1981: Apartheid sparks showdown in New Zealand

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12 September 1981 was the fifth anniversary of the death of the radical black South

African activist, Steve Biko, in police custody. That day, the South African rugby union

team, the Springboks, was playing a match against the New Zealand (NZ) rugby union

team, the All Blacks (named for the playing colours they used). Members of the All

Blacks were selected on merit. The Springboks were selected, not because they were the

best available players. They were selected based on race and embodied the vicious South

African system of apartheid. Apartheid, which means “separateness,” was the political,

economic and legal separation of whites and non-whites, for the benefit of the tiny white

ruling class. It was declared a crime against humanity in 1973.

This eventful match was the last in the tour, played in Auckland, the largest Polynesian

city in the world. Tens of thousands rallied down the length of the country in opposition

to the game, to what the Springboks represented and the insensitivity of staging the game

on the anniversary of Biko’s murder. The players were pelted by flour bombs hurled from

a low-flying plane. Insurgent protesters battled police lines all day long before marching

on the city centre, where a lengthy riot ensued. Steven Biko’s memory was honoured that

day in a way no one could have predicted.

The Springboks had been on NZ soil for nearly two months. They stayed just one more

night after the Auckland game. When the smoke from the protests cleared, the effects

were felt across the sporting and political world. There was to be no official sporting

contact between South Africa (SA) and New Zealand until apartheid crumbled thirteen

years later. The long months and years of organising against sporting contact with the

racist state had won a significant, but not an immediately apparent, victory.

Rugby union was hugely popular in South Africa and New Zealand, both far-flung

outposts of the former British Empire. Love of the game was the point of contact with the

racist apartheid regime. That was where the similarity ended. It was a multiracial working

class game in NZ and the sport of the racist white minority in South Africa. It was an

official myth that New Zealand was a country that was racially tolerant and which had

an inclusive society. Despite this self-delusion, it was true that there had long been wide

disquiet about sporting contact with South Africa.

Apologists for apartheid. Both the rugby establishment and NZ governments had a

record of ignoring the brutality of the apartheid regime. In 1959, New Zealand rugby

officials proposed a 1960 tour of South Africa with a racially selected team. This caused

outrage, and a campaign with the demand, “No Maoris – No Tour,” began. More than

five percent of the population signed a petition against sending an all-white squad, but the

tour went ahead regardless. The Springboks’ attitude was clear: they were “disgusted” to

have to play “natives” in New Zealand, and they were not having them at home.

All through the 1960s, there had been opposition to the official line on sporting contact

with South Africa. After the 1969 announcement of the 1970 tour, activists organised

Halt All Racist Tours (HART), promising a campaign of civil disobedience if the

SA team returned to New Zealand. This alarmed NZ leaders, and in 1974, the Labor

government canceled a proposed tour of NZ by the Springboks because of fears that

“violent protests” would erupt.

Anti-tour mobilisation, Wellington, May Day 1981.
Photo from The Dominion.

Still defying local and international protests, the powerful New Zealand Rugby Football

Union (NZRFU) accepted an invitation to tour South Africa in 1976 — a time when

the Soweto uprising concentrated world attention on the country. Authorities ruthlessly

suppressed the demonstrations by black South Africans, slaughtering hundreds. A

tour under such conditions was intolerable to many New Zealanders and attracted

international condemnation. Twenty-five countries boycotted the 1976 Montreal

Olympics in protest, firmly putting sports and politics onto the same stage.

Street battle begins. In 1980, the then National Party Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon,

indicated that his government would “keep sport out of politics” and would not withhold

visas for the all-white South African team. It was, of course, a very political action,

aimed at winning the 1981 election on the back of the rural white vote. The NZRFU took

this as the green light it was, and invited the South Africans to tour the following year.

Tour supporters were determined that protests would not spoil the first Springbok visit to

New Zealand since 1965.

The anti-tour movement was equally determined to show its opposition to it. Apart from

HART, a number of other organisations gained prominence in their opposition to the

tour. Many other organisations were based upon local action. The widespread grassroots

organisation of opposition to the tour was a feature of the protest movement.

On July 22, the Springboks played in Gisborne. Protests outside the ground set the

tone for what followed them over the following two months. Three days later, in front

of a packed stadium at Hamilton, organisers called off the game as large numbers of

protesters streamed into the field and refused to leave. The NZRFU, the media and the

government criticised the police for not showing a “firm hand,” despite many anti-tour

campaigners receiving vicious beatings at the hands of pro-tour rugby fans while the

police looked on.

Police riot – people organise. An early tactic devised by anti-tour activists was to

organise protests the length of the country on the match days. This severely stretched

police numbers. Four days after the cancelled Hamilton game, a large protest was taking

place in the capital, Wellington, outside of parliament house. Without warning, the police

attacked, indiscriminately beating people with batons. The shocking televised pictures of

bloodied, but determined, demonstrators galvanised the anti-tour campaign.

Subsequent protests saw participants well organised and well prepared for police violence

— shields, motorcycle helmets, and home-fashioned batons were widespread. I joined

one of the demonstrations and was directed to two car-sized mounds of motorcycle

helmets. There were well coordinated drills to repel or attack police.

However, it was away from the games that anti-tour activists really hit the Springboks.

More importantly, months of campaigning saw unions begin to impose “Bans on

the ’Boks” — accommodation was harder to find, councils wouldn’t permit the all-white

team to train on their grounds, travel plans were met with bans on trains, ferries, buses

and planes.

Exposing racism at home. By now, the persistent demonstrations had brought into sharp

relief the treatment of New Zealand’s Indigenous people. The country was increasingly

divided — many rural whites, the core constituency of the government, didn’t care about

the social or political cost of seeing their beloved rugby. Increasingly, the public took

the side of the anti-apartheid campaigners. Protesters specifically and pointedly attacked

racism, comparing the plight of black South Africans with bigotry at home, and Maori

increasingly joined the protests as organisers.

As they did so, they confronted non-Maori New Zealanders with the question: “If you

campaign about race in South Africa, what about at home?” John Minto, one of HART’s

leaders, has recently noted that the tour’s greatest impact on New Zealand society

was to stimulate debate about racism and the place of Maori in New Zealand. People

increasingly called into question issues beyond the playing of a rugby match — the

nature of South Africa, the nature of a government that was prepared to stand alongside

a murderous racist regime for the sake of rugby, the myth of racial tolerance in New

Zealand where there was a large non-white population, the role of the police force that

itself was starting to show signs of questioning the presence of a socially divisive rugby


Relationships between activists forged in the struggle are still strong today. Distrust

between white and Maori activists was broken down. Mereana Pitman, then a leader of

the struggle and now an elder of the Ngäti Kahungunu Iwi (tribe), says of this: “a level

of trust was attained at that time that never went away.” There was an upsurge in the

struggle for Maori rights that culminated in recognition of land and sea claims right back

to the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi between Maori and the British Empire in 1840.

International fallout. The 1981 anti-tour protests resulted in much more than could

have ever been anticipated. Nelson Mandela, one of the key leaders of the armed struggle

against apartheid, on a 1995 visit as president of South Africa, specifically thanked New

Zealanders for their leading international role in ending the racist regime. He said that

through the disruption of the game in Hamilton, “the sun shone into the dark cells of

Robben Island and transformed the oppressive Soweto dungeons of despair into beacons

of hope.”

Black South Africans hadn’t been forgotten nor abandoned, and the Muldoon government

would in ensuing years stand lonely and condemned for throwing to the apartheid state a

fig leaf with which to cover itself.

As a result of the unprecedented campaign, the most sustained in the world, international

sporting, cultural and eventually economic contact with the apartheid state became

near impossible in the following years. South Africa did not participate again in the

Commonwealth Games until apartheid was demolished and campaigns to ban cultural

contacts with South Africa gained momentum. Trevor Richards, one of HART’s leading

organisers, was seconded to the United Nations to coordinate campaigns against the

whites-only SA government. So powerful was the anti-tour movement built and led by

HART, that it could not be ignored. Both the NZ government and Danny Craven, head of

the South African Rugby Football Union, groveled to HART to see if there was anything

they could do to ensure the tour did not continue to encounter “difficulties!”

Once the tour concluded, officials from the Confederation of South African Trade Unions

toured the country, thanking activists for the campaign, as did Nobel Peace Prize winner,

Desmond Tutu.

Of course the leadership of committed activists was crucial in the campaign. But what

was as important were the tens of thousands of ordinary New Zealanders, Maori, Islander

and white, who took to the streets and voted in their unions to say, “Here is the line in

the sand — the government does not speak nor act for us.” When Nelson Mandela was

released from prison on February 11, 1990, every one of those people could rightly say

that they had a part in the global struggle to end the abomination of apartheid.

Bryan Sketchley, a New Zealander, was radicalised through his involvement in the campaign to stop the Springbok Tour. He now lives in Melbourne and is an activist with the Community and Public Sector Union.

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