Do you remember the 1981 Springbok Tour?

If the historical footage is any indication, the protesters who demonstrated in the streets, clashed with police and attempted to disrupt the games during the 1981 Springbok rugby union tour of New Zealand didn’t chant Nelson Mandela’s name. They chanted Steven Biko’s and Amandla Ngawethu. The near-exclusive identification of Mandela with the global struggle against Apartheid came later, but has affected those events retroactively, to the point of grafting itself onto some personal recollections. ‘The Specials’ “Free Nelson Mandela” was the soundtrack to that year,’ wrote Michele A’Court in one of our newspapers this week. But no, it can’t be. The song wasn’t recorded until 1984.

Memory can be tricky like that. But one aspect on which people who lived through those years seem especially unanimous is the rift that the issue provoked, both within (and between) families, and within (and between) entire sectors of society. Even if you didn’t protest or directly oppose the protests, you weren’t allowed not to have an opinion or to refuse to pick a side. Political memory can be tricky, too, so we may wish to test this narrative against the documents produced at the time. But even if it were true only in hindsight, the perception that a stand was required of the entire nation would still matter a great deal. For then who would want to be the one who says: ‘not me’? Or: ‘this history of which you speak, it didn’t really concern me’?

That would be John Key, my prime minister. Asked in a radio interview where he stood on the subject of the 1981 Springbok Tour, the normally relaxed, affable Key broke into a nervous laugh followed by some mumbling, and then offered one or two hesitant declaratives that amounted to look, I don’t know, it was a long time ago, I don’t remember, while the subtext was a much sharper why in the world are you asking me this?! It was a rare, unscripted moment, in which Key’s remarkable instinct for the politically safe ground failed him: here was an issue in which he couldn’t articulate a position that didn’t risk alienating someone, and so he produced an answer likely to alienate everyone. You could either believe him, and conclude that he was a man of little conviction, or disbelieve him, and reason that he was trying to soften his image or hide his true beliefs from the public. The outside possibility – that a young man of twenty, in his first year at university, might really not have cared to such an extent that it would make no sense to ask him, three decades later, about his feelings – was both inconsistent with the ‘rift’ narrative and with the retrospectively constructed image of a man who would one day be a prime minister.

Asked later to clarify those comments, and after having had time no doubt to discuss the best course of action with his advisors, Key characterised his position as having been anti-Apartheid, but very mildly pro-Tour, which was the safest course out of those particular shallows. But now that Mandela has died the spectre haunts him again, of a past carelessly remembered, as he selects a delegation that fails pitifully to account for it.

It is a complicated, tortuous past, in which the racial politics of segregation abroad is mixed in with the struggle for Indigenous rights and sovereignty at home, and in which politics intrudes – almost always unwelcome – in the national sport, our layman’s religion. It’s a long history, too. The ban on non-white players touring South Africa had sparked the ‘No Maoris, No Tour’ campaign of 1960. There was an aborted tour, in 1973, when the Labour Government of Norman Kirk kept the Springboks out. There was the boycott by twenty-five nations of the 1976 Olympic Games, after the All Blacks toured South Africa in defiance of the international community.

1981 is when things came to a head. In spite of New Zealand having since signed up to the Gleneagles Agreement, Tory Prime Minister Rob Muldoon gave the Springboks permission to enter the country, after an invitation was extended to them again by the local rugby union. The team had to fly via Los Angeles and Hawaii, as Malcolm Fraser refused to allow the plane to refuel in Australia. When they arrived, they were met by an organisation – Halt All Racist Tours – that had been active, on and off, for over a decade, and had solid ties with the trade unions and with the Maori militants that had fought in struggles such as the occupation of Bastion Point. It’s no coincidence, in fact, that the most vivid document of the two months that followed was produced by the same filmmaker who directed Bastion Point: Day 507, which chronicles the day in 1978 when the police and the army put an end to the occupation, making over two-hundred arrests.

Merata Mita’s Patu! is a raw, unflinching, extraordinary film. While it speaks for a movement that was clearly conscious of the need to document itself – the footage, recorded by camera-people working in each of the major centres where the protests took place, includes planning meetings and even training sessions on how to occupy the grounds and resist removal – its true force lies in the ability to show the actions of the police up close, often from within their ranks and to profoundly alienating effect. Thus the movement’s moment of glory – when protesters successfully occupied the ground in Hamilton forcing the cancellation of the second game of the Tour – is greeted by Mita without triumphalism, as if she were anxious to get to the repression to follow, after the army became involved and the police attacked peaceful marchers in a reprisal action in Wellington. The protesters would never succeed in disrupting a game again: we stand with them impotent, looking over through the barbed wire or over walls of shipping containers erected around the rugby grounds. We look outward, again, from the chilling viewpoint of the police in riot gear. We advance, our batons thrusting forward in a stabbing motion, while they chant ‘Biko! Biko! Biko!’ in obsessive monotone.

The history of protest and struggle is also always the history of repression, and of that encounter with the might of the state that shocks each generation of militants as they come of age. That is the central subject of Patu!, and with it comes the reminder of what it is that we are actually called upon to remember: a painful struggle locked inside other struggles, with no discernable solution or end.


Giovanni Tiso

Giovanni Tiso is an Italian writer and translator based in Aotearoa/New Zealand and the editor of Overland’s online magazine. He tweets as @gtiso.

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  1. Coincidentally, last night I went to a candlight remembrance for Nelson Mandela at Rugby Park (now Waikato Stadium) in Hamilton. This was the scene of the 1981 pitch invasion and it was a very different experience in 2013. Unlike the tearing down of fences, bottle throwing and anger of 1981, Hamilton City Council opened the ground (the turf of many recent Chiefs rugby victories) for those who were involved in the 1981 struggle to gather and remember.
    I wasn’t there in 1981 (I was doing a my doctorate in the US) but last night was a meaningful time–especially the reconciliation between John Minto (a leader of the anti-tour movement) and Ross Meurant (second in charge of the brutal Red Squad, who policed demonstrations).
    The place was also very important–Mandela, in his Robben’s Island, is said to have declared that ‘it was like the sun coming out’ when he heard the news of the game being called off.

  2. “There was an aborted tour, in 1973, when the Labour Government of Norman Kirk kept the Springboks out.”

    The reality wasn’t quite that rosy. According to an editorial in Socialist Action, April 27, 1973:

    ‘Behind the smokescreen of “law and order”, Kirk has been able to decree a form of “postponement” which opens the door for the South African authorities to put together a bogus system of “merit selection” for its next Springbok team, which, Kirk said, might tour the country in the near future.

    ‘Kirk has also been able to avoid coming out against the visit of all-white South African teams in sports other than rugby (unlike his counterpart Gough Whitlam)….

    ‘Black Africa is far from satisfied with the New Zealand government’s decision to “postpone” this single tour: they demand a total sporting boycott of South Africa. According to the Supreme Council of African Sport, there may still be a boycott of the 1974 Commonwealth Games.’

  3. “The protesters would never succeed in disrupting a game again” is not completely accurate. The protesters never stopped another game from proceeding, but did succeed in eclipsing some of them. I doubt if many of the spectators at the Auckland game would remember much of the rugby action from that day – but who among them would not remember the gauntlet of riot cops and barbed wire barricades they had to go through to get there, the constant chanting coming from outside the park, the protesters’ plane buzzing the field with the police helicopter in pursuit, the white patches on the field and the player felled by flour bombs dropped from the plane, etc. The game itself became a side-show to the real event, and at that point everyone sensed that the pro-apartheid forces had lost the battle. For the protesters themselves, personal memories can be deceptive, as you say, but on the other hand, can also be extraordinarily vivid considering that the events took place more than thirty years ago.

  4. Even as a 10 year old child it had a massive impact on me. I knew abstractly from things my parents had said that Biko had been beaten to death in SA, but it came home a lot clearer to see the smashed up faces of friend’s fathers who had got onto Rugby Park that day, and to wonder what was going to happen when both my parents went off to protest many times. There was no way on earth that people got away with not having a position, certainly not university students. Key is lying.

  5. Thanks for this, Giovanni. You’re an ideal candidate to survey it all.

    The thing with Key’s claim of no memory was, indeed, the implausibility of it. I’m a year younger than him, we went to the same school, I packed down against him in scrums (I can’t remember him, but the almanac holds that we were both hookers). I did not believe that he couldn’t remember where he stood, even if he didn’t think much of it either way.

    The Tour set off a five-year period in which the consensuses of 60 or 70 years — around the two wars and rugby, our fancied racial harmony and the welfare state — were terminated. Three years later, the Lange-Douglas Labour government came to office. That same year, the odious policing culture of the Tour and the younger New Zealanders’ loss of fear and respect of the police met head-on in the Aotea Square riot. (The police culture lost.) There’s no way anyone doesn’t remember that.

    What makes it all the more notable is that there has long been no shame in admitting you were on the wrong side of history over this. Second thoughts from Tour supporters have usually been generously received, as if it’s our modest version of truth and reconciliation.

    Why is why I’ve been quite puzzled by the online discourse sparked by Mandela’s death. It’s fraught in a way that memories at the 30th anniversary were not. People have been more inclined to police each other’s speech, or disqualify each other from speaking. Yet Mandela’s name wasn’t on everyone’s lips in 1981. Steve Biko, whose death in custody had been news, was much more likely to be invoked.

    I saw one left-wing tweeter warn his younger followers they could not assume they’d have been anti-Tour had they been around in 1981 (to be honest, they could quite confidently do so – the young, urban social demographics of the Tour were quite stark). I had to close the Mandela thread on Public Address because two of our readers simply could not accept that the recollections of a well-known centre right figure, Matthew Hooton, were being accepted in good faith. When I shared a memory on Twitter there was drive-by snark that I was posing (I wasn’t!). I lost track of the number of lectures about how white people weren’t allowed to appropriate the radical Mandela as a maker of peace. On the right, the Kiwiblog commenters were bilious in a way they weren’t in 2011.

    It’s been interesting.

  6. It has. For my part, I’ve loved the comments on this post so far and the tweets I received over the weekend when I asked people about their recollections, with which people have been very generous. But remembering and evaluating (or speculating) are very different activities.

  7. I’ve just watched Patu! and heard Nelson Mandela’s name used in a chant in the first minute of clip1: “Remember Soweto…, remember Sharpeville…, and Nelson Mandela”.

    In early 1970s I was a young socialist feminist and took part in several anti-tour marches. By the time of the 1981 Springbok Tour, I’d been at home with young children for five years. We took the children on two non-violent anti-tour marches, at the beginning and the end of the campaign. My brother-in-law, a police photographer, didn’t like the shift towards more aggressive policing tactics at that time. He told me I was on a list of “known agitators” that was distributed to police officers in preparation for the Springbok Tour. I was both shocked and amused. Had the SIS been monitoring my library loans? Did they know I was indoctrinating my children with Michael Foreman’s “War and Peas”, Jan Balet’s “The Fence”, or the Aussie classic, “Snugglepot and Cuddlepie”, which includes a full-page picture of a Strike procession?

    My strongest memory of that time is of the huge crowd walking through Wellington’s streets before the match on 29 August. I think it was shown live on television. Among the thousands was my former boss, a genteel librarian in her sixties. This brought home to me how widespread the opposition to the tour – and the Muldoon government’s repressive response – had become.

  8. I watched the protests outside Eden Park from a Kingsland hillock. It was violence, State violence on a scale I had only seen in Smith’s Dream. John Key was in my sister’s class at my school, she has the class photo. I was 2 years behind. I don’t remember him, she does…”annoying boy, you know the one’s who annoy you all the time.”

  9. “The near-exclusive identification of Mandela with the global struggle against Apartheid came later”

    My memories are that Mandela was never quite the cult figure for the NZ anti-apartheid movement as he was for overseas movements. There was a strong pro-PAC lobby in NZ for one thing, and I think, less tendencies to idealise the SA movement than in some other countries.

    It seems now the centre-right, in particular, likes to differentiate between the now deified Mandela and the rest of the South African and international anti-apartheid movement. Its an interesting exercise in hero formation – Mandela is a hero by definition, therefore he cannot have been part of the left-wing rabble and PC liberals who made up the movement.

    Its particularly strong in NZ where the ’81 tour has come to not only symbolise the anti-apartheid movement, but define it. This is problematic for the left as the primary lessons for activists to learn from the anti-apartheid movement relate to the long-term organisation, strategy and movement building carried out, not the media-friendly confrontations of ’81.

    It would be intriguing to ask how many people remember that the biggest anti-apartheid protests in NZ were in 1985, not 1981.


    Sam Buchanan

  10. There was a guy who used to come to all the ChCh demos, and would shout “free Nelson Mandela” very frequently. He was regarded as a tad eccentric, and I don’t remember the chant catching on.

    I do remember it being a very hateful time though, and feeling that I needed to consciously harden-up to avoid being physically intimidated by the riot squads. We were always going to lose the public battles (not least because only one side got to carry sticks) which I think partly explains why there was so much nefarious night-time activity going on, most of which was never reported.

    The tour turned ordinary mild-mannered people into radicals. My father was with us in a major face-off outside the first test, aged 56. Nothing actually happened (on that occasion) but we were fully expecting all hell to break loose at any time. Afterwards, he said he’d prepared himself to run straight at a cop who looked scared.

  11. I sure do remember the tour. I remember standing at the kitchen bench listening to what was happening in Hamilton and hearing my brand new husband of two weeks saying all the protesters should be put up against a wall and shot…and realizing two weeks too late that I had seriously married the wrong guy. Needless to say we are now divorced…

      1. A little unfair there. The Tour polarised Kiwis like nothing else.

        I came from a family where the rest were dyed in the wool Rugby supporters but where hardly “Fascists”, far from it. I supported the cancellation of it but my father and brothers were all for the Tour going ahead. It was a situation that split families and some even today, can’t get along. That is so sad. Our family agreed to disagree and carried on with life.

  12. Interesting to read some of the responses for an event from so long ago August 1981 “The SpringBok Tour”.
    My recollection was that I and my brother were part of orange squad. We dressed up in heavy gear and I had my umbrella. Our church minister and our whole congregation were mobilised. I heard that he was dressed in his robes? We were a whole predominantly Maori Chritian faith bible based congregation in Newtown, Wellington and had discussed the oppressive apatheid regime of the South African Government of that time and took action. It certainly was a time of a split country. The question of debate did sport and politics belong on the same playing field. I was 25 at the time. I was adamnant the sports does affect politics and vice versa. I was confronted with hostility at parties due to my stance. I saw cousins on both sides of the fence at the Wellington rugby game. Our squad did not get into any major physical dust up but a lot of manouvering and posturing and confrontation – eye balling, keeping our lines and rows facing off the police. I heard that the brown squad had a lot of encouters. It was an exciting day. If any Kiwi had no view or stance at that year and about the tour and about apatheid -well! that would be a rarity! I have had the privaledge to meet up a number of South Africans since Mandelas reign as President and have recalled with them the 81 Tour and prophecies attributed to the rainbow nation from the visit by TW RATANA to their lands early last century. Freedom has a price. Amandla Be well people.

  13. I came across this post only recently , hence the late participation.
    I find it difficult to articulate the memory I have of the 1981 Tour, as it is enmeshed with the killing of a close friend only a few months earlier. I needed to be with my friends at this time; close friends can save your life. We were in the Stands together at Waikato stadium – I wasnt a rugby fan but my mates were; I played soccer – left wing! ( only by virtue of being left footed )
    You are right Giovanni- there was no room for neutrality. Christ; imagine Northern Ireland. So I supported the tour, parroting the prevailing sentiments of those around me and joined my mates for the short drive from Te Awamutu to Hamilton. All around 17 years of age ; small town boys from a mostly conservative and pro-tour town.
    It is hard to express how bleak, ugly, violent and tense that period was. My guts in a knot as we walked towards the stadium barricaded in places by cattle trucks, barbed wire, police. The feeling of wanting to leave.
    Patu captures the moment the protestors broke through the fence. The supporters ; my mates, were enraged that the police formed a ring around the protestors on the pitch…and faced the crowd!. Occasionally a rugby supporter would run onto the pitch and land as many blows on a protestor as he could before the police intervened.
    The most vivid memory; the most difficult for me, occurred when the game had been called off. The police pretty much abandoned the protestors and told them to leave the pitch. They were then at the mercy of a vicious, angry mob hurling bottles, cans and whatever else to inflict injury. We were right there – very close to that exit. John Minto – a figure of intense, seething hatred to pro tour people was especially targeted. And do you know what he did?. He took it. I vividly remember him ducking, protecting his head with his arm, as he directed the protestors through the narrow exit to get the hell out of there.
    That image is locked in my head. Can you imagine the courage, the composure, and the leadership that was displayed on that day by him?. It was extraordinary. My memory is that it was that scene which has affected me the most. I knew then that I shouldn’t have been there. I was stupid, naive, arrogant, ignorant..It made me realise the consequences of following a mob; of mob mentality.

    John Key didn’t know where he stood in 1981?. I have the benefit of writing as the Dirty Politics saga plays out. Who cares where the fuck John Key was. History will consign him where it sees fit. We know where John Minto was. Hone Harawira. Annette Sykes. Trevor Richards. Tama Iti .On and on.

    I am not ashamed by the way. I can see who I was then; why I was there; why we went that day. I am still close to two in that original group. I went back to Waikato Stadium with my friend and his three children to watch a game a couple of years back. As we walked together I mentioned I hadn’t been back since 1981. It was the first time the tour and our position in it was discussed with the kids. We gave them a short synopsis. I think they thought we were telling tall tales.

    Cheers, Bill

    1. Thank you for the great comment, Bill. I don’t have much to add to it, other than my partner – also from Te Awamutu, and 12 years old at the time – was pro-tour, if you can call a child that, for the reasons you so eloquently expressed.

  14. The evening gathering at Waikato Stadium late last year, where people came together to celebrate the life of Nelson Mandela was something special. Many of those there were directly involved in the 1981 events. Even Ross Meurant was there, with a message of reconciliation.

  15. Thanks very much for this, Bill. Although only 11 in Te Awamutu at the time, I was on the side of the tour because that’s what I was told was right. It’s hard to live with. It’s great that you were there, a bit older, and you knew where you stood. In solidarity, Justine

  16. Thanks Justine. It is perhaps an expression of love towards one’s parents that determines whether a child takes their worldview as gospel; amongst other reasons of course. Good children do as their parents do right?!.
    So I would let that lingering feeling of being on the wrong side of history go. There were other factors more relevant to you at that age, it was difficult for some adults to grasp, let alone an 11 year old.
    I try to draw on positives where I can. I guess this experience has given me empathy for the adversary, the other side. That’s a gift. I’m thankful for it.

    Cheers, Bill

  17. You are correct to pointing up peer pressure and environment as a powerful determinant of political choice.
    In 1981 I chaired a local group who were evenly divided; pro and anti tour. One of the group returned from an extended overseas tour and was forthright in his opposition to the tour. A day or two after returning and catching up with his pub mates he became pro tour saying the overseas media had not been telling the whole story and he did not “want to talk about it.”
    Not wanting to talk about it is symptomatic of the PM’s response to the allegations facing him and those who follow him.

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