Peter Hain: The retiring hero who changed the course of history

How Basil D'Oliveira became the catalyst for the global campaign to defeat apartheid in South Africa
  • @PeterHain

Basil D'Oliveira, whose death followed a long illness, was an enigmatic servant of the anti-apartheid struggle. Enigmatic because he never personally committed himself to the cause, yet he became its powerful servant because of the injustice of his predicament.

As a world-class cricketer barred from playing for South Africa, his country of birth, because he was not white, D'Oliveira had to move to England in March 1960, a week after the massacre at Sharpeville of 69 innocent people, many shot in the back.

Born a "coloured", which in South Africa meant descended from mixed-race parentage in a community mostly in the Cape, D'Oliveira could not achieve the potential of his natural cricket talent there.

Helped by John Arlott, the distinguished cricket journalist and commentator, he played first for Middleton, in the Lancashire League, then Worcestershire. In 1966, he broke into the England team as a top batsman and medium-paced swing bowler.

That year my family had been exiled to Britain from the apartheid regime, and I remember as a 16-year-old watching excitedly as D'Oliveira piled on the runs and wickets for England.

Two years later, the player unwittingly found himself at the centre of a violent cricketing storm which was to prove a turning point for the anti-apartheid movement. I can still recall my outrage at his treatment.

First of all, in August 1968, the England cricket establishment, deepest blue to a man, excluded him from a planned tour to South Africa. "No one of open mind will believe that he was left out for valid cricketing reasons," Arlott wrote. It later emerged that D'Oliveira was offered a £40,000 bribe by the South Africans to declare himself unavailable for the tour.

His exclusion caused pandemonium, not just in anti-apartheid circles, but across Middle England. David Sheppard, the former England cricket captain and subsequently Bishop of Woolwich and then Liverpool, led pressure within the cricket world for D'Oliveira's exclusion to be reversed.

Then came a new twist. Tom Cartwright, the Warwickshire all-rounder selected in D'Oliveira's place, was found to be injured. The England selectors reconvened and announced that D'Oliveira was "being invited to join the touring party".

Cartwright, a gentleman of real integrity, told me in 1995 that he had always been unhappy about the idea of going on tour and that pressure had been put on him to accept, despite it being known to Lord's that he was injured. He withdrew out of conviction, not simply for the publicly quoted explanation, he said.

Now the drama shifted to South Africa, where there was consternation. Balthazar Johannes Vorster, the Prime Minister, vetoed the tour, thundering ludicrously: "It's the team of the anti-apartheid movement."

The English cricket establishment, as usual hunkered down at its Marylebone headquarters, Lord's, seemed totally indifferent to the basic immorality of cricket played according to race, not merit. Astonishingly, barely four months later, in January 1969, they announced an invitation to white South Africa to tour England the following year.

It was as if Pretoria's gratuitous snub, not just to D'Oliveira but to English cricket, had never happened.

At that time, as an 18-year-old cricket lover and anti-apartheid activist, I drafted a motion "pledging ourselves to take direct action to prevent scheduled matches from taking place unless the 1970 cricket tour is cancelled".

As I describe in my forthcoming memoirs, Outside In, the idea of disrupting matches by running on the pitch and sitting down came from the late 1960s era of protest.

But it was undoubtedly the Basil D'Oliveira affair that gave the campaign momentum. It transformed what had been a minority political interest into one resonating with a much wider audience.

By September 1969, I was propelled into leading the Stop the Seventy Tour campaign, co-ordinating tens of thousands of protesters to lay siege to the 25-match Springbok rugby tour that winter. The campaign was so effective that the cricket tour was cancelled within weeks of its start in May 1970.

That breakthrough led to white South Africa's international sporting isolation. Nelson Mandela, who was at the time being held on Robben Island, told me 20 years later that he believed it was "decisive" in the eventual triumph of the anti-apartheid struggle. Internal resistance of the kind my parents had been involved with had by then been smashed, and our victory was crucial.

Yet if that was achieved partly because of Basil D'Oliveira, it also occurred without him. Unlike, for instance, Mike Brearley, who spoke with me on a Stop the Tour platform, D'Oliveira never openly backed the anti-apartheid movement.

At the time many campaigners felt let down. But in retrospect, because he retained the quiet dignity of a cricketer first and last, he touched parts of public opinion that anti-apartheid activists could never reach.

I did not actually meet him until after Nelson Mandela had been elected President. In the summer of 1994, we were both VIP guests at Lord's, joyously welcoming the first South African cricket side to truly to represent the country from which we both hailed.

By then D'Oliveira was long retired. Being with him, I could sense both a pride in his achievements for England, but also and a wistful sadness at what might have been for South Africa.

Peter Hain is a Labour MP and former cabinet minister. His memoirs, 'Outside In', will be published by Biteback in January