In November 1969 the touring Springboks rugby union team visited Manchester inspiring two very different but interconnected anti-racism protests which this blog celebrates as part of Black History Month. One involved the mobilisation of thousands of activists by the Anti-Apartheid Movement protesting against the racist policies of the South African government and the other was a demonstration by six members of a Black Power group reminding the British people that racism exists much closer to home.
In 1969 the University of Manchester Library Secretary Mark Cowling instigated an initiative gathering posters, flyers and newsletters handed out on campus. Hundreds of documents were collected over the next seven years forming the Student Ephemera Collection held at the ARC (University Archives and Records Centre). A veritable treasure trove, it contains dozens of adverts for music concerts, theatre performances and film showings, hundreds of student social group flyers and numerous political notices. It contains information about a UMIST Black Power meeting and the Manchester leg of the ‘Stop the Tour’ campaign, an attempt to prevent the South African rugby and cricket tours of 1969/70 in order to highlight the racist policies of the country’s government. This short blog uses material from the archive to show how Manchester students and locals united to mount a large-scale protest against racism in a country thousands of miles away while recognising the significance of a small but powerful demonstration highlighting endemic racism in the city’s institutions.
In 1948 the South African National Party came to power and introduced a policy of racial segregation labelled ‘apartheid’ (Afrikaans for apartness) which ensured that the white minority had power over the majority black population. Discriminatory laws ended any democratic say for black people and meant that races were graded according to their colour – white being first, then Asian, what they described as ‘coloured’ next, and then black Africans last. This racial stratification enforced by a right-wing militarised police state meant that relationships between people of different races became illegal and that many facilities and public places became ‘whites only’. Despite widespread condemnation of apartheid, criticism through the United Nations, economic sanctions from many countries and a growing internal opposition movement, the South African government maintained the policy over the next few decades.
In the 1950s the African National Congress, South African Communist Party and the Pan-Africanist Congress organised demonstrations and largely peaceful acts of non-cooperation against apartheid. The brutality of the police in closing down the protests and, in particular, the Sharpeville massacre when officers opened fire on unarmed demonstrators, killing 69 people, radicalised opposition tactics – the ANC and PAC forming armed wings in response. By the 1960s, an era when the world generally became more liberal and racism was condemned by most governments, the political situation in the Cape became a global cause picked up by an increasing number of campaigners. In South Africa sport and in particular rugby and cricket were extremely popular with the white population who saw Afrikaners’ sporting ability as evidence of racial dominance (much as the Nazis had in Germany). The opportunity to test their prowess against other nations on the field of play was thus very important to white South Africans and activists thought that preventing these matches might make the government re-consider apartheid where sanctions and global censure seemed to make little difference.
A number of South Africans who found apartheid intolerable migrated to Britain while others were exiled to the UK, forced out by threats of imprisonment, violence and torture from state security forces. In combination with British allies (of all political hues) the Anti-Apartheid Movement formed, initially asking people to boycott South African goods in the hope of putting pressure on its government to change course. Campaigners uniting with those in Africa and Asia forced South Africa out of the Commonwealth in 1961 and in the following year the United Nations passed a resolution advocating trade sanctions and an arms embargo against the country (although the US and British governments refused to take part). The AAM hoped that the 1964 election of the Harold Wilson Labour administration would bring about sanctions but Wilson refused on the grounds that they would hit South Africa’s poorest black population the hardest. British university lecturers supported an academic boycott when banning orders were issued against two progressive professors who spoke out against apartheid in South Africa.
All South African sport was segregated by race and when the AAM presented evidence of racism to the International Olympic Committee it suspended the country from the 1964 Tokyo Olympics and a team from the Cape would not compete again at the games until 1992. However the colonial ties, particularly with the predominantly white countries of Britain, Australia and New Zealand, at that time the major powers within cricket and rugby, meant that tours by and to those nations continued despite increasing protests through the 1960s. The scheduled 1968/69 cricket tour of the Cape, when England initially omitted the mixed race Basil D’Oliveira from the side under pressure from SA prime minister B J Vorster, led to much anger. When D’Oliveira was re-instated to the squad due to another player’s injury, Vorster accused the selectors of bowing to political pressure and the tour was cancelled. In 1969/70 rugby and cricket tours of the UK were planned amidst mounting protests from the AAM to cancel, Peter Hain and Gordon Brown amongst those threatening action by demonstrators if the visits went ahead.
The ‘Stop the 70 Tour’ campaign led to protests when the Springboks arrived in late 1969, pitch invasions taking place at several venues where only a large police presence enabled the matches to be completed. On the 26th of November the South Africans were scheduled to play a Combined North West Counties rugby union team at the White City Stadium in Manchester, a greyhound and speedway track in Old Trafford. It is the planning for this demonstration and complaints about police action at the event which make up a large part of the early material in the Student Ephemera Collection. The archive illustrates that the protests were supported by virtually all the different student groups across the political spectrum – alongside the more obvious leftist factions (Communist, Trotskyist, Socialist, etc.) members of the Liberal students, Catholic Society and the University of Manchester Conservative Society all publicised the demonstration.
On the day before the match the Very Reverend Alfred Jowett, Dean of Manchester Cathedral, took a service to ask for racial harmony amidst rising tension; violence had flared at a tour match in Swansea when stewards physically attacked demonstrators trying to invade the pitch. When the service began three men and three women wearing traditional Black Panther uniform (berets, leather jackets and shades) marched into the cathedral and much to the surprise of the congregation gave the raised arm salute and chanted: “Power to the people. Power to the Black People.” One then read out a message from the Universal Coloured People’s Association demanding decent housing and a better environment, an end to racist education and unemployment for black people in Manchester. They commended and supported the anti-apartheid protest planned for the following day: “But we recognise that the same international power structure oppresses the black people in this country too. Therefore our protest is directed not only against racialism in South Africa, but racialism in Britain, and specifically in Manchester.” Although not widely covered in the media, the next day’s Guardian carried a detailed report (from which these quotes are taken) alongside a photograph of the six Black Power activists stood with arms raised in salute next to the Dean in the pulpit.
Judging by some of the archived material the intention of the students was to hold a good-natured, peaceful protest – amongst items collected is a lyric sheet satirising bawdy rugby songs for demonstrators to sing at the match and a large A3-size ‘Piss Off Springboks’ poster which was presumably displayed in the windows of student houses and halls of residence. Estimates of protest numbers range around 7-8,000 people including a large contingent of Liverpool students alongside those from Manchester. There seems to have been an element of naivety about what the demonstration would entail. Accounts from a 2019 Witness Seminar held at the Working Class Movement Library recalls how more hardened activists who had experienced policing at the anti-Vietnam War Grosvenor Square demonstration the year before were expecting trouble and had prepared for that eventuality. They had a detailed plan of what those protestors who entered the stadium would do in various eventualities and had allocated a group of tough union men as a frontline against police snatch squads to try to prevent demonstrators from getting hurt. The snatch squad included members of the police rugby team and an account from a UMIST rugby player at the demonstration recalls how physical the confrontations became. He also remembers playing the police in a match not long after when members of each side recognised each other and scores were settled in the scrum.
A large law enforcement presence outside White City prevented attempts to blockade the stadium where a big crowd of 50,000 spectators gathered. Police horses were used against protestors on the streets of Trafford with many resulting injuries while the trend for slip-on shoes was used by officers, the pavements lined with dozens of pairs removed during searches and arrests. A two-page document in the Student Ephemera Collection lists (mostly minor) injuries suffered by activists alongside numerous arrests of those merely making their way towards the stadium and who were mostly released without charge after the match – leading to accusations that their human rights were violated. The demonstration attracted widespread media coverage which inevitably focused on clashes between the police and protestors. Despite failing to prevent the match the amount of publicity generated by the Stop the Tour campaign ensured that the South African cricket tests planned for the following summer were cancelled and that none would follow until the end of apartheid. The Springboks would go on to visit New Zealand (amidst even bigger and more violent protests) but the AMM was largely successful in its aim of isolating South African sport (despite a few rebel cricket tours).
Once the sporting boycott had been achieved the AMM continued to lobby for economic sanctions. Material later in the archive shows how students protested against the university’s South African investments as part of that campaign and the fight to end apartheid remained a political focus until it was eventually dismantled in the 1990s. The British Black Power movement was relatively short-lived, largely dying out in the early 1970s. It did though begin the slow process of highlighting that many of society’s institutions need to recognise racism and that radical change is necessary in order to end that discrimination – still very much an ongoing fight, of course. In the immediate aftermath of the match the different student groups returned to arguing with each other (the Conservative Society blaming the left for violence during the demo), but the Student Ephemera Collection shows that November 1969 was a moment when Manchester united against racism, sending a positive message which still reverberates today.
Thank you to historian Geoff Brown (currently researching a history of British anti-fascism from below) and to Evan Smith (author of No Platform: A History of Anti-Fascism, Universities and the Limits of Free Speech published by Routledge) for their assistance with this blog. Thanks also to University of Manchester archivist Lianne Smith for her helpful feedback.
Anti-Apartheid Archives: https://www.aamarchives.org.
The Guardian, ‘Black Power group interrupts service’, 26 November 1969, p. 1 – article written by Baden Hickman with photograph by Bob Smithies.
‘Not Just Peterloo: Remembering the Anti-Apartheid Protest Against the Springboks, Manchester’, 26th November 1969. Witness seminar 3 October 2019 held at the Working Class Movement Library, Salford. Published as a chapter within Socialist History Journal, 15 November 2019, pp. 46-65.
The Student Ephemera Collection is held at the University of Manchester Main Library Archives and Records Centre.