of segregated or completely white audiences. Occasionally going up in a line-out or whatever you’d see a police baton come down on an African head merely because they consistently supported us, which was one of the most shocking and intense reminders of the degree to which black Africans were alienated by the system there, and the degree to which they were disadvantaged. I mean for people of a country to support the opposing team’s victory is amazing.

Amanda Smith: Well you didn’t come back to Australia with the rest of the team, you hitch-hiked around Southern Africa instead, and late in 1969 you wrote a letter which was published in The Sydney Morning Herald in Australia, which I think really sparked debate here regarding sporting boycotts of South Africa; what did your letter say?

Tony Abrahams: Well I drafted it actually in South Africa in the last days of the tour, but didn’t post it until my hitch-hiking got me outside South Africa, and I think ironically I posted it in Rhodesia which was, despite the fact that having declared unilateral independence, seen to be freer on the ground than South Africa. And so it was published very early in September I think, and it basically said what had happened on tour, and spelt out in clear terms the compromise of Australia continuing to play against South Africa, both in terms of being seen as supporting apartheid and also in terms of being seen in the eyes of the world as being racist ourselves.

Amanda Smith: Former Australian Rugby player, Tony Abrahams.

Well back in Australia, the anti-apartheid movement was just getting off the ground. And sparked by Tony Abrahams’ letter to The Sydney Morning Herald, calls for Australia to cut sporting ties with South Africa began to mount, because of the racially exclusive nature of South Africa’s national sports teams. But just prior to the 1971 tour, the Springboks themselves were showing no signs of concern about the reception awaiting them in Australia. As John Highfield, the ABC’s correspondent in South Africa at the time reported.

John Highfield: The lobby was crowded as selectors announced the Springboks side to tour Australia.


John Highfield: I then asked team captain, Hannes Marais a 29-year-old university lecturer, if he was apprehensive about the forthcoming trip to Australia.

Hannes Marais: Well the team’s only been selected tonight and we haven’t even thought about that. We ignore it as far as possible because we’re not a political team, we’re a Rugby team, and we try to keep politics out of it. Our only object is to play the game, and where there are people opposed to us being there, we were invited there by the Australian Rugby Union. They invited us, and we’re only there to do as they want us to do, and that is play against the Australian side.


Amanda Smith: Springboks Captain, Hannes Marais, speaking in 1971, before the tour to Australia got underway.

The Springboks’ tour began with matches in Perth, then Adelaide and Melbourne. With each game, the protests grew, although the majority of Australians remained in favour of the tour. At the first match played in Sydney, demonstrators actually managed to get onto the ground, despite the enormous police presence.

Commentator: And at this moment, onto the field go the first two, three, four demonstrators of the afternoon. Three of them are women and one of them a long-haired boy in a windcheater, and they’ve gone right into the centre of the pitch amongst the players, and they are now enacting the first sit-in of this tour. The police will very soon have that under control …

Amanda Smith: Meredith Burgmann was one of those women arrested at the Sydney Cricket Ground. In 1971, she was a 23-year-old student, and one of the organisers of the anti-apartheid movement. These days, Meredith Burgmann is the President of the New South Wales Legislative Council, but she remembers the events of that day 30 years ago all too clearly.

Meredith Burgmann: Well, there were huge number of demonstrators over on the Hill area and there was smoke bombs, and there was this incredible noise and it was like sort of world war was happening over on that area. But I and my sister and two friends had borrowed members’ tickets and we dressed up as Afrikaaners; I wore a red wig because otherwise I was too easily recognisable and the police would have arrested me as I was going into the ground. And we brought in a steel Esky with us and sat it right by the fence. And we discussed, in what we considered were Afrikaaner accents, the game, very loudly, and the police who were in front of us, there was one about every three feet along the perimeter of the ground, we eventually convinced them to move aside so that we could see the game better, and by this stage they were totally convinced that we were South Africans and they moved aside. And then ten minutes into the second half, we saw our chance, and we used the steel Esky as a sort of a ramp up over the fence, and off we went. And us four and one other guy were the only people who actually got onto the ground during that demonstration. And my sister actually got hold of the ball and the kicked it, and The Bulletin called it the best kick of the season. (laughs)

Amanda Smith: Well for that pitch invasion you were later sentenced to two months jail with hard labour. It seems an incredibly harsh sentence; did you serve the jail term?

Meredith Burgmann: I was in and out of jail various times during the hearing of the case, but eventually on appeal it was reduced to a suspended sentence.

Amanda Smith: So how did you become involved in the Stop the Tour protests in the first place, Meredith?

Meredith Burgmann: Well I’m a great footy fan and a great cricket fan, and I’d been to a … I think it was either a cricket or a footy match in the mid-‘60s, and I think it was Dick Buckhorne, the Catholic priest from the country area who had organised to have these leaflets put under the windscreen wipers of all the cars in the car park, and I remember reading this and getting quite concerned about the issue and thinking Yes, we probably shouldn’t be watching all-white South African teams. But then after I got to university and got more involved in anti-Vietnam protests, I became quite radicalised, and a group of us in 1969 formed the anti-apartheid movement, which was dedicated to stopping sporting contact with South Africa, and we started demonstrating against the all-white teams that were coming out. There were the women basketballers, there was the surf life savers, there were tennis players and of course there was always Gary Player, the golfer, and we set out to stop these sporting contacts.

Amanda Smith: Meredith Burgmann, one of the anti-apartheid demonstrators who was arrested numerous times during the Springboks’ tour in 1971.

Now the man who had the job of co-ordinating the security and travel arrangements for the Springboks during the New South Wales leg of their tour was John Howard. Not the one who’s now the Prime Minister, this John Howard is an accountant. And he was for many years an executive member of the Australian Rugby Union. In 1971, John was the Treasurer of the New South Wales Rugby Union, which is how he got the gig of looking after the Springboks, a job that turned out to be much bigger than John Howard had imagined it would be.

John Howard: Absolutely, and in fact while I had run various games and things, it was nothing in the scope of this, but as far as coverage was concerned and as far as actual requirements were concerned. In fact one thing I can vividly recall that whereas I expected to give some of my time, I ended up basically being available to the Springboks side the whole of the time they were in New South Wales.

Amanda Smith: How difficult was it to get that Springbok team around New South Wales for the time they were there?

John Howard: Believe it or not, it wasn’t that hard at all. The biggest problems were early in the place, when the arrangements for travel by domestic carrier fell down with only weeks to go.

Amanda Smith: This was because both TAA and Ansett had decided they wouldn’t fly the Springboks around the country?

John Howard: That’s right, and they made that decision very late in the day, and of course if that could not have occurred, then the whole tour would have fallen over. Hazleton Airlines, based out near Orange, offered six small planes to do the job, and in fact they did it very, very well. And the movement from that point of view wasn’t too bad at all.

Amanda Smith: At the time, John, what was your view on the demonstrations against the tour?

John Howard: Well at the time I don’t pretend that a saw a connection with the visit of the South African side with their political scene back home. I also didn’t feel (and I’m going back to how I felt at the time) that the demonstrations would achieve anything as far as the South African scene was concerned. To me, I felt that the government had decided that the tour could proceed and therefore I offered my services to ensure that that would carry on. If the government had said 'No, they can’t come', well obviously that would have been a thing accepted by me.

Amanda Smith: Well looking back 30 years, what’s your view now, John? Was it the correct decision for Rugby officials and the Federal government of the day to welcome the South African team to Australia?

John Howard: Well I can only present you my view, and I would believe that given the circumstances at the time, and we are talking 30 years ago as you just said, Yes, I believe it was necessary to proceed. Certainly the situation in South Africa in my view could never be supported, and in fact if you’d asked me whether it could even proceed today, or even two years after they were here at the time, I’d say No, the tour couldn’t even take place. As to whether or not it helped to bring down and break the walls of apartheid, I don’t know if I can give you an answer to that.

Amanda Smith: So John, tell me more about what it felt like to be involved with that tour at that time.

John Howard: One of the things that I can recall as far as that was concerned was that one day you’re an ordinary person, you’re a volunteer in a sport, life goes on. The next day all of a sudden you’re confronted with a large number of police, of motorcades, of demonstrators, of players arriving in small aeroplanes, things that you would not have even credited could occur. And it was something like a kaleidoscope of noise, of colour, of things happening all at once, and it really didn’t sink in as to the involvement until well after the tour had actually finished.

Amanda Smith: And what were your kind of reflections at that time after the tour had finished?

John Howard: They were mainly centred on what actually was happening in the here and now, that is to say smoke bombs, demonstrations, police etc. They weren’t actually philosophical considerations as to what it was because being involved on a day-to-day basis, what you had to do was simply get the job done, and it was only when it was all over and you had time to reflect back on the various crowd disturbances and other matters, that you could marvel at the enormity of what had actually happened to Australian Rugby.

Amanda Smith: Former Treasurer of the Australian, and New South Wales, Rugby Unions, John Howard, who co-ordinated the security and travel for the Springboks in 1971.

Well what was the impact of the demonstrations against the South African Rugby team in Australia? After all, the tour proceeded, no matches were cancelled, and the Springboks won every single game they played. Meredith Burgmann, one of the organisers of the protest movement, remains proud of what they achieved.

Meredith Burgmann: Oh well, if you look at a short-term gain, we did achieve what we were after which was cancelling the cricket tour.

Amanda Smith: Yes now this was the cricket tour that was due for later that year, with the South African team coming to Australia.

Meredith Burgmann: Yes. Absolutely. And we’d always felt it was a hard ask to actually stop the football tour because football can be played in quite a chaotic atmosphere, whereas cricket really can’t. And so we were really concentrating on getting the cricket tour cancelled, and the Chairman of the Cricket Board was Sir Donald Bradman, and he started writing to me at this stage, asking me why we were demonstrating, and I’d write back and then he’d write back; we had this correspondence that went on for some time, and I’d send him information about what was happening in South Africa, and we were very pleased at the end when the Cricket Board announced that the South African cricketers would not be coming to Australia. They didn’t say 'We can’t guarantee their safety', which is what we expected. Bradman actually said 'We will not play them until they choose a team on a non-racial basis', and we were so pleased with that statement.

Amanda Smith: Do you think that the Springbok tour of 1971 and the protest against it, changed Australia in any way?

Meredith Burgmann: It certainly changed Australians’ attitude towards South Africa and apartheid, and we stopped being seen as South Africa’s white brother across the sea, which really was how we were looked on by the world, and how we really looked at ourselves. So it changed that attitude. But also one of the arguments that kept being raised by the apologists for the South Africans was 'Well why don’t you clean up your own backyard? You know, look what’s happening to Aborigines'. And in a funny way that was very healthy for the way in which the media had been treating Aboriginal issues. Of course the media started then to look at Aboriginal issues, and young Aboriginal activists of the time were very prominent in the demonstrations against the Springboks, and so people like me had actually met and started working with Aboriginal activists, and so I think it did start raising the whole issue of white Australia’s relationship with Aboriginal Australia.

Amanda Smith: Well Meredith, in a week’s time next Friday there’s a dinner being held at Parliament House in Sydney to honour those seven former Wallaby players; tell me about that.

Meredith Burgmann: Yes, well they’ve always been my heroes. Whenever anyone has ever asked me who were my sporting heroes, I say 'Well the seven guys who organised against and refused to play the Springboks'. And I’d always meant to give them a 20-year dinner or a 25-year dinner, but we’ve eventually got around to it, and it’s being held exactly 30 years to the day since that first match in Sydney, and we have a message from Nelson Mandela and the South African High Commissioner in Canberra, His Excellency Zolile Magugu will be there, and presenting the seven heroes with a certificate of appreciation from the South Africans about what they’ve done.

Amanda Smith: One of those seven anti-apartheid Wallabies being honoured next Friday is Tony Abrahams, who we heard from earlier. For Tony, while going to South Africa with the Wallabies in 1969 had been a difficult decision to make, he had no hesitation about where he stood in 1971.

Tony Abrahams: Oh well it was clear that I was just a non-starter, there was no question of my ever being a candidate for playing against the Springboks again.

Amanda Smith: Were you at any time criticised for having gone to South Africa to play Rugby in 1969 and then objecting to South Africa coming to play Rugby in Australia in 1971?

Tony Abrahams: Yes, I mean it became a bit amusing in the end that there were a series of bog-standard arguments which were used in most debates, and that was one of them: Why did you go in the first place? But when you consider the environment of the time and the fact that as far as previous Wallabies were concerned, there wasn’t a conspiracy of silence, but you certainly didn’t get any information which would enable you to make the decision. But more than that, I spoke to five or six people in prominent positions in law or in civil liberties or involved in the Aboriginal issue in Australia, such as Charlie Perkins, and with the exception of two at the time, they all said, ‘Look, you should go and see it for yourself’. The other two swung into line later and said, ‘You were right to go’, because I think that those two expected me not to do anything about it once I’d seen it for myself, and of course I did.

Amanda Smith: How difficult at that time Tony, was it for you to speak out against this issue?

Tony Abrahams: Against the background of what had been happening in the ‘60s, the gradual change in the stance of young people and the ease of the issue, the lack of ambiguity about it, it wasn’t that difficult. I mean it seems to me, looking back on it, but even then, that it was probably one of the clearest issues you could make a stand on. You’d certainly got a lot of very nasty feedback in Australian society, but you were young and you felt that you had right on your side, and so it didn’t matter much.

Amanda Smith: Well what was, and is, your view on why people were so adamant at the time that sport and politics don’t mix, as was said over and over again?

Tony Abrahams: Well you make me think of the fact that even a year ago, I was speaking to a very famous gold medallist, an Olympian, who gave exactly that view, even today. But that doesn’t take into account the fact that there are times when sportsmen do come up against politics in a way which is utterly compromising, and where it’s unavoidable. But I think in Australia at the time, people were sheltered from that view, and hadn’t evolved particularly. I think generally speaking people saw that politics and sport didn’t mix, or said that they didn’t. And in fact I found myself in the initial stages of the issue of whether to go to South Africa thinking along those lines myself. It was only as I thought it through that I realised that the compromise was such that you were a political being merely by the fact of taking the sporting field in those circumstances.

Amanda Smith: Tony Abrahams, who’s a lawyer, and a former Australian Rugby International.

Now another former Australian Rugby International who protested against the Springboks’ tour, was Lloyd McDermott. But Lloyd’s story goes back much earlier than 1971. He’s acknowledged as the first Aborigine to represent his country in Rugby Union. He played tests against the New Zealand All-Blacks in 1962. But the forthcoming tour of South Africa, in 1963, effectively put an end to Lloyd McDermott’s days with the Wallabies.

Lloyd McDermott: The situation was, as you know, blacks or coloureds weren’t allowed to tour South Africa. So I was placed in a very difficult position at the end of the 1962 season, where if I had have been selected for the Australian team, I might not have been allowed into the country because of the apartheid laws. On the other hand, if they wanted to relax the laws somewhat, I would have had to be seen as some sort of token white, an honorary white for the period of my tour, which I didn’t find very tasteful at all. So I resigned from the Queensland squad and I forfeited, because of my beliefs, any chance of getting selected in the team.

Amanda Smith: And you actually switched to playing Rugby League.

Lloyd McDermott: Rugby League, yes, that’s right.

Amanda Smith: How much knowledge and understanding of the political and racial system of South Africa did you have at that time which would have influenced your decision?

Lloyd McDermott: While I wasn’t 100% politically astute, I was aware, because being an Aboriginal person myself, of the disadvantage that the South Africans suffer.

Amanda Smith: Well let’s leap to the present day. It’s nearly 40 years since you played for the Wallabies, and it’s 30 years since the Springboks Australian tour of 1971. Tell me about the Australian Aboriginal schoolboy team which tours South Africa next month.

Lloyd McDermott: Yes, well perhaps I might give you a bit of background of how the team came about, Amanda. Gary Ella and myself and a number of Rugby buffs some eight or nine years ago, we thought it was a bit of a national disgrace that at that stage only five Aboriginal athletes had represented Australia at Rugby Union, and it wasn’t hard to work out why that was, because it wasn’t because of the lack of talent, it was another form of apartheid, and that apartheid was economic apartheid. The thing was, that where Rugby was played and taught was at the private schools, the rich GPS schools. So you didn’t find Aboriginal and Islander students, or very rarely, were they able to get access to Rugby Union. So we decided that we would try and take the game to the Aboriginal youths ourselves. So we started off with a shoestring budget of about $8,000 to get the boys from the country and from the city to learn how to play Rugby Union.

So we’re sort of in a position where it was unheard of 30 or 40 years ago, to have even an Aboriginal or a coloured person going to South Africa; now we’re in the position of taking a whole team with us.

Amanda Smith: Well probably the highlight of the tour will be the Australian Aboriginal Fifteen playing a curtainraiser to the Wallabies-Springboks match in Pretoria on 28th July; in relation to I guess the bitter and divisive fights that went on over Rugby and South Africa, like in Australia in 1971 and your own experience, how do you view this tour, the Australian Aboriginal Schoolboy team going to play in South Africa?

Lloyd McDermott: Well I think it’s a dream come true, because the team we take over, we see ourselves as the ambassadors for not only white Australia but for Aboriginal Australia as well. We think that we have a very talented team, so we are rather proud ambassadors for black Australia, and I think it could be only seen as encouragement for some of the black South African players, and let’s hope, even though they have one or two in their side, that eventually they’ll have four or five black Springboks.

I see this as total vindication of the actions taken by my black and white brothers and sisters who got arrested for demonstrating, and the thing is that we weren’t ratbags, us people who fought against apartheid, we were seen as sort of ratbags; as a matter of fact one of the white players who was picked to play for Australia and refused to play against the all-white South African team, he was counselled by one of the Australian selectors to say that he’d been the victim of a communist conspiracy. You know, the thing was, and the thing is now, economic sanctions were important, but equally important were the sporting sanctions that brought down the regime of apartheid.

Amanda Smith: Lloyd McDermott, who’s a barrister, a former Rugby player for Australia, and the patron of the Australian Aboriginal Schoolboy Fifteen, due to play a series of matches in South Africa next month.

And on that good news postscript to the controversy of the Springboks Rugby Tour of Australia 30 years ago, that’s The Sports Factor for this week. Michael Shirrefs is the producer; I’m Amanda Smith. Thanks for your company.

Guests on this program:

Tony Abrahams
Lawyer, former Australian Rugby player and one of the seven 'anti-apartheid Wallabies' from the early 1970s.

Meredith Burgmann
President of the New South Wales Legislative Council and one of the organisers of the anti-apartheid movement in Australia during the 1960s and 70s.

John Howard
Former Treasurer and executive member of the Australian Rugby Union.

Lloyd McDermott
Barrister, former Australian Rugby player and first Aborigine to play for Australia.

Musical Items:

Eleanor Rigby
Time to Air: 0830
Duration: 4:38
CD Title: Seventies Downunder Volume 1
Artist: The Zoot
Composer: Lennon/McCartney
Label/CD No: Raven Records RVCD-22
Copyright: Raven Records, 1991

Amanda Smith

Michael Shirrefs

© 2002 ABC