Forty years ago, a South African rugby tour in the United States became a crucial turning point for the nation’s burgeoning protests against apartheid and a test of American foreign policy.
In Flashpoint: How a Little-Known Sporting Event Fueled America's Anti-Apartheid Movement, Derek Charles Catsam tells the fascinating story of the Springbok’s 1981 US tour and its impact on the country’s anti-apartheid struggle. The US lagged well behind the rest of the Western world when it came to addressing the vexing question of South Africa’s racial policies, but the rugby tour changed all that. Those who had been a part of the country’s tiny anti-apartheid struggle for decades used the visit from one of white South Africa’s most cherished institutions to mobilize against both apartheid sport and the South African regime more broadly. Protestors met the South African team at airports, chanted outside their hotels, and courted arrests at matches, which ranged from the bizarre to the laughable, with organizers going to incredible lengths to keep their locations secret.
In telling the story of how a sport little appreciated in the United States nonetheless became ground zero for the nation’s growing anti-apartheid movement, Flashpoint serves as a poignant reminder that sports and politics have always been closely intertwined.
Derek Charles Catsam is professor of history and the Kathlyn Cosper Dunagan Professor in the Humanities at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin where he teaches courses on race, politics, and sports in the US and South Africa. He is the author of Freedom’s Main Line: The Journey of Reconciliation and the Freedom Rides and has published extensively on the history of race and politics in the US and South Africa. Catsam is a senior research associate at Rhodes University and serves as reviews editor of Safundi: The Journal of South African and American Studies. Most recently, he appeared in the award-winning PBS American Experience film Freedom Riders.
Preface: Rise up Zwide!
Chapter 1: The Accidental Tourists: Planning for the United States Tour
Chapter 2: Starting to Play and Preparing For Battle: The Irish in South Africa, Planning to Resist in America
Chapter 3: Apart Hate: Planning to Resist the Springboks
Chapter 4: The 1981 Springbok Tour to New Zealand: A Country Divided
Chapter 5: Cloaks, Daggers, and Rugby: The Springboks in the Midwest
Chapter 6: Albany I: Facing Off in the Courts and Against the Colonials
Chapter 7: Albany II: The Test Match
Conclusion: The Long Tail of Post-1981 South African Rugby
About the Author
History professor Catsam provides illuminating historical context for recent intersections of sports and political activism in this well-crafted study of the 1981 U.S. tour of South Africa’s national rugby team. The Springboks, who, Catsam writes, “embodied their home country’s white supremacist apartheid policies,” arrived in the U.S. during Ronald Reagan’s first year as president. His administration had adopted a policy of constructive engagement with the apartheid regime, a shift from the approach of Reagan’s predecessor, Jimmy Carter. In fact, the invitation from the United States of America Rugby Football Union to the Springboks was sent on the very day of Reagan’s inauguration. But the prior leg of the team’s tour, in New Zealand, was marked by major protests, and concerns about a repetition in the U.S. led to cancelling matches scheduled for Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York City, whose match was shifted to Albany, despite efforts to cancel it on public safety grounds that made it all the way to the Supreme Court. Through extensive research and interviews—including with members of the team—Catsam assiduously captures how the uproar around the team’s tour primed “the pump of an American anti-Apartheid movement,” ultimately playing a part in the evolution of American policy. This account of an obscure yet impactful moment in history will fascinate sports fans.
Catsam's ardent account of the South African national rugby team’s controversial 1981 tour of New Zealand and the U.S. examines the politicization of sport during the apartheid era. Rugby, like every other part of society in twentieth-century South Africa, was racially segregated. By the late 1970s, anti-apartheid pressure meant that the Springboks national team was effectively banned from international competition. But, with the election of Ronald Reagan, who was politically sympathetic to South African regime, advocates for the Springboks saw an opening and charged into it. Meanwhile, a few rugby organizers belatedly tiptoed toward racial integration, and center Errol Tobias became the first person of color to play a test match as a Springbok. The 1981 international tour would be disrupted by protests, civil disobedience, a court case, and a pipe bomb. But it would also lay the foundation for later international engagement, including South Africa hosting the 2010 World Cup. Informed by conversations with key figures and access to records from the South African Rugby Board, Catsam emphasizes the bureaucratic and social challenges of “rugby diplomacy.” His descriptions of the matches themselves reveal a fan’s love for the sport.
Lifts the lid on American collaboration with sports apartheid in a valuable collage of rugby, Springboks, and racism.
It took four decades for a behind-the-scenes look from an American perspective on the controversial and bloody South African rugby tour of 1981 to New Zealand and the United States. Derek Catsam made it worth the wait.
As a player who was part of the 1981 Springbok rugby team that toured New Zealand and the USA, we as sportsmen wanted to contribute to the game—but in Flashpoint, Derek Catsam provides a complete perspective, including the political views that played out in the background. The role of the anti-apartheid movement in America as well as the foreign policy of the time is excellently reproduced.
Flashpoint is a pioneering and ground-breaking publication that fundamentally contributes to deepening our understanding of an important period in international sports history. [It] not only offers an enriching account of an important event but also lays the foundations and provides a proper framework for the study of USA-South African sporting relations during apartheid.
Derek Catsam’s Flashpoint is an imaginative and illuminating study of the interplay among race, sports, and politics. Written with passion and verve, this fascinating book relates the saga of the Springboks, an all-white South African rugby team that undertook an ill-fated but highly consequential tour of the United States and New Zealand in 1981. Catsam’s artful and enlightening exploration of a pivotal moment in the evolution of the American anti-apartheid movement takes us inside the “scrum” of history, revealing the roots and complexity of an important struggle for human rights and racial equality.
11/8/21, Rugby Reloaded Podcast: Tony Collins interviewed Derek Catsam about the book.
5/20/21, The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education: Book is included in a list of recent books of interest to African American scholars. Link: https://www.jbhe.com/2021/09/recent-books-of-interest-to-african-american-scholars-292/