Sports Boycotts & Apartheid

From South Africa to Israel

by Jack Delaney  August 22, 2021

During this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, Algerian Fethi Nourine was slated to battle Israeli Tohar Butbul in judo. Before the bout, Nourine withdrew in protest of Israeli policies, expressing support for Palestinians. “We worked a lot to reach the Olympics but the Palestinian cause is bigger than all of this,” he stated. Nourine and his trainer were recalled by Algeria, suspended by the International Judo Foundation, and will likely face additional punishment.

Days later a second judoka, Sudan’s Mohamed Abdalrasool, also withdrew from a bout against Butbul. Although Abdalrasool’s reasoning remains unclear, the withdrawals recall the era of anti-apartheid activism and the actions of the sports boycotts taken against South Africa. Like Nourine’s latest example, past athletes, teams, international sporting bodies, and anti-apartheid campaigners leveraged sports in their refusal condone apartheid policies, enabling South Africa’s ostracization.

South Africa’s legacy of ethnic supremacy and human rights abuses indeed persists today in Israel, labeled by human rights organizations, including Human Rights Watch and B’Tselem, as an apartheid state.

Defeating Isreali apartheid starts with revitalizing the successful tactics of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM), including renewing sports boycotts. Countering Israeli policies with strategies similar to those demonstrated in the South African sports boycotts provide a framework for a similarly effective catalyst for change.

The Sports Boycotts Of South Africa

South African apartheid wasn’t dismantled overnight. The codified caste system subjected millions to dehumanizing conditions and human rights violations from the late-1940s until its phasing out in the 1990s. Defeating it required sustained domestic resistance and international solidarity. Among the wide-ranging anti-apartheid tactics employed, sports boycotts proved a successful strategy for the South African state’s delegitimization.

After apartheid came to govern South Africa in 1948, the institution was met with little initial resistance in the sporting world. But as disturbing reports of Afrikaner rule spread, nation-states, international governing bodies, and individuals began to organize.

Throughout the AAM, actions in sports ranged from boycotts, sanctions, and suspensions across numerous athletic disciplines. But actions targeting South Africa weren’t universally applied. Varying clubs, sporting bodies, and teams instituted conditions for competition with and in South Africa.

For example, the International Rugby Board (IRB) instituted a boycott in 1968, yet allowed South Africa to remain a member until the end of apartheid. Conversely, Fédération Internationale de Football Association (FIFA) established a boycott in 1963, expelling South Africa from participating in FIFA-sanctioned events until Afrikaner rule ended.

The first sports boycott began in 1956 after the International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF) cut ties with the segregated South African Table Tennis Union. The ITTF favored establishing connections with the non-segregated South African Table Tennis Board (SATTB). In light of the boycott, the South African government confiscated and later refused to issue SATTB players’ passports, ensuring they couldn’t participate in international events.

By the 1960s, AAM actions in sports became a regular fixture. Many occurred on the cricket field and rugby pitch — South Africa’s most popular sports among whites. The D’Oliveira affair, an ongoing political sporting event throughout the 1960s, was the tinder that set actions against South Africa ablaze.

Basil D’Oliveira, a half Indian and half Portuguese South African cricketer, was designated by the apartheid regime as “Cape Coloured” and forbidden to compete with the white team. Before being forced to give up his sport, D’Oliveira penned a letter to English journalist John Arlott.

A revered figure in British sports media and an activist in the AAM, Arlott was receptive to D’Oliveira’s letter. He leveraged connections with English cricket clubs to aid the South African in finding a home. D’Oliveira consequently fled to the U.K. in 1960, qualifying for the Worcestershire County Cricket Club shortly after in 1964. By 1966, D’Oliveira had made the English national team and was competing in international events.

After D’Oliveira secured a roster spot on the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) in 1968, English and South African cricket governing bodies began planning an international tour of South Africa. Before the proposed tour launched, South African Prime Minister B.J. Vorster issued statements welcoming back D’Oliveira. In private, Vorster repeatedly attempted to block D’Oliveira’s return, once offering a bribe to the cricketer to not compete.

Later in 1968, D’Oliveira was temporarily omitted from the English national team but was recalled for England’s last match against Australia. In his return, he scored an astounding 158 runs. Just days after his incredible performance he was again temporarily omitted from a roster slot — this time from MCC and its scheduled tour of South Africa. MCC officials conveyed that D’Oliveira was excluded because of a batting slump, yet AAM campaigners held he was left off to appease Vorster and the apartheid regime.

Due to a teammate’s injury, D’Oliveira was eventually recalled to MCC and was scheduled to tour his former country. Vorster began tossing accusations of a politically motivated ploy, stating, “We are not prepared to receive a team thrust upon us by people whose interests are not in the game but to gain certain political objectives which they do not even attempt to hide. The MCC team is not the team of the MCC but of the anti-apartheid movement.”

Ultimately, MCC and South African authorities failed to reach an agreement due to D’Oliveira’s roster spot. MCC subsequently canceled the tour, unintentionally boycotting South Africa, though the club invited South Africa to tour England two years later in 1970.

The D’Oliveira affair was not a boycott brought about by explicit moral conviction from the start, but rather brought about triangulation and failure to reach a politically expedient solution. Yet D’Oliveira’s evident talent coupled with MCC’s decision to not abandon him would demonstrate apartheid’s flawed assumptions of racial supremacy and weaken its optics.

In contrast, many sports boycotts during the AAM recognized apartheid’s absurd assumptions and began on explicit moral opposition to institutionalized racism. A bulk of these actions occurred on the rugby pitch.

Rugby, an immensely popular sport in South Africa and New Zealand, brought about long-established ties between the two countries. In May 1960, New Zealand’s world-famous national rugby squad, the All Blacks, were set to depart on an exhibition tour of South Africa. Before the tour, the Afrikaner government barred Maoris, or indigenous New Zealanders, from competing against South Africa’s all-white national rugby team, the Springboks.

In response, a petition signed by 150,000 Kiwis opposed the tour, the exclusion of Maori players, and apartheid laws. New Zealanders took to the streets, led by Maoris who promoted the “No Maoris, No Tour,” (NMNT) campaign. The exclusion of indigenous players stung Kiwis, as many of the best former (and current) All Blacks are Maori.

Team officials planned to ditch their scheduled tour and relayed that the All Blacks would only return under the condition that Maoris could compete on the same pitch as the Springboks. Most of the rhetoric was posturing, and the All Blacks followed through with the 1960 tour without the Maoris. The racially selected All Blacks would end up losing to the Springboks twice and tying once in four matches. All Blacks’ matches with the Springboks would remain segregated until 1970 after South Africa classified Maoris as “honorary whites.”

Shortly after protests in New Zealand, Australia’s first indigenous rugby player Lloyd McDermott launched a personal boycott, refusing to join the Wallabies’ 1963 tour of South Africa. McDermott was allowed to compete against the Springboks after the apartheid regime similarly classified him as an “honorary white.” McDermott reflecting on his decision to boycott apartheid said, “Even if I would have toured as an Aboriginal, I wouldn’t have enjoyed being anywhere there and seeing the Black people on one side and the whites on the other.”

As the 1960s progressed, the NMNT campaign had a direct impact on New Zealand’s politics and future sports boycotts. New Zealand Prime Minister Keith Holyoake said of South Africa’s sports apartheid, “In this country, we are one people,” and pushed All Blacks officials to ditch a 1967 scheduled tour of South Africa. The cessation of the tour can be credited to the pressure exerted by NMNT campaigners.

As NMNT developed its success, New Zealanders once again led explicit moral opposition to apartheid. In 1969, Kiwis formed Halt All Racist Tours (HART), a group that aimed to suspend sporting events with nations like South Africa and Rhodesia.

While HART was active in promoting AAM actions like boycotts from the early 1970s onward, in 1981 the group led nationwide protests against the Springboks tour of New Zealand. Commenting on the 40th anniversary, former HART national organizer John Minto noted in July 2021, “We will be celebrating the protests against apartheid in South Africa and stepping up the campaign against apartheid in Israel.”

While individuals, clubs, and groups took action, international and sporting governing bodies followed suit. Though South Africa maintained member status in a minority of other athletic governing bodies, like the IRB, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned it from international competition in 1963 before the 1964 Summer Olympic Games.

Before the 1968 Olympic Games, the IOC planned to reinstate South Africa under the condition that the nation integrates teams in the future. South Africa’s regime didn’t agree. The IOC ban was upheld after thirty-two African nations and seven other non-African nations threatened to boycott the ‘68 Games. Black athletes representing the United States also vowed to abstain from competition until South Africa was removed.

South Africa was expelled indefinitely from the IOC two years later in 1970. Eighteen years later, the IOC adopted a declaration condemning “apartheid in sport” in 1988.

The United Nations (UN) also contributed to the sports boycotts. In 1968, the UN called for sports boycotts of South Africa. By 1980, the UN compiled a registrar of athletes and teams that competed against the apartheid nation. Though the UN didn’t punish athletes or teams, independent sporting bodies used the registrar to sanction teams and suspend athletes that participated in matches under apartheid. The UN General Assembly would later ratify the International Convention against Apartheid in Sports, calling “for the speedy elimination of apartheid in sports” five years later in 1985.

As apartheid began its death rattle, South Africa was blacklisted from essentially every single international tournament and expelled from most international athletic governing bodies. This was largely due to the international solidarity and domestic struggle by AAM campaigners who brought about wide-ranging sports boycotts numbering more than thirty-five.

Sports Under Israeli Apartheid

In the prelude to the 2015-2016 National Basketball Association (NBA) season, Omri Casspi,an Israeli former NBA player, led a group of teammates on a trip to his homeland. Fellow Sacramento Kings Demarcus Cousins, Chandler Parsons, Caron Butler, Iman Shumpert, and others joined the trip. The party was flown to Israel via right-wing billionaire and media mogul Sheldon Adelson’s private Boeing 747.

Media coverage was limited to straightforward reports and demanded little accountability from Israeli authorities or U.S. athletes. Among critical media coverage was an open letter in The Nation by sports editor Dave Zirin.

Zirin notes that several of the players involved in the trip previously wore shirts reading, “I Can’t Breathe,” rightfully standing against the state murder of Eric Garner and in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. Zirin outlines the disconnect between those who stand against the state murdering and exploiting Black and brown people in the U.S. and those who simultaneously ignore Israel for its policies and practices.

Around the time of the Kings’ trip, Israeli forces carried out 1,200 murders of Palestinian civilians, maimed and injured 11,000, destroyed 22,000 homes, and displaced 108,000, according to a 2015 Human Rights Watch report. Since the trip led by Casspi, Israeli crimes against humanity persisted, leading international and Israeli human rights organizations to label the nation as a practitioner of apartheid.

To this day, under the blockade and occupation of Palestine, electricity in the Gaza Strip is limited to a four-hour daily supply, according to B’Tselem. The UN notes that 96 percent of water in Gaza is “unfit for human consumption,” while Palestinians are confined to substandard housing. The latest data shows that more than 600 militarized barriers and checkpoints impede Palestinians’ daily life and liberty.

But Israeli apartheid isn’t limited to economic blockadesillegal occupationssegregated ghettos, and bombing campaigns on civilian infrastructure. Under Israeli rule, apartheid is also applied to sport.

A year before the Kings’ trip, two Palestinian teenagers Jawhar Nasser Jawhar and Adam Abd al-Raouf Halabiya were on their way home from soccer practice. As the pair approached a checkpoint, Israeli authorities began to open fire, claiming they were holding a bomb. Jawhar was shot ten times, while Halabiya took bullets in each foot. After the shootings, the teens were mauled by checkpoint dogs. It was the last day that Jawhar and Halabiya were able to play soccer.

While Israeli state violence is common for Palestinians, like conditions faced by Black South Africans, Palestine’s training facilities are also reminiscent of apartheid South Africa. The conditions in boxing gyms, for example, demonstrate the similarities between the two apartheid countries.

In a 1983 BBC documentary, presenter Ron Pickering illuminates the discrepancy between Afrikaner boxing gyms and Black gyms. While white boxers trained in a well-equipped and well-maintained facility, featuring full rings and speed bags, Black boxers trained in a dingy cinderblock room housing a single light, a sole torn-up punching bag, and no ring. Regarding the discrepancies, Pickering says of the conditions of Black gyms, “they’re rough,” later noting the obvious that “white gyms are better equipped.”

According to another piece also authored by Zirin, Palestinian women boxers face comparable conditions to Black South African boxers. Zirin writes, “Because of the privations caused by the blockade, they are not exactly overwhelmed with facilities and equipment. Some speed bags are stuffed pillowcases and heavy bags are mattresses. They even hold practices on the beach because of Covid.”

In comparison, Israeli female martial artist Adi Rotem trains and coaches at a state-of-the-art facility, Fight TLV. The gym is outfitted in modern decor, houses equipment from kettlebells to rolling mats to untarnished speed bags. The facility also sits on prime real estate, next to Tel Aviv’s beach.

The words of renowned South African AAM campaigner Desmond Tutu sum up Israeli policies best, “I have witnessed the racially segregated roads and housing in the Holy Land that reminded me so much of the conditions we experienced in South Africa under apartheid.”

Demonstrating why the Sacramento Kings should have instead boycotted Casspi’s trip and denounced the conditions under which Palestinians like Jawar and Halabiya live, Tutu continues, “We could not have achieved our democracy without the help of people around the world, who through… non-violent means, such as boycotts and disinvestment, encouraged their governments and other corporate actors to reverse decades-long support for the apartheid regime.”

As for Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, Tutu says the world should, “call it apartheid and boycott.”

The Sports Boycotts Of Israel

The sports boycotts alone didn’t end apartheid in Africa’s southern cape. As Tutu notes, the roughly thirty-five-year exclusion was met with international consumer, academic, and entertainment boycotts, and divestment campaigns and sanctions. Nevertheless, actions taken in the sports world played an important role.

It is now time to revitalize the tactics of the AAM to resist Israeli apartheid. International governing and sporting bodies must hold those accountabale for engaging with and legitimizing an apartheid state. The UN should resume compiling a registrar of athletes and clubs that compete in Israel or against Israelis. Athletic bodies should employ the registrar to sanction teams and suspend athletes that participate in events with apartheid-endorsed teams and athletes. The IOC should also revisit its condemnation of apartheid in sport and the 1970 move to expel South Africa from the Olympics and immediately reapply that ban on Israel.

Teams and individual athletes, especially those concerned with social and economic justice, must reject actions like the Sacramento Kings’ trip and follow Fethi Nourine’s example by boycotting apartheid-sanctioned competitors.

Like South Africa, Israeli apartheid won’t be dismantled overnight, but immediate steps can be taken to delegitimize it. If Israel is going to deprive Palestinians of human necessities and basic rights, then the world should deprive Israel of sports.

Jack Delaney is a former policy analyst. He worked on issues relating to health care, disability, and labor policy, and is a member of the National Writers Union. 

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