Sunday Protest Blogging: 1981

I have a series called Sunday Protest blogging (well I call it that, but this is only the second time I’ve actually managed it – although that’s more Sundays’ fault than mine). I realised that I was spending all my time writing about what made me angry, and very little about what gave me hope. Since I believe that any hope for building a new world must come through collective action, protest blogging is a way of sharing that hope (a fuller explanation is available here.

Anyway because it’s late and I’m tired if I’m going to make this a series again I’m going to have to write about something I know, and The Tour is the obvious choice.

It’s weird to think that I’m writing for an audience that don’t know what that means – who could read ‘Sunday Protest Blogging: 1981′ and not know what it was I’m going to write about. I say this not because I expect you to be fully read on recent New Zealand history, but to try and explain what a big deal those protests were.

Rugby is a big deal in New Zealand, imagine a combination of the myth-making of baseball and the masculinity proving of Gridiron and it’s probably not even close. Rugby’s also a big deal in South Africa – we had a coloniser in common. Our rugby team (the All Blacks) would tour South Africa, and then every so often South Africa’s rugby team (Springboks) would return the favour. Apartheid didn’t need to get in the way of a good game of rugby between friends.

But by the 1970s sporting contact with South Africa had become a real political issue, both in New Zealand and outside it. The ANC had called for sporting boycotts on South Africa, and most other countries were honouring this boycott. New Zealand? Not so much, or at least the not the government or the sporting codes – and in 1981 the Springboks were scheduled to come to New Zealand.

Now the Prime Minister of the day was Rob Muldoon, this was how I described him in my top 10 worst New Zealanders list:

It feels a little bit cheap – he is, after all, the easy shot. But I loathe and detest him with such a fiery passion, that I once kicked the “opened by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon” plaque at the National Library (I’d been doing some research about abortion legislation – you’d kick him too). You could hate him for being anti-abortion on Monday, attacking the DPB on Tuesday, wage and price freezes on Wednesday, Health & Education cuts on Thursday, Dawn Raids on Friday, Bastion Point on Saturday and extending the powers of the SIS on Sunday. And that’s without even getting into the tour.

I know it’s easy to make fun of him (after all I grew up thinking his first name was ‘piggy’); I know that there is a concerted effort to use his policies as an excuse for what the following Labour government did. That doesn’t make him any less awful.

There was an organised anti-tour movement with a long history, the most well established group was Halt All Racist Tours (‘HART’), and as it became clear that the Springboks might be visiting they began mobilising. The first big day of action was May 1 1981, and it was huge. Wellington had 15,000 people one the streets, Auckland 25,000 – these are not big cities (it’d take 24 years for anything like that to happen again, even now every large protest is called ‘the biggest protest since the tour’). In Palmerston North there were 5,000 people marching – that’s 1 in 12 people who live there. It wasn’t just in the cities and big towns, in many small towns there were 55 people protesting in Taumaranui, and 15 in Te Awamutu (really, really, small towns).

These massive protests weren’t enough, and the tour was going to go ahead. Over that 56 days the main centres had protests at least twice a week, and then there were .

I’m only going to talk about what happened in Hamilton. Hamilton is a cow-town (well cow-city) not too far from Auckland. It wasn’t a test, the Springboks were playing the provincial side, but it was a big deal. It was also going to be the first rugby game broadcast live to South Africa in a very long time (however long the boycott had been in operation).

It didn’t happen.

There was a 5,000 strong demonstration, 350 of these people managed to breach the fence and get onto the field and the police could not move them. They arrested about 50 people one by one, but they realised they weren’t going to be able to get everyone, so they called off the game. The 300 people left then ran for their lives as the people had hoped to see a game of rugby basically rioted.

I wish I had been able to find a photo, 350 people packed together looks small on a rugby field – the most distinguishing feature is this massive cross (there was a lot of church support for the anti-apartheid movement), but they did it.

I wish I could tell so many more stories and really give an idea of how huge a movement this was how much work it was for how many people. How much I love that it’s part of my history. I didn’t attend any of the protests myself, we hadn’t moved to New Zealand yet, but we did go on protests against the All Blacks going to South Africa, and I remember the chants:

1 – 2 – 3 -4
We Don’t Want Your Racist Tour

There’s a lot more I could say, I’ve painted a picture too bright, too exciting, to be the whole truth. It was much easier for New Zealanders to protest racism in South Africa than in New Zealand, and in terms of anti-racist work not as much came from the tour as you’d might hope. But they got those people together, they stopped that match, and that gives me hope.

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10 Responses to Sunday Protest Blogging: 1981

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  4. 4
    Miss Eagle says:

    Thank you for that reminiscence. For once (probably the only time) Australia was ahead of the Kiwis. Probably because we are not quite as rabid about rugby. The Tour here was in 1971. I was living in Toowoomba, Queensland – site of one of the two country matches played by the Springboks. The other was in Orange, NSW. I should point out that the Queensland premier at the time was the ultra-conservative populist Lutheran, Joh Bjelke-Petersen. I was one of a tiny group of people locally who organised against The Tour. This was through links to Richard Buchhorn. Dick was then a Catholic priest and national chaplain of the YCW and a well-known anti-apartheid campaigner. On the day I was one of two locals against The Tour and a contingent arrived from Brisbane led by Uni of Qld lecturer, Dan O’Neill. Mark Plunkett – now a dispute resolution lawyer – got punched in the nose by a local pub owner which police standing only a few feet away managed not to see!? I get a mention in Stewart Harris’s book “Political Football: The Springbok Tour of Australia 1971″. A few years ago, Meredith Burgmann – the President of the NSW Legislative Council and one of the most ‘notorious’ campaigners against The Tour – organised a dinner at Parliament House in Sydney to commemorate the 30th anniversary of The Tour and funds raised by this were to go towards a trip to South Africa by a team of aboriginal juniors. I was giving my name at the desk to collect my ticket, when a voice from behind boomed out “I know that name.” It was Dick who I hadn’t seen for heaven knows how many decades. It was a great night – but the crowd was interesting. People were glad to be there – including the rugby lot – who, by and large, would not have wanted to know us back then. But now everyone loves Mandela and hates apartheid. Back in those days, particularly in rural and regional Australia, it was a lonely and hard protest.

  5. 5
    Grace says:

    Maia, I love your posts, but often at the ends of paragraphs you seem to be missing part of a sentence. Am I missing some of your eloquence??

  6. 6
    Princess of Cybermob says:

    Thank you for this post, Maia. It gave me goosebumps. People all over the world fought against Apartheit and it gives me hope to think that with our combined efforts, we can win like we won the fight against Apartheit.

  7. 7
    Maia says:

    I suddenly feel very ignorant Miss Eagle – I didn’t even know the Springboks toured Australia in the 1970s (there was supposed to be a NZ tour in the early 1970s but the Kirk government cancelled it, because they couldn’t guarantee security). I think New Zealanders are a little bit possessive of The Tour, we like to think no-one else ever did anything like it, and we were the best.

    It’s so cool that you were involved, I admire the people outside the big cities the most, in a way. Those in the big cities had support, and they weren’t outnumbered.

    Thanks for pointing that out Grace. I have a tendancy to write a post in bits, and then accidentally leave . I proof read, but for some reason I’m really bad at picking things up. I probably need to skim specifically to check all my sentances have been finished.

  8. 8
    Grace says:

    Oh, I do that too … it’s the result of having too many brilliant ideas! :)

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  10. 9
    Aaron V. says:

    Interesting the context of sporting events involving countries that either are objectionable or are a declared enemy – that New Zealanders protested the matches even taking place at all, as opposed to seeking a victory over the South Africans as a victory for the forces of good, much like the U.S. viewed the victory over the Soviet hockey team in the 1980 Winter Olympics.

    There almost was something similar happening in the United States – Cuban exile groups prompted the U.S. State Department to prohibit the Cuban national baseball team from playing in the World Baseball Classic. However, the issue has been resolved, and the Cuban team is participating in the tournament.

    It’s a difficult call – I believe sport shouldn’t be used as a club in international relations, but believe that either refusing to put someone on a team because of racism, or refusing to compete because of racism, is odious. (I don’t know if the Springboks were segregated, but do know that an Iranian judoka refused to fight an Israeli in the 2004 Olympics.