IN October 1973 Aurora Cricket Club took to the field as the first multi-ethnic team in modern times to play in a white league in South Africa. The events of that day, and the circumstances leading up to it, are well-documented. Aurora’s main opposition came from the government in the person of the colourful Minister of Sport, Piet Koornhof. His professed determination to prevent integrated cricket resulted in a proclamation (R228) amending the Group Areas Act in a way that he hoped would criminalise mixed matches. On the day that the first fixture (against the University of Natal Second XI) finally took place at the Forsyth Ground in Alexandra Park, Pietermaritzburg the police (including the local commander, Colonel Pieterse) made their presence felt both openly and surreptitiously. Late in the afternoon a Group Areas official took the names of the players and tried to seize the scorebook. The game itself was uninterrupted, police interest in Aurora soon faded away and there never was a prosecution. Some may argue that this was a minor incident in the major drama of the rise and fall of apartheid. Others would say that it carried with it enough significance not to be dismissed simply as an obscure event remembered only by a group of aging cricketers. Here are some of the reasons why.

Hard though it may now be to believe, the action of playing in an integrated cricket match in South Africa in 1973 was one that required considerable courage. Not only were the police well trained in muscular methods, but they were backed by a wide range of laws that encouraged them to behave in whatever fashion they pleased. South Africa was, in the early 1970s, a well-developed police state in which vigilantes were coming to play a significant role: anti-apartheid marches in Pietermaritzburg in the 1960s had been attacked by government supporting thugs. It was perfectly conceivable that Aurora’s cricketers could have landed in prison, unpleasant places in apartheid South Africa even for short-term detainees. They were brave and committed people.

Aurora’s move was politically very shrewd. It took the most innocuous of activities, a game of cricket in a municipal park, to challenge the weakest link in an ideology of the absurd. The government’s attempts to control the use of public recreational space − roads, playing fields, stadia − were always lacking in confidence, hard to define in law, subject to ribald comment in opposition newspapers, and a gift to overseas opponents of apartheid. Aurora had the best possible answer to official absurdity − defiance, which led others to laugh at and mock it. This defiance was part of a long tradition in South African history whose most famous eruptions occurred in the early 1950s and at the time of Sharpeville. In 1989, of course, the people took over the streets, beaches and hospitals of South Africa to complete a chain of direct action of which Aurora was an earlier link. Peaceful protest by civil society and ordinary people would ultimately be the downfall of apartheid.

What happened in October 1973 exposed the hypocritical, self-serving and compliant nature of most of white South African society. It was comfortable with its unquestioning attitude to the hard-faced men who knew what was best for South Africa. Their deference to Pretoria’s apartheidsbeleid (separation policy) was so complete that they made sweeping assumptions about the impermissible and ceased to exercise the judgement expected of mature citizens. Aurora showed what could be done even without breaking the law, although they were prepared to do this too in pursuit of fundamental human rights.

The right-wing, verkrampte element of the National Party was absolutely correct to fear that mixed sport would be the thin end of the wedge for apartheid. What they worried about, above all, was the fact that performance in sport was a quick way to the sort of publicity and acclaim that would make nonsense of racial division and indeed the very idea of race. Sport was a high-profile route to heroism and public adulation, something Pretoria could not afford to concede to black people. This in turn demolished the vacuous notion that sport was a neutral activity that could somehow be divorced from the political, social and economic context in which it takes place. Sport is a politically meaningful activity as Aurora, Piet Koornhof and a contingent of the South African Police together proved so memorably and conclusively on a Saturday in October 1973.

Apart from the immediate significance of its act of defiance, Aurora showed that the importance of sport lies not in the highly publicised activities of over-exposed professionals, but in the actions of ordinary people. An act of sporting courtesy in a Saturday afternoon match on an obscure suburban recreation ground has greater social meaning than an endlessly repeated and over-analysed televised moment in an international match. Sport is one of many factors in the humdrum lives of people that at crucial moments in time, as Aurora proved, may assume lasting historical importance. What we tend to see on television is entertainment with as much long-term meaning as a cabaret.

The events of forty years ago carry enduring lessons. We live in what are apparently very different times, in a democracy as opposed to an authoritarian police state. Yet we are confronted by problems as massive and intractable such as HIV/Aids, corruption, poverty and renewed official racism. The story of Aurora shows the importance of criticising and confronting government stupidity and challenging the mindless orthodoxies and political correctness of the age. When the time is right, direct action needs to be taken and here the courage and commitment of individuals are essential. Comfort zones and complacency need to be shaken and two of the obvious topics are those that concerned Aurora: race and sport. And above all we must realise that the future of society lies in the hands of ordinary citizens.

This article was first published in The Witness on 23 October 2003 and entitled ‘Against all odds’.

Further reading: Christopher Merrett, ‘Bowl brilliantly, bat badly – and don’t stay for tea’ in Sport and Liberation in South Africa: Reflections and Suggestions edited by Cornelius Thomas (Alice: National Heritage and Cultural Studies Centre, University of Fort Hare, 2006): 49–65.