The Rebels of ‘83
Harare – Thirty years after the rebel tour that destroyed their careers, the tale of the West Indies cricketers who neglected a global black cause in return for apartheid dollars is firmly back in the spotlight.
That only one of the cricketers ever played international cricket again after the ill-advised trip to South Africa appears to be the least of the problems for a people who were turned into outcasts by a hostile Caribbean society that refused to forgive them for their sins.
While others, like Colin Croft, fled to the United States where they have been based ever since, some lost the psychological battles that followed and their lives spiraled out of control as they plunged into drug and alcohol abuse.
Apartheid fell 10 years after their tour, and some of the rebels even claim – defiantly – that they played a huge part in the transformation that followed because their presence and the controversy it generated brought South Africa sharply into global focus.
It could be true because the Windies were not just another cricket team.
They were the World Champions, arguably the globe’s greatest sporting team and at the peak of their powers. They represented the dreams of every black man from the Caribbean – and many others from further afield.
Captain Clive Lloyds refused to tour, saying no amount of money would push him to play in a country where blacks were treated as inferior to whites. Star batsman Viv Richards also turned down the offer saying the “blood money” would be a betrayal of his conscience.
With every player set to earn between US$100 000 and US$150 000 from a tour bankrolled by an apartheid regime that wanted to take a dig at the world for isolating it from the globe’s sporting fields, it was too tempting an offer for men not as strong as Lloyds and Richards to resist.
“You heard a lot of whispers around the place that perhaps these guys were going to South Africa,” says veteran broadcaster Tony Cozier, who has covered the West Indies for 50 years, in the CNN documentary, “World Sport Presents: Branded A Rebel.”
The documentary started airing last week.
“But at that time, we couldn't believe that they could assemble a team of West Indies players given the whole background to the anti-apartheid movement,” said Cozier.
There were seven “rebel tours”, which brought in England, Australia and Sri Lanka to South Africa, but none caused as much global outrage as the one undertaken by the Windies in ’83.
For the apartheid rulers, it presented a massive coup: the greatest black sportsmen of their era, world champions in their chosen game, playing in their backyard!
To those who opposed apartheid, this was a reckless and unforgivable act of betrayal to the cause of Independence.
“They were condemned for supporting an abhorrent, racist regime; effectively betraying their own race,” CNN anchor Don Riddell, who put together the documentary, notes.
“Ironically, it was they who were isolated. They were banished from playing international sport and shunned by their peers and communities; many were forced to relocate abroad. Only one ever played for the Windies again.
“The common narrative is that they were mercenaries, traitors and rebels.
“I knew it wouldn't be easy getting them to talk about their experience, just tracking them down was hard enough. For obvious reasons the West Indies Cricket Board, which had banned them, wasn't much use.
“Some of the players like Herbert Chang and Richard Austin, known to have struggled with substance abuse, have effectively fallen off the grid.”
Riddell gives a fascinating tale of his journey, to try and relive the story of the Windies’ rebel tour of ’83, through interviews with the players who made those trips, and how some, expectedly, didn’t want to be taken to that chapter again while some, interestingly, remain defiant to this day.
“Of those we tracked down, it soon became clear very few had any interest in reliving the experience,” Riddell notes.
“It wasn't the tours that they didn't want to revisit, but the judgment and condemnation they had endured since.
“Over a period of several weeks, myself and our producer Samantha Bresnahan had a series of exhaustive exchanges with the team's captain Lawrence Rowe, a talented batsman who was forced to leave Jamaica and settle in Miami.
“We really thought he was close to giving an interview but ultimately he declined.
“I know he desperately wanted to tell his side of the story, a side which has never been heard before, but he was concerned his involvement would only reignite the controversy. He just couldn't take the risk.
“I would say that the players who did speak with us had mixed reasons for giving their interviews.
“Some players flatly declined, others wanted to be paid outrageous sums; CNN's policy is not to pay for interviews.”
Riddell interviews Franklyn Stephenson, who was 23 when that plane took off for Johannesburg on a journey that would change their lives.
The interview takes place in Barbados where Stephenson now runs a golf and cricket academy. Stephenson is widely acknowledged to be the greatest player never to have played for the Windies.
He tells Riddell he believes the tour helped change attitudes in South Africa and that a group of black men could not only play cricket, but that they could beat white players in apartheid’s own stadia.
Stephenson insists they played a part in bringing down the wall of apartheid, and for the white South Africans who had remained isolated in their homeland for years, it was a reality check with some starting to question, not only their consciences, but also their evil system.
The Windies, as fate might have it, were the only rebel side to win in South Africa.
“I knew the tour was more important than being just cricket,” Stephenson tells CNN. “I believe that cricket can make a difference, and I'm going to be a part of that team.
“When we got to South Africa, I realised that separation, and it wasn't only black and white.
“It's the language that you speak, the area that you live in, and it's what you're allowed to do, and where you can go. So the divisions were very real when we got there.”
One West Indian made the tour, stayed the entire month in South Africa, but did not return to face the punishment meted on his fellow islanders.
Al Gilkes was the only journalist from the Caribbean who went to cover that tour and, he too, has his strong views about that.
“For the first time, they were seeing blacks beating whites,” he tells CNN. “Here was a country in which no black man had ever seen a black person in competition with a white person, and beating them. To me, that was where the real victory was.”