Peter McGregor and the anti-Apartheid Movement

Breaking the rules: the campaign in Australia against apartheid
Los Angeles Times, January 8, 2006

From Green Left Weekly, December 7, 2005.


[Peter McGregor was a convener of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in
Australia along with Meredith Burgmann (now president of Legislative
Council, NSW Parliament) and Denis Freney (since deceased). James
Middleton is an independent filmmaker. Political Football was shown
on ABC TV on November 17.]

Never believe that a few caring people can't change the world. For, indeed, that's all who ever have. - Margaret Mead

Without agitators, there would be no advance towards civilisation. Without dissent ... democracy in its true sense remains incapable of achievement. To dissent at the right time, in the right place, and in the right measure is to support the democratic ideal. The choice of time, place and measure can be determined only by the dissenter. But it is upon those in dissent that democracy depends. – Jocelyn Scutt

James Middleton

In the early 1970s, a young maths teacher resigned from his job to play a leading role in organising the sports boycott against apartheid. Within a few years, the demands being made by the AAM (Australian Anti-Apartheid Movement), a radical minority, not only
became government policy, but in many ways changed the face of Australia.

One of the most remarkable characters I interviewed for my documentary Political Football, which concerned the anti-apartheid protests in Australia during the early 1970s, was Peter McGregor. Unfortunately only a fragment of the interview could be included. However, many of the things Peter talked about, vis-a-vis the nature of protest and the method of creating social change, are particularly relevant today.

Following, is an edited extract from that interview, conducted in October 2004.

How did you become involved in the movement against apartheid?

I became involved through meeting some South African exiles, especially John and Margaret Brink. John had been arrested and imprisoned in South Africa under the State of Emergency following the Sharpville Massacre in 1960. These people had to leave their country and they informed me, and many others, about what was going on.

At the beginning of 1971, I was a maths teacher. Having established the AAM during the 1970s, we needed someone to do the daily campaign organising. I decided I would much rather do this, so I chucked in my job and was paid $20 each week by the movement.

How did the AAM come about?

The movement developed as a radical complement to Campaign Against Racism in Sport (CARIS), which in turn had formed out of SADAF (South African Defence and Aid Fund), which in turn had been set up, during the 1960s primarily, to assist South African political prisoners.

John Myrtle was the coordinator of CARIS. One of our first actions was handing out protest leaflets outside an Australian swimming competition to select a team to tour South Africa. We were a respectable front. We didn't then know that Meredith Burgmann and friends were conducting their own protest by throwing dye into the pool. We started talking and there was a synchronicity.

Our first action in 1971 was a protest at Coogee beach against the South African lifesaving team. I remember Meredith and others throwing themselves under the South African lifesavers during their march past, and the South Africans just marched right over them.

We then started connecting up with other groups including the Builders Labourers' Federation. They were a wonderful union, not just concerned with increasing wages and their own working conditions, but with the sort of society they were living in. They were defending the environment and heritage architecture, much of which would have been lost if they weren't around. They were also anti-war.

So it was a coming together of South African exiles, the student movement and visionary unions. Then suddenly these seven amazing sports people came forward, willing to use their position as Wallabies to oppose the [1971 Springbox] tour of Australia.

Then the movement started taking off like wildfire. We were amazed because in less than six months it was huge. We thought it was pie in the sky stuff that we would actually stop this specific tour, let alone successive tours.

Why the move to a more radical, confrontational form of protest?

In 1969, I believed that if you presented your case to people in authority and you had a good case you might persuade them. I came to see authority didn't listen to reason.

Take Vietnam; it didn't make any difference how many people came out to protest, the government ignored them. And it was clear the South African government wasn't going to listen to reason. It wasn't going to play sport by the rules, where the best man or woman is allowed to win. People of different races weren't allowed to compete. We realised we'd also have to go outside the rules.

By the end of 1970, I'd become an active protester, willing to do non-violent civil disobedience. I was willing to break the law, to be arrested and go to court.

Why did you resort to civil disobedience?

We'd abandoned working through the normal channels of protest because they weren't working.

What was your approach to violence?

We were a movement that believed in civil disobedience. We didn't believe in violence. We were fighting a system that was based on violence. We would go out of our way to avoid violence but, if we were attacked, we would defend ourselves.

Were you ever arrested?

Yes. I was charged with throwing an orange at one of the matches. The charge was later dropped.

Were you aware that you were under observation by ASIO?

We presumed some level of surveillance was going on.

Did that affect your activities?

We acted on that presumption.

Getting back to the movement, what were its objectives?

We were trying to make it impossible for matches to continue. We were engaged in direct action not symbolic action and to make it impossible for sport with apartheid to continue.

Why sport?

It was clear that sport, in particular cricket and rugby, were important elements in white South African society, and that targeting South African sport could be a means by which white South Africans could be made aware of political repression as well as human rights' violations going on in their country. As well as this, we were part of a global solidarity that was fighting apartheid, and the movement had decided to focus on sport.

Why do you think the movement took off?

There were two main aspects. One was our willingness to demonstrate, cause problems, run onto the field and get arrested. We were a practical problem. If we were not willing to do this we would not have worried the government or sporting administrators. The ethical problem for them was the seven Wallabies who openly opposed the tour. Elite sports people who'd been to South Africa and were willing to put their careers on the line forced the public, politicians, sporting officials and spectators to think twice. It was great that sports people were saying the demonstrators are actually right.

How far were you prepared to go?

The AAM picked up on the feelings of the anti-Vietnam War movement.
There had been three major rallies or moratoriums in 1970, but we still hadn't stopped the war. A lot of activists felt that we had to go beyond peaceful protests and engage in civil disobedience - non-violent direct action - to achieve any meaningful change. The feelings among us were that you needed to do something more than protest peacefully to create any change.

The concept of sabotage was discussed. There is a distinction between violence against property (sabotage) and violence against people (terrorism). These days, unfortunately, the two seem to have merged.

Until the early 1960s, the African National Congress had only ever supported non-violent civil disobedience. But when the ANC was banned and it couldn't engage in peaceful protest it had to engage in sabotage. That meant damage to property, telegraph lines and

We started to explore whether we would engage in violence against property. A good example was at the Australian swimming championships [to select an Australian team to go to South Africa] that were held at Drummoyne pool and Meredith Burgmann and others threw dye into the pool, making it opaque. Sabotage. It stopped the swimming carnival.

Peter Hain [MP and now leader of the House of Commons] was the leader of the movement in England, and we brought him out to discuss tactics. We asked how he felt about sporting facilities being damaged and he wouldn't have a bar of it. But, as the rugby tour of 1971 continued and we weren't succeeding in stopping matches, we felt something more drastic should happen.

Two members of the BLF proceeded to cut down the goalposts at the Sydney Cricket Ground and were arrested. They were engaging in sabotage.

Did you feel at all threatened during the campaign?

There was a lot of anger on both sides. As well as the police attacking us quite ruthlessly, we had to deal with rugby vigilantes, who were determined we wouldn't interrupt their games. There was also the extreme right. I remember at several of our meetings and demos we were threatened by neo-Nazis, and it certainly seemed the South African government was funding them.

At the beginning of 1971, about 10 of us were meeting when six neo-Nazis started attacking. No one was seriously injured. Some people were worried about reds under the beds, but I was more worried about Nazis! On two occasions Neo-Nazis were convicted of assaulting me.

You didn't succeed in stopping any of the games? Did you think you'd in some way failed?

We didn't manage to stop the rugby tour, but the South African cricketers were due to tour a few months later and the head of the Cricket Board, Don Bradman, began writing to us. We would then write to Hassan Hower, the head of the Non-White Cricket Board in South Africa, who would answer the issues Bradman was raising. We'd then write back to Bradman with all this information.

He must have begun to realise that what he was being told by the white cricket authorities was bullshit. It was an incredible victory when Bradman decided to cancel the cricket tour on moral grounds. We were sure it would have given heart to non-white South Africans, and of course it helped increase the isolation of white South Africa.

Any other reflections on your involvement with the AAM?

Kierkergard once said, "Life has to be lived forward but can only be understood backwards". My life kept moving from schoolteacher to a full-time paid activist, to anarchist/squatter before I went back to academia where I tried to bring my politics into teaching. Since
then, and with the recent downsizing of universities, I've returned to direct-action activism.

The terrorist attacks on the US - retaliation from the Third World to provocations by the First World - has reset the world agenda for the worse, and many of the things we once fought for might need to be fought for again.