THIRTY FIVE years ago the people of Swansea took on the massed ranks of police protecting the all-white propaganda machine of the South African apartheid state, the Springbok rugby team.
The 1969 rugby tour was a trial run for the cricket tour projected for the following year, but it ran into trouble from the very start.
As a United Nations report commented in retrospect, “Virtually every match was played in an atmosphere of siege. Large numbers of police had to be summoned to protect the grounds, and rows of policemen encircled the playing fields to prevent demonstrators from invading them.
“Barbed-wire fences were erected inside and outside the grounds, and police dogs were brought in and held in reserve at strategic points.”
According to the press at the time, around 50,000 people took part in protests during the tour.
Such actions were an important way of focusing attention on the barbarity of apartheid.
The South African state was run on pure racism, with the black majority denied even the most basic rights and the vote.
Those who rebelled faced imprisonment, torture or death.
But struggle within the country was at a low level.
The protests of the early 1960s had been crushed by bitter repression and, with the South African economy booming, Western firms and governments were content to let the racists get on with it.
Sporting tours became a battleground. In 1968 the South African authorities had refused to accept that the English cricket team to tour the country could include Basil D’Oliveira (a “non-white”).
That tour was called off. But the British Labour government did not prevent the South Africans subsequently coming to Britain for the rugby tour.
In South Wales those organising against the visit had to confront the fact that this was the heartland of working class rugby—at a time when the Welsh were supreme.
But we were not content with mere protest at the rugby while biding our time for the “easier” target of the cricket in the summer. Our aim was to do whatever it took to stop the games taking place.
From the start the Swansea demonstration was organised by local grassroots activists drawn from a wide range of political parties, trade unions and community organisations.
Wherever the protesters came from, they were all victims of a police riot.
Large numbers of people learnt a great many lessons in a short space of time as the demonstration developed.
We had some idea of what was to come when a student stumbled on plainclothes officers going through student records in the Swansea University registry the week before.
As the demonstration reached the St Helen’s rugby ground, the first snatch squads were sent in to arrest organisers.
One of the protesters recalls,“I was wrestled to the ground and given a good kicking. My glasses were ripped off my face, and I spent most of the rest of the day wandering around in a fog, but my comrades held on and dragged me back to safety.”
In spite of their efforts, the police failed to make a single arrest at this stage.
This appeared to drive them into a frenzy, and it was the less militant demonstrators, unprepared for what was to come, who bore the brunt of an attack that shocked all who witnessed it.
Kath Eilbeck, a local teacher, witnessed the police directing ambulances through the crowd in an effort to break it up:
“The ambulances were empty, and when they got clear they just turned round and came back again.”
Inside the ground some 70 demonstrators made it onto the pitch and stopped the match for 20 minutes. They paid for their courage with the most vicious attacks imaginable.
Dragged off the pitch by police and specially hired vigilantes, they were then thrown to other “stewards” who had been allowed by the police to arm themselves in preparation. Television news showed one student being held over the railings and mercilessly clubbed as the men in blue looked on laughing.
One indication of the ferocity of these attacks is the fact that 200 demonstrators were treated for injuries.
The battle outside the ground went on throughout the match, lasting some two hours.
There were large numbers of arrests, mostly on trumped-up charges.
Among the local workers arrested were steel workers, electricians, engineers, miners, teachers, lecturers, a play leader and a public relations officer.
Further militant protests greeted the South Africans when they visited Ireland.
Corrie Bornmann, the tour’s manager, later said that the team had been rocked by the scale of the opposition, and had seriously considered giving up and running home.
The protests, which were covered locally and internationally, scared the authorities.
Within a week of the Swansea demonstration it was announced that the rugby tour was to be shortened.
Shortly after that the Labour government was forced to tell the governing body to call off the planned cricket tour.
We should remember this spirit of anti-racism when we march this weekend.
Swansea Unite Against Racism demonstration this Saturday, 9 October— assemble 11am, Guildhall, Swansea. Supported by Wales TUC and many others.