Matt Williams: We did not achieve our mission in boycotting apartheid South Africa

Lions squad waiting in a biosecure bubble to play hosts raises some serious questions

As a small boy in 1971 my father brought me to the Sydney Cricket Ground to watch the Springboks play the Wallabies. My Dad told me that "we will probably never see the Springboks play again."

Images from that day were burnt into my young mind. Smoke bombs being tossed onto the field. Baton-wielding police crash tackling pitch invaders. The deafening noise of hundreds of whistles being blown by the banner waving anti-apartheid crowd.

At the heart of the protests were several members of the 1969 Wallaby touring party to South Africa. These men had been so appalled by the injustices inflicted on the black community under the apartheid regime that on returning to Australia they switched from players to protesters.

That match in 1971 was the last between Australia and the Springboks for 21 years. Through the 1980s, while Ireland, the Lions and New Zealand shamefully played against the apartheid regime, generations of Australians refused to play the Springboks.


While I was not a great player, in the 1980s I did get an offer to travel to East London and play club rugby. I can't describe to you how much I wanted to go and experience South Africa. Apartheid was my reason for not going and while I do not agree with those who went to play in South Africa, I fully understand why they did. The allure of Africa is deeply powerful.

Many years later I found myself standing in the warm Sydney winter sunshine and listening to Nelson Mandela speak on the steps of the Opera House. What we thought was impossible in South Africa had become a reality.


In 1993 Mandela was running for president and I finally stepped onto African soil. I was an assistant coach with The Emerging Wallabies. We toured as amateurs through Zimbabwe, Namibia, and across all of South Africa. The tour schedule was a relic from the 1950s with matches in different cities every Wednesday and Saturday. The last great tour of its kind and the South African rugby experience of a lifetime.

It was on this tour that I first entered into a township. Millions of poverty-stricken people living under plastic sheeting and corrugated iron, tied together with bits of wire. There was no running water and the open sewers flowed down the streets. The size and scale of the townships remain incomprehensible. Even though we were asked to conduct a coaching session for children who played rugby in the township, we still required arm guards. On entering and leaving our cars would not stop at any intersection for fear of attack. The violence around us was tangible.

We blamed the apartheid system and believed that when Mandela became president things would change.

With the explosion of professionalism and the creation of Super Rugby I happily returned to South Africa many times. On each trip, several of us returned to coach in different townships.

Each was the same. Millions of people living in the same deplorable conditions. After my time in Super Rugby I continued to visit South Africa and sadly saw that things were not getting better. In fact, life for the poor in South Africa seemed to be getting worse. There was mounting gun violence on the streets. The country’s infrastructure was beginning to crumble. The failing electricity system led to constant blackouts.

Since Mandela took office, the African National Congress Party has ruled South Africa for almost three decades. This week, former ANC president Jacob Zuma was sentenced to 15 months jail for for failing to appear at a corruption inquiry. To his great credit, the current ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa, is attempting to change this culture. Despite his personal efforts, factions inside his own ANC Party, that remain loyal to Zuma, are actively resisting reform. It remains unclear who will win this internal battle for the soul of the ANC.

Fertile ground

A few months ago Ramaphosa told The Judicial Commission of Inquiry into Allegations of State Capture, Corruption and Fraud in the Public Sector that, “state capture took place under our (the ANC) watch as the governing body. It involved members and leaders of our organisation and it found fertile ground in the divisions, weaknesses and tendencies that have developed in our (the ANC) organisation.”

Here we should remember that the shambolic situation that the Lions find themselves in is not completely of their own doing. This Lions tour is caught in the shadow of ANC politics. The ANC has control of all high profile sporting teams in South Africa, including the Springboks. Their interference goes as deep as team selections. I have that confirmed from multiple past Springbok coaches and players.

Last year the Lions tour was offered a “safe house” in Australia. With Test matches against South Africa and warm-up games in front of full stadiums in a very low risk Covid environment.

The generous offer from Rugby Australia was without doubt the best financial option. When this was rejected, we all witnessed the proposal for matches to be staged inside the UK and Ireland with partially filled stadiums.

Then confounding all predictions the tour was confirmed to proceed to South Africa in the midst of the pandemic’s cyclone. The finger prints of the ANC government were all over this decision. Any suggestion to relocate or cancel the Lions tour would be admitting to the world that the ANC government is not managing their own country at a reasonable level of competency.

An example of their fundamental mismanagement was in March this year when the South African government sold one million AstraZeneca vaccines, wrongly believing that the vaccine was not effective against certain Covid variants. As the pandemic rages around the Lions in Johannesburg, just two per cent of South Africans are vaccinated.

That is the reason why the Lions are sitting in a high veld biosecurity bubble waiting to play an opposition who have had positive Covid tests in their squad. I am not sure the Lions are resting easy after hearing the Castle Lager Lions Series Medical Advisory Group have cleared the Springboks to play. With a title seemingly plucked from a Soviet Ten Year Plan, I can only speculate at what pressure was placed on that committee to clear the Boks to play.

More than 30 years after Mandela was released from Robben Island, the townships still exist. More than 20,000 South Africans are murdered each year by gun violence and president Ramaphosa has confirmed that rampant corruption is on a scale so vast that he describes it as “State capture.”

My generation chose not to play rugby in South Africa because we believed we were fighting against a system that was gravely unjust to the South African people. I have sadly come to the conclusion that we did not achieve our mission. We merely changed the oppressors.