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Rebel with a cause Hain recalls his days on the rugby protest frontline.

Byline: CAROLYN HITT

WHEN Peter Hain arrived in Neath - birthplace of the Welsh Rugby Union and home of the Welsh All Blacks - he was better known for disrupting rugby than supporting it.

As he hit the by-election campaign trail eleven years ago, his prospective constituents reminded him of a turbulent November 1969 afternoon in Swansea.

``I had people coming up to me saying `I'm a Labour voter but you spoiled my Saturday','' recalls the newly-installed Welsh Secretary.

The disturbances at that Swansea v South Africa match at the St Helen's ground marked a major flash-point of the Stop the Seventy Tour, the antiapartheid pressure group founded by a 19-year-old Hain when he was a mechanical engineering student at Imperial College, London.

In 1968, the South African government had refused to allow Basil D'Oliveria, a black cricketer, to tour with the English team in South Africa because of his race. The tour was cancelled - yet despite the furore, the MCC declared the 1970 tour of England and Wales by the South African cricket team would still go ahead.

Hain and his fellow anti-apartheid campaigners targeted the 1969 Springboks rugby tour as a dressrehearsal for disrupting the cricket tour. Generating massive publicity, he became known as Hain the Pain for strategies that included pitch invasions, lobbing orange smokebombs and even gluing the locks of the players' hotel rooms. A certain Gordon Brown signed on as the campaign's Edinburgh organiser and direct action protests trailed the South African tourists throughout Britain.

Swansea proved a particularly fractious confrontation.

``St Helen's is the one protest everyone remembers as it got extremely nasty,'' says Hain.

``I've had at least a dozen constituents tell me they carried me off the pitch that day but the truth is I wasn't even there. There were around 25 matches on that tour throughout the country and as I was organising the campaign I couldn't go to all of them.''

The Stop the Seventy Tour protesters emerged victorious. The following year, James Callaghan summoned the MCC to Downing Street and the cricket tour was called off.

It was a triumph for the broader antiapartheid movement but at a time when many people in Britain were ignorant of the full horrors of the South African situation, opinion was divided on dragging rugby into the political arena.

``There was quite a lot of support but the average rugby fan didn't understand why we were doing it,'' Hain explains.

``Sport was considered to be outside politics. It split friends. It split families. Yet since Nelson Mandela was freed, so many rugby supporters have said to me `I hated you in 1969 but now I understand why you did it.''' Growing up in Pretoria, Hain loved rugby but also saw how integral it was to the South African psyche in a way which went far beyond the field of play.

``I played rugby in school. I played lock - but not a very good one. We were raised to be rugby fans. My dad was a big fan and took me to the great matches at Ellis Park and Loftus Versfeld.

``I became aware of the relationship between politics and sport when I was a student. It really started because I have always been a sports nut. Even now as a Cabinet Minister I go straight from the front pages to the back pages, look at the rugby and football and work my way back into the paper.

``So because I'd always been a sports fan and played rugby I knew how psychologically vital that great fanaticism was to the whole white South African mind set and apartheid.''

By the time of his own political awakening, Hain's family had been forced into exile in Britain.

His parents were the first married couple to become banned persons under the apartheid regime for, among other things, taking food to Nelson Mandela in prison.

Mandela heard of the success of the Stop the Seventy Tour through the angry response of the rugby-mad prison wardens on Robin Island. ``Mandela told me later how vital the protest was to the anti-apartheid campaign,'' says Hain.

In 1995, South African rugby once again reflected the political landscape of its country - but this time in the most positive, unifying and uplifting way imaginable.

As the Springboks beat New Zealand to win the Rugby World Cup, images of captain Francois Pienaar receiving the Webb Ellis trophy from a green and gold-clad Mandela sent a powerful message across the world - this was the new South Africa.

Hain, who had offered the players some pre-match tactical tips, found it an emotional occasion.

``It was incredibly moving to see Mandela donning the Springbok jersey. I sent the team a telegram which my father translated into Afrikaans. It said, `Tackle Lomu low!''' It's advice that Wales would do well to heed on Saturday.

``I'm in the president's box for the All Blacks game but of course, it's the Welsh All-Blacks for me,'' says Hain, adding that he would like to see Neath prop Duncan Jones and winger Shane Williams featuring in the Welsh squad. ``Rugby is the centre of Neath's life. When Leicester came down for the Heineken Cup match - a great game that ended in a draw - the whole town was pulsating. It's very important to Neath that the club are doing well. I'm a season ticket holder and try to catch as many games at the Gnoll as I can.''

He also attends as many internationals as his schedule allows and relishes acting as an ambassador for Welsh rugby's HQ on his travels.

``I never miss an opportunity to tell people we've got the best stadium in the world. I was on holiday in Australia and New Zealand in the summer and so many people told me how impressed they were with the Millennium Stadium. It symbolises Cardiff as a modern and dynamic city.''

And while Peter Hain may get carried away if Wales perform well, thankfully these days there's no reason why he'd be carried off.

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PROTEST: Peter Hain leaving the Old Bailey after being found guilty of conspiring to disrupt the 1969 David Cup tennis match between Britain and South Africa
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Publication:Western Mail (Cardiff, Wales)
Geographic Code:6SOUT
Date:Nov 19, 2002
Words:1028
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