Just as Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson pursued their athletic
dreams and developed superlative skills before altering history, Basil
D’Oliveira, who was classified as colored under South African apartheid, wanted
only to play at the highest levels of his sport, cricket. His struggle to do
that in a country of government-enforced racial segregation became a powerful
symbol in the ultimately successful fight against apartheid.
D’Oliveira had to move far from South Africa before his experience could shine a
light on its system of racial injustice. Unable to perform there in competition
commensurate with his skills, he moved to England, became a British citizen and
joined England’s national cricket team. He rose to international prominence
when, in 1968, South Africa canceled a much-anticipated visit by the English
team because it wanted to include him in the contests, against whites.
Because of its refusal, South Africa, long a cricket power, did not play another
international cricket match until 1994. Nelson Mandela, who led the fight
against apartheid, called the D’Oliveira episode decisive in his movement’s
D’Oliveira, who had Parkinson’s disease, died at 80 on Nov. 19 in England,
according to the governing organization Cricket South Africa. Because he may
have lied about his age, he may have been as many as three or four years older.
Cricket South Africa gave no other details.
D’Oliveira was an accomplished player for England, participating in 44 major
international competitions, or test matches. A powerful, focused batsman, he
scored 19,490 runs in the top English cricket league and 1,859 in test matches.
The numbers are considered impressive, but experts reckon that he could have
doubled them had he immigrated to England sooner.
Paul Yule, who made a 2006 documentary about the D’Oliveira episode, “Not
Cricket,” said in an interview on D’Oliveira’s Web site that his significance
came from his role in “a pivotal point in 20th-century politics,” not from his
sporting skills, though they were indisputable.
“Here was a man who didn’t look particularly dark-skinned,” Yule said, “but the
inequality of the South African system meant you were classified either white or
nonwhite, and since he was classified as nonwhite, he could play no part in the
national sporting life of his country.”
D’Oliveira, who was of Indian-Portuguese heritage was easily classified as
colored. Many other nonwhite cricketers were subjected to what was called the
pencil test to determine which segregated league they would play in. A pencil
was placed in a player’s hair, and if the pencil fell out, the player was called
colored and placed in the colored league. If it stayed put, he was judged black
and placed in the black league.
South Africa was ostracized in global sports beginning in the 1950s with table
tennis. By 1964 antiapartheid organizers had succeeded in getting the country
barred from that year’s Olympics, and in 1970 the International Olympic
Committee expelled the country from the Olympic movement.
The country’s absence from international sports rankled South Africans; by 1977
they ranked it in a poll as one of the three most damaging consequences of
South Africa had been selecting exclusively white cricket teams for test matches
since 1889. As the game blossomed in places like the Caribbean, India and
Pakistan, South Africa found itself playing only all-white teams from England,
Australia and New Zealand. Peter Osborne, in the 2004 book “Basil D’Oliveira,
Cricket and Conspiracy: The Untold Story,” said the cricket authorities
justified this by saying that cricket was a sport for whites, and that if blacks
or coloreds did take it up, they “played at an abysmally low level.”
Basil Lewis D’Oliveira, a tailor’s son, disproved this by excelling on the
cricket fields around Cape Town, where he was most often said to have been born
on Oct. 4, 1931. He went on to become a star performer on nonwhite teams, in one
year captaining a black team on a trip to Kenya.
But he was well into his 30s when he realized he had no hope of taking part in
top competition in South Africa. A vaunted West Indian team was scheduled to
tour the country in matches against a team composed of blacks and coloreds, of
which D’Oliveira was captain, but when antiapartheid forces protested that such
a high-profile sports event might give credibility to the regime, the trip was
Deciding to leave the country, D’Oliveira wrote to John Arlott, a prominent
cricket commentator in England, asking for help. Arlott got him a contract with
a minor league team in the Lancashire League.
At first D’Oliveira was lonely and poverty-stricken. Having lived so long under
apartheid, he found himself searching in vain for playing-field entrances and
facilities for nonwhites. After a slow start, his play picked up, and his wife
and son, who survive him, joined him. He eventually earned a spot on England’s
When he sought to join the squad for the trip to South Africa, however, the
sport’s governing body in England, the Marylebone Cricket Club, turned him down.
Its officials said he had been passed over for athletic reasons, an assertion
British newspapers called outlandish. It later emerged that the president of
South Africa, John Vorster, had threatened to cancel the event if D’Oliveira was
part of the team.
Still, when another player was injured, the cricket club had a change of heart
and named D’Oliveira to replace him. D’Oliveira said the South African
government offered him a sizable bribe and a coaching job in South Africa if he
would withdraw. When he refused, it terminated the competition rather than
Queen Elizabeth made D’Oliveira an officer of the Order of the British Empire in
1969 and promoted him to a commander in 2005. In 2000 he was named one of the 10
South African cricketers of the century, despite not having played for South
Africa. The trophy for the test series between England and South Africa is named
D’Oliveira played in the top division of English cricket into his late 40s. Most
cricketers retire in their early 30s. He just wished that he could have hit the
big stage sooner, say in his 20s, he said in 1980.
“I was some player then,” he said. “I was over the hill when I came to England.”
As dawn broke over Zone 9 of Meadowlands, Soweto, yesterday, the Mwale family
was preparing for power.
First there was water to boil, since the rumour had spread that the rightwing
AWB might poison Meadowlands' main tank. Esther Mwale said "most people with
sense" in Zone 9 were boiling water. Then, there was the huge pot of mealies to
cook. Finally, there were the ID documents to find. No one could say the Mwales
were not ready for democracy.
As they set off at 7am, joining a stream of hundreds on the main road, it seemed
that all of Zone 9 had the same idea — first watch Nelson Mandela cast his vote
in Durban on the television and then get down to the polling station at
Maponyane school quickly to beat the rush.
The clientele of Johannes' shebeen had discussed this the night before. At the
beginning of the evening, Jacob's solution to avoiding Tuesday's chaos was to
get there early. A few beers later, the prospect of waking up at 5am and queuing
for two hours looked unattractive.
Johannes said he was voting ANC "for his children". But nobody else was prepared
to say. The talk was of logistics, not politics. Nevertheless, the sight of a
white woman, who had cast her vote abroad, saying tearfully on television, "I'm
just scared about the future", aroused fierce emotion.
"What are you scared of? That a black man will run the country," shouted
Mzimasi, slightly blowing his cover.
If Mzimasi was right about the woman's fears, the sight at Maponyane school
yesterday morning would have confirmed them. Long queues of black people were
waiting to have a say in their country's future. Many had dressed up for the
occasion as if they were going to church.
People queued for about two hours before they could vote. There was a keen sense
of relief. "It was easy. Just like they have been telling us on the television.
I feel good now it's over," said Esther.
By the time the Mwales had finished voting, the queue was twice as long. On the
way home we saw Jacob, looking the worse for wear and being ribbed by friends at
the bus stop. He had woken up late but was insisting he would make it to the
At the shebeen, Johannes had devised a plan to make sure Jacob kept his promise.
No beer would be served to people without the white, fluorescent strip on their
hand, which proved they had voted. With a smile, he said: "How can there be a
free and fair election if drunk people are going to vote?"
South Africans defied organisational chaos, personal hardship and long queues
to throng polling stations yesterday for the historic all-race election that
crowned their long march towards democracy.
While the authorities were under pressure last night to extend the three-day
poll after serious problems in the first day of voting, the momentum for freedom
looked unstoppable, with a new nation coming into effect at midnight when the
old flag was lowered and the new constitution took effect.
'Today is a day like no other before it … today marks the dawn of our freedom,'
said Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress leader who is expected to
become the country's first black president. Mr Mandela spent 27 of his 75 years
in jail for fighting apartheid.
'Years of imprisonment could not stamp out our determination to be free. Years
of intimidation and violence could not stop us and we will not be stopped now,'
President F. W. de Klerk, whose decision in 1990 to abandon apartheid opened the
way to the new South Africa, said: 'I wanted this election to take place … that
is what I have been working for.'
Around the country, the infirm, elderly and sick defied a rightwing bomb ing
campaign and problems at polling stations in an extraordinary demonstration of
hunger for the franchise.
The poll commission vice-chairman, Dikgang Moseneke, said [it] had hopelessly
underestimated the problems of running free and fair elections, particularly in
Problems with polling resulted largely from delays in the delivery of indelible
ink to mark voters' hands, ballot papers and even polling stations.
A member of the Inkatha central committee, Joe Matthews, said: 'In quite a large
number of polling stations the administration didn't turn up and the stations
were closed. Then we started getting reports that the IFP sticker wasn't there.
It affects other parties too, because if the sticker's not there it's a spoilt
President De Klerk promised action to smooth the next days of voting. 'We dare
not deprive any South African of the right to vote,' he said. The Transkei
leader, Major General Bantu Holomisa, an ANC candidate, joined in appeals for an
extension to the election, reporting that 602 polling stations in the homeland
had no voting equipment.
But the ballot went on. In hospitals, patients clutching their saline drip bags
queued to vote. Nurses were seen holding patients upright.
Friday Mavuso, aged 45, crippled by a police bullet when he was 22, added: 'I
have said all my life we shall overcome, and we have.'
I shall not broadcast on the matches of the South African cricket tour of
England arranged for 1970. The B.B.C. has accepted my decision with
understanding and an undertaking that my standing with them will not be
This action has not been dictated by mass influences. Apartheid is detestable to
me, and I would always oppose it. On the other hand, I am not satisfied that the
cricket tour is the aspect which should have been selected as the major target.
It would have seemed to me more justifiable, and more effective, to mount a
trade embargo or to picket South Africa House. Surely the Nationalist South
African Ambassador is a thousand times more guilty of the inhuman crime of
apartheid than Graeme Pollock who, throughout the English summer of 1969, played
cricket for the International Cavaliers XI with eight or nine West Indians and,
before he went home said: "What great chaps — there couldn't have been a better
bunch to play with."
Jack Plimsoll, the manager of this touring team, was an intimate friend of mine
on the South African tour of England in 1947, before the election of the first —
Malan — Nationalist Government and the introduction of apartheid. Every South
African [player] of my acquaintance has already played with, and against,
non-white cricketers. Only a multi-racial match before the Vorster (Verwoerd)
Government banned such fixtures for ever, provided the expert assessment of
Basil D'Oliveira's ability which enabled me to persuade Middleton to give him a
contract to play in England. Not all South Africans are pro-apartheid
Crucially, though, a successful tour would offer comfort and confirmation to a
completely evil regime. The Cricket Council has failed fairly to represent those
British people — especially cricketers — who genuinely abominate apartheid. The
council might have determined — and been granted — terms which would have
demonstrated its declared disapproval of apartheid. It did not do so. To persist
with the tour seems to me a social, political and cricketing error. It is my
limitation and advantage that I can only broadcast as I feel. Commentary on any
game is pleasure; it can only be satisfactorily broadcast in terms of shared
enjoyment. This series cannot, to my mind, be enjoyable. It seems unfair for me
to broadcast about the tour in a manner uncritical of its major issues, while
retaining the right to be critical of them in this newspaper.
It is my hope to write and talk about cricket in which the minor issue of a game
is not overshadowed by the major issue of principle.