Don Bradman – His stance on Apartheid
Bradman’s handling of the issue of whether to ban the all-white South African Test cricket team from touring Australia in 1971-72 was his most important legacy. Bradman was anti-apartheid, yet believed South African cricketers were exempt because they had shown their opposition to racism.
“They have tried harder than our protesters to do something about it,” he wrote in 1971 to Rohan Rivett, one of Australia’s finer journalist-editors. “I cannot see why they should be blamed for the attitudes of a government with which they disagree.”
Accompanied by the South African ambassador, Bradman witnessed 1971’s Australia-South Africa rugby Test in Sydney. He abhorred the violence of protesters, who invaded the field, and left with concerns that a cricket match would be hard to police, and that cricket would be worse for it.
But in his last year as chairman of the Australian Cricket Board, Bradman stood firm. The cricket tour was still on. He told Rivett the rugby team “comprised mainly of [apartheid-supporting] Afrikaners”, while white cricketers were “basically of English descent” and supported a political party not opposed to mixed sport.
“Politics should not come into sport,” he concluded. This placed Bradman with 75 per cent of Australians.
But Bradman had a flexible mind, and decided to explore the issue himself. He wrote to the anti-apartheid protest movement in Australia, asking them to explain the demonstrating. Meredith Burgmann was astonished to receive such a request from someone she regarded as typically, trenchantly Establishment.
Bradman was intrigued. He flew to South Africa to meet its prime minister, John Vorster, a wartime admirer of the Nazis and Adolf Hitler. Vorster expected Bradman to support the tour, but the meeting quickly became tense, then sour. Bradman asked questions in his direct way about why blacks were denied the chance to represent their country. Vorster suggested they were intellectually inferior and could not cope with cricket’s intricacies. Bradman asked Vorster: “Have you ever heard of Garry Sobers?”
Vorster’s racist attitudes – Bradman thought them “ignorant and repugnant” – contributed to his change of mind, which had been precipitated by Burgmann and Rivett. Bradman flew to Britain to meet Harold Wilson and Ted Heath, British political leaders who had dealt with the protest problem in England. Bradman returned to Australia with his mind made up. He reached agreement with Cricket Board fellow members, called a media conference and announced the tour’s cancellation. Bradman made a simple one-line statement: “We will not play them [South Africa] until they choose a team on a non-racist basis.” In South Africa, Vorster vented his anger publicly against Bradman while the African National Congress rejoiced.
In response to Rivett’s congratulations, Bradman wrote: “I appreciate the compliments but, no offence meant, I’m not really in the mood to feel elated. I’ve seen too many sides of the issue, the good and bad of each. I was not cut out to be a politician or banner-carrier.
“In my few moments of triumph, if any, in the modern arena, I have sought seclusion and peace, not publicity. But hate it as I might, publicity seems to be my lot.”
Bradman knew he had ruined the Test careers of some of the finest cricketers, including Barry Richards, Hylton Ackerman and Graeme and Peter Pollock. South Africa’s team had been dominant, but now was in tatters and would have to disband.
Bradman’s no-tour decision put the Australian Cricket Board in a hole financially, and Bradman invited a magnificent multiracial combination, led by Sobers and including Ackerman and the Pollock brothers, to play against Ian Chappell’s young Australian team. The tour was a financial success.
In April 1986, a Commonwealth group of seven “eminent persons”, including Malcolm Fraser, visited the imprisoned Nelson Mandela, whose commanding presence belied his 24 years of incarceration. His first question was, “Is Don Bradman still alive?” Bradman had been Mandela’s sporting hero, and his 1971 ban-the-tour decision deepened the endearment.
In 1993, a South African team, chosen on a non-racist basis, toured Australia.