'Yagga' Rowe Tackles Apartheid (Pt. 3)
Mon, Jun 7, '04
In this installment of our interview with Lawrence 'Yagga' Rowe, the former West Indies batting stylist addresses the controversial decision to lead a 'rebel' side to South Africa.
Why did he agree to tour South Africa during apartheid? Was it the money? Did Prime Minister Michael Manley try to stop him from going? How did it affect his relationship with his close friends? Did he experience racism first hand? Rowe provides all the answers...
Not totally. In the beginning stages of the South Africa situation, I was not sure if I was going to go because of my family at home as it was such a touchy subject. I was married at the time, I had my family here, I had children going to school here, my parents were living here, my mother had come back home.
The person who approached me came to Jamaica and visited with me about playing. It was Gregory Armstrong the Barbadian. He spoke to me about the Jamaicans of interest who were Everton Mattis, Richard Austin and I. I contacted them and set up the meeting with them, and I remember after the meeting with Gregory, Everton Mattis said to me "Skip if you're not going, I'm not going". (I was the Jamaica captain at the time). I said to him "No, this is a choice you have to make for yourself. It is not something I can advise you on. You have to look at your situation and make a decision if you want to go".
How did Gregory Armstrong sell it to you? What was the reason he gave as to the purpose of the tour, because of course, it would have been a touchy situation.
Prior to the tour coming up, I always wanted to go to South Africa.
Even with Apartheid?
Even with Apartheid going on I wanted to see what South Africa was like with Apartheid, that was just me. I wanted to go. Ironically when we played in Barbados in 1981 I think it was, in the Shell Shield which we lost, we actually joked about going to South Africa - Johannesburg and Durban and those places - in the Barbados dressing room after the game. There was nothing in the air at that time about South Africa. We were just joking at the time and to see that one year later we were faced with the situation of going to South Africa.
So, when I was called by Gregory Armstrong, he told me that they were approached about getting a West Indies team there. A match was set up in one of the Virgin Islands for all the people who were more or less to be selected, to attend a cricket match there that was put on and then the South Africa situation would be discussed in full there. I could not have made it because I was the Jamaica captain and we were in trials at the time so I didn't go. My instructions were to be briefed about what happened after the meeting. I was briefed about what happened, and who were going, when Gregory Armstrong came to Jamaica to see me and I told him I don't think I was interested in going because of quite a few implications.
I was in business with Mikey Holding and Basil Williams at the time, my family structure, the whole situation of what is going to happen after the South Africa situation. So with all of that, I said no. And then I was called by Dr Ali Bacher at my house. I was living in Forest Hills at the time. He said to me that I am the person who they wanted to captain the team - one. Two - if I was not coming, the package wouldn't be worth their while because we didn't have enough star players in it, so if I wasn't coming it would be more or less a no-go and he wanted a decision from me within the next two days and I said I would think about it and get back to him. Now I was not only made to be aware that I was a player but I was made aware that I was going to be captain. So it was now more pressure.
It is reported that Michael Manley asked you not to go. Is that true?
No, he didn't. I know that he didn't want me to go but he didn't ask me not to go. He had wanted to see me before I went and I did not see him.
He wanted to see you before you made the decision?
Before I actually went. He heard that I was on the list to go to South Africa; it was now published with who and who were going. I was at a particular person's house the night when I made my decision to go, I don't want to call his name. I told him and he actually gave me a message and said Michael Manley wanted to see me. I knew what he was going to tell me. I did not want to change my mind at that time, so I didn't go to see the Prime Minister.
Why didn't you want to change your mind at that time?
I'm a person like this. When I vet things totally and I decide my mind that I'm going to do it, then I'm going to do it.
What was the vetting process like? Did you talk with your wife?
I spoke to my wife and I spoke to my mother.
Did they give you any advice not to go?
They didn't give me any advice not to go. I just spoke with them in terms of what the implications might be.
Because it was stated that you would have been banned?
Yes, I would have been banned, but also probably physical harm, because it was such a violent subject at the time. Remember my family was going to be here, I had kids going to school. You never know what people would do so it was a tough decision from all these points of view.
While you were making your decision, were you aware of the atrocities that were being committed against non-white South Africans, under Apartheid?
Yes. This was my thought process at the time. By going I didn't believe we could have made it any worse for the [non-white] South Africans. The second thing was by going, there was just a possibility that we might have a little opening and especially if I went and we won, it would have been a victory for the black people. Number three, money was involved.
Was the money that attractive?
The money was attractive at the time, it was an attractive package.
Put it into context for me in terms of what West Indies players were being paid if anything. How did it compare?
You couldn't compare it.
Like a hundred times more than what you were getting paid? Fifty times more?
Yes, it was like sixty times more than what you were getting paid. And most of the guys were pissed off with the West Indies Board.
Why were the guys pissed off?
A lot of guys were pissed off with the way they were treated. Some guys were treated badly by the West Indies Board.
Treated badly how?
Not selected when they should have been clearly selected.
Well, who determines that you should be selected?
Well, your performance determines that. Your performance and your behaviour determine that. You see people with less performance than you getting in, if they didn't like you, if you were a person who spoke your mind they would get rid of you, so things like that, and forget you. You were the forgotten one.
Case in point Sylvester Clarke. He was the man who was in front of Malcolm Marshall as a bowler for the West Indies. On their first tour to India, when we went to Packer in I think 1979/80, they went on the tour to India. Sylvester Clarke I think got 24 wickets in the Test series, I think Malcolm got about five, but in the next series he got selected over Sylvester. So you had people who were disillusioned by West Indies Board.
Were you one of the disillusioned?
Yes too, because I thought I should have been selected after I made 116 here against England in 1980/81, I thought I should have gone to Australia with the West Indies team and they dropped me. They threw me through the window and I don't think I would have played for the West Indies again, to be honest with you. I didn't think so. They had thrown Kallicharran through the door too. At age 31, they dropped both of us. We were still young enough and they threw us out of West Indies cricket.
So here is an offer monetary wise, 60 times more, you have your family and for some people, like Everton Mattis these people didn't own a car, had four or five children, didn't have a house, didn't have anything the people of influence would have passed them on the road. If they were leaving a Jamaica match you had to go get the bus with your bag. How do you tell a man in a position like that not to accept US$100,000 at the time to go play five months of cricket over the two tours?
But your situation wasn't that desperate?
No, that's why I named this particular person to you. In terms of finance I wasn't that bad off here.
So the question that people will ask is why blacklist yourself, you're not financially bad off, why risk the whole political backlash being banned etc. to go. Was it because you never thought you would never play for West Indies again? Was that the main thing?
That wasn't the main thing but that was a part of it, but my beliefs that I told you about earlier on. I didn't think we would have hurt black people in any way by going on the tour. I didn't think so. If I thought for a moment that it would put on more pain on the black people of South Africa I would not have gone. I didn't think it would. I thought that it might just help somewhat if we went there and we won, it could be a motivational factor for black people.
And the other part of it was that the whole thing would be thrown back on me now wherein if my decision was not to go, people like Mattis would be denied. My decision was a decision that was made from a lot of different standpoints at the time.
Ok, you got to South Africa. What was the welcome like?
I must give you first the run down when we were going everybody said we left like a thief in the night. It didn't work like that. We actually got out separately. People thought that I had left out of Montego Bay. I left right out of Manley airport and no press was there when I left. I went on to Miami and then New York and picked up a flight from New York to South Africa.
On the flight from New York to South Africa, everybody is on the flight now we are going, we are laughing, people have having drinks and we are talking. The last five minutes of that flight, I can remember it vividly. There was total silence. I think everybody was more or less thinking the same thing now. We are now getting ready to land in South Africa. Whoever was thinking about a career for the West Indies again, it is now gone, regardless of how you were thinking. It hit everybody now that hey, this is it. This is the moment of truth now. We are here, we're coming down, what are we to expect when we get down there? What would the black people be feeling when we walk off the plane and we might see a black person here or there. What would be going through a black person in South Africa when we get down? This was the thinking of most of the guys.
When we got off the plane and we started walking towards immigration and customs, we saw some black people working around the airport. They were looking, curious you know. Then we were met by the South African officials. I hear everybody tell me that we had to sign things to get 'Honorary White' status to enter. If I got 'Honorary White' status, I was not aware of it. They didn't stamp my passport. They protected our passports because of what was happening in South Africa. We were told that they were going to try and protect our passports by not stamping our passports because we might have problems after the tour is finished and we might go to other countries.
People might want to create a problem for you, so for these reasons our passports were protected from South African stamp. But we had an immigration form that was filled out and that form was stamped, just like anywhere else.
So this 'Honorary White' thing, you didn't know about it?
I didn't know about it. I didn't sign anything, I didn't write up any form which states that I was an 'Honorary White'. If you land in South Africa as a black man, and you were automatically an 'Honorary White' then I was probably was from that point of view. But there is nothing that I knew about.
So we landed and I didn't know there would have been so much press there. But when I got off the plane there was, I mean a million press people and Jo Piminsky he was the president of the South African Cricket Union and he came across and said to me you have to address the world press. Right away, I jumped in front of a mike and I remembered saying something like "we are professionals and we are here to do a job". I didn't want to get in any political thing, then a few questions were thrown and I answered them, but I stayed away from the political side of things.
What was life like for that first year? Where did you live and so on?
We were there for six weeks. We lived in hotels. We stayed in top class hotels. We were treated very well.
The people who looked after you were blacks?
Mainly blacks. Most of the hotels we went to were manned by blacks. I was actually very surprised.
What was their reaction to the team?
They were a little withdrawn. I remember one particular morning I was talking to Dr Bacher in the lobby of the hotel and we were talking one-on-one and a few black people in the hotel were looking on in amazement, you know for a black person to be interacting with somebody like this in this way.
I was trying to ask some questions here and there as to, we didn't know that black people held such jobs like front desk and things like that in South Africa. We were made to believe that black people wouldn't even be inside the same hotel with white people before we left. That's the impression we got. When we got there, they were manning the front desk they were porters, everything. What we found out later on was that they got lesser salaries to do the job, so they were discriminated against in terms of their salary. They were never paid the same amount of money to do the same job as whites and as we go by, probably you in South Africa at the time would have had more privilege than I would have had because you are little bit lighter than I am, and the Indians would have had more privileges than you have.
So if you talk to the Indian person about South Africa, he would have a different concept of South Africa, you would have a different concept and I would have had a different concept of South Africa. These are things we didn't know until I got there and you start to ask a few questions and you start to find out a little bit more.
Conditions were made on the tour where we questioned the South African Cricket Union before I went there; would black people be allowed to be at the ground where we played? Yes. Where would they not be allowed to go? Members pavilion, they would be allowed to go anywhere on the ground apart from the members pavilion. I was satisfied with that because that's what happened in the world everywhere. We had got to the stage where if the black people were not allowed anywhere we were playing, we would have had a problem with that.
And they stuck to that?
Oh, yes, they stuck to that and everywhere we played, black people came. They were allowed to be around the ground. I still have a picture when I was signing some autographs in an airport and it was all black people there.
What would you say were the positive effects of the tour on Black South Africans?
I tend to believe that by going...I want to say something before we even get to that. We were not under the umbrella of the West Indies Cricket Board when we went there. We were a bunch of guys, West Indian players who were together. We were self managed but we knew we had one common goal and the money didn't make a difference now, it was like we were playing for nothing, it's like we weren't paid. Everybody put the money aside and we decided in our minds that we had to win at all costs, we had to win. For this tour to be a success for us, we had to win. We worked our butts off to beat them. The discipline that we put into our preparation for the two tours was unreal.
More than you did for the West Indies?
I wouldn't say more, but when you are there and you have no board to control you, you have no board management to control you, we are individuals now playing as a West Indies team you would tend to think that people would believe, and you're being paid fairly well, that people can go off and do what they want to do and it doesn't matter what kind of cricket you play, you understand. But we didn't do that. We got together as a unit and knit together, we installed curfew on ourselves and people adhered to it and we worked well to win. So there was a common purpose for I think all the guys who went there, that we had to win.
You had started to answer the question about the positive effects of the tour on Black South Africans.
Yes. I tend to believe that by winning and the kind of phone calls I got there when we were playing a best of five One Day international series and we had won the first three and we lost the fourth one and the amount of calls I get from people, black people calling me saying "what happen, you guys lost". So I said "well we won the series and probably we got a little." and they said "no, no, no you have to beat them every time for us."
o they were probably using you as an outlet?
That's what I'm saying. I don't know, I mean most things in history, as I always say, the politicians always feel like that they are right. I was always one who believed that you can never correct anything unless you actually go into it. I believe the worst thing that happened to us is that influential black people didn't get an opportunity to go to South Africa earlier. Influential blacks. I believe the barriers of Apartheid probably would have broken down earlier if that had been done. But I believe the South Africans, the racist South Africans conned the rest of the world in not getting these people in.
I'm just giving you a little politics now, because there is nobody of influence, any sports personality of influence who could have gone to South Africa in those days and get away with it. You were banned or you were blacklisted. They wanted Frank Worrell to lead a team here, they didn't want us to come to South Africa, they would have played us in the West Indies but they didn't want us to come to South Africa and one can read through that. My reading through it is that it would have been detrimental if we had gone there and beaten them at that time. Here is a bunch of black guys playing white South Africa in South Africa because one of the things we found out when we got there is that Black South Africans never played cricket, they played soccer. They had it as the white man's sport.
A comment was made when we beat them in South Africa. "Why did you pick such a powerful team to come here to South Africa and beat us?" They wanted to beat us to demonstrate to the rest of the world that they were superior. The other comment that came out of it was that they had to go into Soweto and find a Sylvester Clarke. You have this big burly black fast bowler destroying South Africa. We destroyed them, so they now were going into the black township to go find a black man who can bowl as fast, I mean today...
His name is Ntini!
He's probably one of the best fast bowlers in the world right now. I'm prepared to say that most things in history were a negative before it became a positive.
Do you think the tour had any negative effects on Black South Africans?
I couldn't see how it could. I don't know of it, but I couldn't see how it could because what was happening to black people in South Africa was happening there before we went there and whether or not we had gone there, it would still have been going on. By us going there, it's a possibility in my opinion that it probably could have motivated them in another light, wherein they see now that black people can do as good, or better, than the whites.
Or on the opposite side, do you think they could have been saying but "look at our 'brothers' they know what these white people are doing to us, but yet still they come here and take their money"?
That could be a part of it too, and I have no doubt that probably a section of them was probably saying that. But it wasn't shown to me and I have no doubt that you would probably have had Black South Africans, especially Black South Africans in top positions, they would have felt miserable that we were there. They would have felt that we were pirates, and taking the White South Africans money to come there under the circumstances that the Black South Africans were faced with.
Have you ever spoken to anybody who was under the Apartheid regime there, a black person, and seen how they felt?
No, never got to do that.
Is that something that you might be interested in doing?
Oh yes, most definitely, I would have been open to that. What happen is we drove the South African streets, I drove by myself. I had gone into stores by myself, chatted with blacks in the street, chatted with whites in the street and didn't have a problem. Nobody stated anything and I didn't go in there trying to make people believe that I was Lawrence Rowe, a member of the West Indies cricket team. I was just a normal person. My wife and myself...
Oh, she went with you?
Yes, she went with me the second tour, my daughter was with me at the time too. We went shopping we walked around South Africa we went places. We saw one of our players, Colin Croft, run into a serious part of Apartheid on a train. But we were looking for things like those. We wanted to feel Apartheid. It's not that we were running away from it or believed that Apartheid didn't exist in South Africa, by no means. He was ordered to the back of the train because he was sitting in the front of the train.
So he didn't say "No, I'm Colin Croft"?
No, not at all. We wanted to see Apartheid. There were a lot of the rules, the apartheid laws that were on the books which were very relaxed by the time we got to South Africa. I went with Kallicharran into the townships and we saw some very wealthy Indians and these people had a totally different concept of South Africa when you spoke with them.
Your figures on both tours were modest, apart from a century in the 1st 'Test' in December 1983. Was the pressure of captaincy, of knowing what uproar was being created at home; was it all weighing heavily on your batting?
Oh most definitely. And I remember making a pair in a match, round about the time that Michael Holding and I had a disagreement about him coming to South Africa. That's water under the bridge now.* Look out for the fourth and final installment of this interview, where Rowe discusses the effects of the life ban on the 'rebel' cricketers.
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