Greater even than Rugby – the 1981 Springbok Tour protests

This year marks the 30th Anniversary of the 1981 Springbok tour. The article below was originally a talk given to an activist meeting at Victoria University in August 2006.

Anti-Springbok Tour leader John Minto

by Don Franks

An important year in many respects, 1981 was just one small part of the huge international struggle against apartheid, which went on for very many years.
New Zealanders’ struggle against South African racism is well documented in Trevor Richards’ book Dancing on our bones. Although I don’t think this work does justice to the political contribution of John Minto, I recommend the book as an indispensable part of protest history.

For the purposes of this discussion today I think we should take a minute to recall what local anti-apartheid solidarity struggle was prompted by.

Apartheid was an extremely reactionary and unique system of political control first legislated after the Nationalist Party came to power in South Africa in 1948. Apartheid classified every individual in South Africa by race. Some eighty-seven percent of the land was reserved for whites, coloureds and Indians About thirteen percent of the land was divided into ten ‘homelands’ for blacks (about 75% of the population).

Facilities allotted to blacks in health, education, employment and every other field of life were vastly inferior to those enjoyed by white citizens.

Trains and buses were racially segregated, as were public beaches, with the best ones reserved for whites. Public swimming pools and libraries were segregated. There were few black pools or libraries.

Sex and marriage between the races was prohibited.

Trade unions were segregated and black unions not recognised.

And, most importantly for New Zealanders, apartheid totally segregated South African sport.

In the years leading up to the 1981 Springbok Tour, only a minority of reactionary New Zealanders openly defended apartheid. This minority included at least one government minister, Ben Couch, a former All Black, who’d been dropped for the 1949 Tour to South Africa because he was Maori!

Most “pro-tour” advocates argued that politics should not mix with sport, and that
visiting South African whites would, if anything, be moved to go home and effect social change because of the wonderful racial harmony they’d be bound to see in New Zealand.
Ok, maybe the blacks were mistreated over there, but stopping a game here wouldn’t make their lives any better, they argued.
It was a while before we learned how much difference international protest could make to black people’s lives.
When anti-apartheid activists did make contact with black South Africans they were told that black morale went sky-high when reports of game-stopping protests filtered through.

The year of big demonstrations was preceded by years of constant political slog; thousands of teach-ins, articles, debates, pickets, posters and paper sales. The Halt All Racist Tours movement produced a regular paper, HART NEWS, which sold on the streets in large numbers. One Friday night I had a competition with Penny Bright to see who could flog off the most; we sold 100 papers each.
There was an ongoing boycott of South African-produced goods, mostly centred on wine and Peter Stuyvesant cigarettes. The distinctive HART badge was guaranteed to start arguments with total strangers. If I was feeling a bit tired and not up to a row, I wouldn’t pin on the badge when I went out, and always felt a bit of a sellout for not wearing it.

Protestors and police outside Eden Park before the third test

Anti-apartheid argument from most of us usually took a simple liberal form. It was quick, easy and almost irrefutable to argue for blacks to “have the same rights as us” – to marry, join a union or drink with others without colour discrimination. This type of human rights argument did mean that the class nature of South African society was obscured. It also created problems when arguing for the anti-apartheid cause with workers, particularly Maori workers. At the 1976 Federation of Labour Conference a Maori timber worker complained: “You say we should be supporting those black guys over there because they get treated like shit. Well, there’s a lot of us over here getting treated like shit and who’s supporting us?”
Of course, for many, probably most, anti-apartheid activists, helping blacks win “the same rights as us” was the beginning and the end of the matter.

It is a dreadful irony that for many blacks in South Africa today, working and living conditions are no better than they were under apartheid, because of the Rogernomics type reforms John Minto tried to warn them against.
 That’s not to say that the struggle wasn’t worth it, the point is that the struggle against capitalist injustice is not completed, either here or in South Africa.  As we continue that struggle, I think there are some things we can learn from past battles. 
HART had some success because it was principled, clear where it stood and what it demanded. One small but important example is that they had a policy of not sitting down when it was necessary to enter the offices of police or politicians. Sitting down could lead to a softer atmosphere, shared cups of coffee and the creation of a friendly relationship where compromise was more likely to flourish. Having been party to that setup too often in union situations, I think the standing tactic makes a lot of sense.

Most of my own anti-apartheid energy before and during 1981 was expended among workers in the trade union movement. There is a prevailing myth that industrial workers were 100% pro-tour. Some union leaders were reluctant to provide a principled lead. But where determined political work was put in, positive results were gained. Anti-apartheid resolutions and live bodies for demonstrations came from factories where communists were agitating. Lower Hutt city council labourers struck for a day when Mayor Kennedy–Goode suggested inviting the Springboks to a city function.

Many of the big ’81 demonstrations were held on public roadways, as a deliberate attempt to stretch the resources of the police. The manoeuvre was effective, but not infallible. 
I recall a wet afternoon marshalling about a hundred mostly middle-aged people happily singing “Kumbaya” in the middle of the Hutt Road. The cop in charge approached me and the other marshall and said very pleasantly: 
”Look guys I want this road clear. I haven’t got enough forces to arrest you all. But there’s no TV cameras anywhere in sight, so if you don’t piss off in two minutes we’ll just wade in with some heavy stuff, ok? “
We gathered up our singers and slowly marched back to town, taking as much time as we could. There was a big argument that night as to whether we’d not been staunch enough.

Now that the years have rolled by I can feel a small degree of sympathy for some of the pro-tour people. Not the cynical political operators or the vicious mobs they incited, but the more civilized kiwi rugby fans. I’m not an All Black supporter, but I can see that being one is to feel part of a great collective cause. To many fans, the epic struggle of a New Zealand/Springbok clash was a rare thrill brightening the dull routine of daily life. The protesters bent on denying fans this thrill were themselves getting drama and excitement in their confrontations with the law. Some would say that’s what we were mostly in it for, but that was certainly not true.

To some extent the ’81 Tour became a test of strength between leftists and liberals against a Tory government with an obnoxious prime minister. However, I believe the protesters’ main motive from start to finish was a genuine sense of solidarity with oppressed South African blacks. An even greater cause than supporting a top international rugby football team.

See also: The 1981 anti-tour protests and their lessons for today and our article on what happened in South Africa after the end of apartheid, here.