Anti-apartheid struggles: political football

For the sun, that rises in the sky
For the rhythm of the falling rain
For all life, great or small
For all that’s true,

For all you do
– Gospel song Kumbaya sung at Tower Mill anti-apartheid protests 1971

Not only was the football political, but it was also elitist. Rugby, the apartheid Springboks chosen code of football, is played in Australia by middle class people from privileged backgrounds.

While not riveting listening or viewing, the Brisbane Writers Festival videos of The Radical Legacy of the Anti-Apartheid Protests in Brisbane are worth a look. It was interesting to hear the current University of Queensland Vice-Chancellor, Deborah Terry, acknowledge the importance of the events opposing apartheid that took place in 1971.

However I found it difficult to listen to her excuses for then Vice Chancellor Zelman Cowen. The University administration, in collaboration with police, did everything it could to suppress the strike against apartheid by staff and students. I don’t know about Deborah Terry, but I participated in that strike.

I also participated in the SEQEB dispute after the Queensland government had sacked over 1000 power workers. In 1985, it was the senate of that University that conferred a doctorate of laws on the now disgraced premier of the racist Queensland government, Joh Bjelke-Peterson.

Anne Richards points out that the protests were non-violent. When I visited the protests at the Tower Mill, people actually sang gospel hymns like Kumbya. It is thanks to Anne Richards that this commemorative event even took place.

The Brisbane Writers Festival commentator erred by suggesting that the protests at the Tower Mill were a riot; and Deborah Terry falsely conflated the detention of a Mr Quang from the South Vietnamese ambassadors office with the anti-apartheid protests.

If there was a riot at the Springbok protests, it was a police riot.

As nearly always, the violence was on the police side. In the second panel, former police Commissioner Bob Atkinson did not deal properly with the many examples given by Samuel Woripa Watson of the current use of police violence in its role as a political weapon of government. Particularly recent events outside the Kangaroo Point Hotel which was used as a detention centre for refugees. Both the chair and the police Commissioner tried to deflect criticism of the authorities. While it was true that 1971 was a very different time and place in Brisbane, there are very real parallels to suggest that the support given by state and federal governments to Israel is a direct parallel to the Queensland government’s endorsement of apartheid in South Africa.

Samuel Woripa Watson speaking at the 50th Anniversary of the anti-apartheid protests in Meanjin (Brisbane). This commemoration was organised by the Brisbane Writers Festival.

Former university lecturer, Dan O’Neill, correctly points out that the Springbok protests were painted as a liberal issue. To do so was incorrect. Queensland’s own apartheid system under the racist Acts widely exploited cheap aboriginal labour in the pastoral industry, on the railroads, and in the fishing industry. It was industrial action by unions, staff at the University, and students that challenged the Queensland government’s state of emergency declaration. Part of the confrontation with police occurred on the footsteps of Trades Hall just down the road from the Tower Mill Motel. Many of the radicals chose industrial strike action, not liberal appeals to just masters. However the failure of the strike was that it did not spread to other campuses or to other places of work. In Sydney the Springboks game was stopped when members of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF) pulled down the goalposts. As I recall there was a brief strike called by the Trades & Labor Council in Brisbane. So if it wasn’t a liberal issue, why weren’t there any union representatives on the panels?

It is a shame that a union activist did not appear on either panel organised by the Brisbane Writers Festival.

Legacy of Springbok protests
As far as the history goes, it comes as no surprise that the participants (in the this case, the radicals) have a far better grasp of what actually happened and why. Also, websites like Radical Times Archives, compiled by Peter Gray without any budget to speak of, manage to put together a more accurate account of the anti-apartheid struggle in 1971 than the combined resources of the University of Queensland and the Brisbane Writers Festival. With dogged persistence the participants (like Gray, Richards, O’Neill, Foley, Evans and others) have managed to provide a legacy for the anti-apartheid struggle of today. You need look no further than Justice for Palestine (Meanjin) to see how the ongoing struggle waged against the apartheid state of Israel has evolved into calls for Boycotts, Divestments and Sanctions against Israel (BDS) like those employed during South African Apartheid. So too the cultural boycott against Sun City in South Africa is reflected in the boycott of the Eurovision song contest held in Tel Aviv to white-wash the terrible crimes against humanity perpetrated by the apartheid state of Israel.

That is the true legacy of the struggle against racism in South Africa and Australia. It was left to the grandson of another participant, Sam Watson, to point this out during the second panel discussion.

Ian Curr
14 Aug 2021

Panel 1

Panel 2


Radical Times
Resources 4: 1971 Anti-Apartheid (Springbok) Protests, Queensland, Australia

Contents: 10 film streams and 5 audio streams

Click to see a list of films streaming in this section…

3 thoughts on “Anti-apartheid struggles: political football

  1. says:

    Hello ian,

    I agree with your assessment of the 50 year anniversary of the Springbok tour.

    I was not impressed with the organisers making sure it was a nice moderate discussion. I had organised for Sekai Holland to appear at the session via video link from Zimbabwe. But it appears the Brisbane organisers were not interested. She was (an) incredibly active organiser against the Springbok tour and would have provided an interesting perspective.


  2. Anne Richards, author says:

    Anne Richards is author of ‘A Book of Doors‘. Her comments are as follows:

    “This would have been a great live event. While Zoom doesn’t capture the energy and body language of the speakers, it is a wonderful way to spread this discussion to a much wider audience.

    Tony Abrahams was the ex Wallaby who toured Australia speaking against apartheid – he gave a wise account of his own journey.
    Valerie Cooms, Oodgeroo’s niece and cousin of Denis, gave a fabulous contextualised welcome to country, followed by an informed, heartfelt story of the fight and plight of First Nation people under the Qld Act.
    Dan gave a fabulous overview of the Anti-Apartheid movement at UQ.

    For the second panel Raymond Evans gave an informative and targeted talk on the legacy, positives and negatives of these protests.
    Sam Woripa Watson, grandson of Sam Watson Jnr who most of us knew/remember, was fiery, smart and fabulous.

    I wish there’d been an additional Indigenous speaker to support his strong stand.

    That’s a conversation we will plan in the future.

    I encourage you to watch these panel sessions and share the link with others. It’s worth the time.”

    Panel 1 –
    Panel 2 –


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