The New Zealand Herald
‘Like the SUN came out’
People were left bloodied and bruised, friendships ended and civil unrest hammered our nation during the Springboks’ 1981 tour. But 40 years on, Neil Reid reports the event had a positive legacy globally
When the ground announcement was made to cancel the Springboks’ clash against Waikato a fiery chorus of “We want rugby” boomed around Hamilton’s Rugby Park.
The screams of anger only amplified as the 300 protesters who had earlier stormed the ground were led off the field and into a barrage of full beer cans, punches and kicks from incensed rugby fans.
More than 11,600km away, the noise created by inmates on Robben Island — including ANC activist and future South African president Nelson Mandela — on hearing of the abandonment was also deafening.
But the noise they made wasn’t out of anger. Instead, it was out of joy that the sporting team viewed by many around the world as the ultimate symbol of white rule in South Africa had been tackled by everyday Kiwis.
The moment was shared by Mandela during his presidential visit to New Zealand in 1995, when he told those who had been at the frontline of anti-tour protests that when news of the events in Hamilton reached the stark prison of Robben Island it was “like the sun came out”.
Among the gathering was longtime activist and Halt All Racist Tours (HART) leader John Minto who had suffered numerous cuts and bruises while protesting during the 1981 tour. He said that comment had made any physical pain he endured on the frontline of protests worthwhile.
“Nelson Mandela said when he was here that it was like ‘ the sun came out’ . . . that people on the other side of the world had used civil disobedience to cancel a game,” he told the New Zealand Herald. “That was really reinforcing for me . . . the impact was enormous.”
During his meeting with anti-tour leaders 14 years on from the tour, Mandela also stated: “You elected to brave the batons and pronounce that New Zealand could not be free when other human beings were being subjected to a legalised and cruel system of racial domination.”
New Zealand and successive governments had gone on to “stand tall as one of the most committed supporters of the anti-apartheid cause”.
Hitting South Africa where it hurt
Rugby has provided both the biggest bond and rivalry between New Zealand and South Africa.
The two nations have done battle on the rugby field since 1921.
The biggest strike New Zealand could make against South Africa’s racist apartheid regime was via cutting off rugby contact. In the year leading up to the tour that was a line pushed by a growing anti-tour movement; which included opposition MPs, human-rights campaigners and everyday Kiwis.
But despite that the New Zealand Rugby Union invited the Springboks to tour the next year.
Boks tours to the UK and Ireland in 1969-70 and to Australia in 1971 had led to huge protests in those nations. When it became clear the 1981 tour would go ahead, protest leaders here vowed to do all they could to ensure the Boks would be considered too unpalatable to compete against until apartheid was scrapped.
That also required everyday white South Africans who were obsessed by the Boks to lobby for change; something Patu Squad protest leader and future MP Hone Harawira said was achieved by the New Zealand protests — including two games being cancelled due to security issues.
“Rugby was an absolute religious force in South Africa,” he said. “Just after God, or it might have been right up alongside God, for white South Africans was the Springboks.”
While Minto was on the frontline of protests around the country — where he had pain inflicted on him by both police batons and the fists of rugby fans — he never imagined the impact he and his colleagues would have in South Africa.
“We knew it would be significant, but it wasn’t until I went to South Africa for the first time in 2009 that it really hit home to me. I had black, white and coloured South Africans talking to me about this and talking about the huge watershed moment for South Africa after the game in Hamilton had been cancelled.”
The Boks never expected protests and hatred to be directed at them. They thought a sports team wouldn’t be brought into the apartheid debate.
No sports team had operated under the conditions they faced; they were guarded around the clock, it was deemed unsafe travel in small groups in team-issue gear, and on the eve of the final two tests they slept in function rooms at Athletic Park and Eden Park to avoid protesters.
Despite that, the side’s captain Wynand Claassen doesn’t regret the decision to go on tour as the “impact on South Africa was as much positive as it was negative in New Zealand”.
“The system slowly started to turn after that. It was the start of the final change, because after that South Africa was totally isolated in terms of sport,” he said in the book, Springbok — The Official Opus.
“If we look for positives, it was the 1981 tour that encouraged change. It wasn’t great but then you can’t deny the good that came out of it.”
And the tourists’ only non-white player, Errol Tobias, said the protesters’ resolve ultimately proved to be a “catalyst” for South African law makers to start a reformation process.
But it took time. Apartheid wasn’t fully revoked until 1994.
“Today, the tour and the resistance it was met with are seen as the most important catalyst in the struggle against apartheid in South African rugby,” Tobias wrote in his autobiography, Pure Gold.
Forty years on, Harawira said the anti-tour movement in New Zealand had played its part in getting rid of apartheid. But he said in reality protesters here had played a support role for brave human-rights activists of all colours who risked their lives in their native South Africa to fight apartheid.
“It took a lot more action in South Africa, and not here, and more people dying before it became clear to the authorities that, ‘Do we even have enough white people if this goes to war’,” Harawira said. “In the end the decision was entirely South Africa’s. But we had a role to play . . .”
‘It changed New Zealand forever’
When the All Blacks lined up against the Boks, two big names were missing from the team. Captain Graham Mourie and 102-match veteran Bruce Robertson had made themselves unavailable on moral grounds.
Mourie based his stand on what had happened off the field on other Bok tours, his research into apartheid and fears of what could occur here. He watched his worst fears play out.
The tour became synonymous with violence between protesters and police in riot gear, and club grandstands being hit by arson. Passive protests included teachers refusing to coach, and thousands of parents stopping children playing.
“What happened [in Britain and Australia] was to a degree a forerunner of what was to happen here,” Mourie said. “We managed to top them pretty easily ...
“Could you have seen it [the fierce protests] coming? Probably not to the degree that it was. But it [anti-tour anger] was certainly part of the discussions I had with Ian Fraser and a couple of other people . . . what they thought the outcome would be.”
Forty years on, Mourie said the tour was a nation-changing event.
“In my mind, it certainly changed New Zealand forever.”
Minto also said the tour changed our nation’s mindset forever — and for the good. It had also shone a spotlight on our own racial issues: “New Zealand is a very different place . . . The lasting legacy of the tour has been on race relations here. It pushed the debate about Maori and pushed New Zealanders into a bi-cultural frame of mind.”
Harawira also saw positives for our race relations. Tour protests had given Maori and Pasifika a platform to air how they felt mistreated: “We got the apartheid thing, we understood that. We were pissed off like everybody else that the New Zealand Rugby Union didn’t give a s***.
“But there was also that whole racism in New Zealand. We were
fighting apartheid in South Africa and striking a blow against racism in New
Zealand as well.”