For Tom Carroll the Australian concept of the fair go didn’t know and recognise geographic boundaries. By 1984 Carroll had serious misgivings about competing in Pro Surfing competition in South Africa. He first visited there in 1981 and was shocked at what he saw in both in the surfing community and the society in general. He considered the segregation of beaches abhorrent and could not see how it was fair that black people did not have the right to swim with everyone else.
When the father of one South African surfer told Carroll that Australia was lucky because all our Aborigines had been killed he understood that people, who were otherwise friendly and pleasant, had no qualms about openly displaying their murderous hatred of black South Africans. After winning the Gunston500 in Durban that year Carroll says he felt “ashamed” and believed that by competing there he might be contributing to the maintenance of Apartheid in South Africa. (1.)
In 1985, immediately after winning the World Surfing Championship at Bells Beach in Victoria, Carroll announced he would boycott the South African leg of the tour to protest against Apartheid. He said that he would boycott events in South Africa until all black surfers were allowed on all South African beaches.(5) In doing so he risked points the world title in the future, lost his main sponsorship from the South African affiliated Instinct Clothing and was attacked in the press and at competition by fellow surfers.
At the Australian Surfing Hall of Fame in Torquay immediately after Carroll made his announcement, runner up South African Shaun Tomson, spoke against the idea of a boycott. “If you don’t support South Africa, then voice your opinions, but support pro surfing. I don’t stand here tonight in defense of South Africa. I stand here as a surfer in defense of pro surfing.”
The national media picked up the story and Carroll was forced to justify his decision to a hostile public alone. Even more concerning for Carroll was the possibility of being disqualified from pro surfing altogether and the threat of a sponsorship blacklisting by the Association of Surfing Professionals (ASP).
“ASP director Ian Cairns more or less took Tomson’s position and juiced it up with anger and hardcore surf-capitalism cravenness. I interviewed Cairns in 1985, right after the tour returned from South Africa, and he straight-faced told me that the boycott didn’t affect the events.” (5.)
In years to follow the ASP fined surfers who refused to compete in South Africa.Prime Minister Bob Hawke, a veteran of the Anti Apartheid campaign in Australia, offered Carroll a lifeline. He promised Government support for any legal costs if the matter went to court.
Martin Potter, by then resident in Australia, and Tom Curren, the California star, joined Carroll in the boycott. Potter, born in England, was raised in South Africa, and had migrated to Australia. He was an important ally, as he was well known in both the South African and Australian surf scenes. He said, “growing up, the idea of blacks and whites being separated and living under different sets of laws was all I knew. It seemed quite natural. But traveling has opened my eyes.” (4.) any who chose to make the ‘sport and politics don’t mix’ argument. ‘The vast majority of pros, along with most surfers in general, were fence sitters. Willfully uninformed. Year after year, prior to apartheid’s dismantling in the early ’90s, the tour took place Durban the same way it always had.” (5.)
By 1989, twenty-five out of the top thirty surfers had joined the boycott. “Pro surfing owes the sport a groveling apology for standing—stupidly, belligerently—on the wrong side of history. What Carroll, Potter, Curren, did by not going to South Africa in 1985 looks even better in hindsight, because they were under no pressure from their professional organization to do so, like virtually all other athletes around the world. Tennis players and golfers got wrist-slapped for competing in South Africa. Surfers got wrist-slapped for not competing” (5.)
In 1992 Tom Carroll was inducted into the Sport Australia Hall of Fame. At his valedictory dinner in 1995, Bob Hawke summed up Tom Carroll’s contribution to the Anti-Apartheid cause.
“His beliefs, his principles, were so strong that he put those in front of everything else and as I recall there has been no example in the history of Australian sport where a champion has been prepared to put principles so manifestly in front of his or her own interests as Tom Carroll did in 1985.” (4.)
Cheyne Horan felt he could not afford to lose points in building his career or his sponsorship money, so he made the decision to protest in a different way. He decided to go to South Africa and ride a board with FREE MANDELA painted on it, knowing Nelson Mandela was Public Enemy No 1 in South Africa, and was in prison serving the twenty-first year of what would be twenty-seven years.
Riding the Free Mandela board in South Africa made Horan the target of bullying by officials, strident criticism from surfers, harassment and eventually death threats.
“When I was riding that board I took it to Cape Town, I was asked to take the Free Mandela off my board by a lot of people. I was staying with a mate there and the locals were saying to him, tell Shane to take the Free Mandela off his board. I said I wouldn’t, but I told my mate I would move out if he wanted me to. He said, I want you to stay, just take that thing off your board. I said no again, and explained the principle. Then my board got a ding in it, so I took it down to the board factory and the black guys who worked in the factory fixed it for me. When the white guy who owned the factory brought it to me he said the guys at the factory were so stoked about the board that they fixed it for free.”
Horan decided to donate the prize money he won at the Durban competition to the ANC. Some pundits believe that by riding the FREE MANDELA board in South Africa, Horan had more impact on South African surfing than the boycott.
In 1989 when the Barbados Government declared that anyone competing in South Africa would be barred from competition that year, an exception was made for Cheyne Horan because he had ridden the Free Mandela board in South Africa in 1985.
“Amid all complicated politics, both of a country and a professional sport, Tom Curren, Martin Potter, Cheyne Horan, and Tom Carroll picked a side, stuck to their guns, and eventually played a vital role in putting an end to a very, very dark patch on human history.” (4.)
- Laderman, Scott. Reds, Revolutionaries, and Racists: Surfing, Travel, and Diplomacy in the Reagan Era. Diplomatic Games: Sport, Statecraft, and International Relations Since 1945. Ed. HEATHER L. DICHTER and ANDREW L. JOHNS. University Press of Kentucky, 2014
- Bob and Tom…and Nelson Mandela: The Rearview Mirror. Stu Nettle.
- The 1980s: Surfing, Politics, and Apartheid. TROPICS OF META. Opening the Waves for Everyone: Surfing, Race, and Political Awareness . by RYAN REFT
- Alexander Haro The Inertia: Disruptors is a series that identifies the most groundbreaking moments in surf history.
- Matt Warsaw Boycott 1985: South Africa’s Line in the Sand