The 1981 anti-tour protests and their lessons for today

Posted: September 6, 2011 by Admin in 1981 Springbok Tour, Labour Party NZ, National Party NZ, New Zealand history

by John Edmundson

Rugby Park, Hamilton

1981 was an historic year in the history of the New Zealand protest movement.  The anti-Springbok tour demonstrations of that year not only saw record numbers protesting on the streets throughout the country, but also saw a level of militancy rarely witnessed in this country.  Over a period of months, commencing well before the Springbok team arrived in the country, the anti-apartheid movement organised hundreds of rallies, organisational and educational meetings and other actions, intended to stop the tour and highlight the illegitimacy of the South African government.

This massive mobilisation of protesters was only possible because the movement had a strategy and a democratic mode of organisation that gave people the confidence to be involved at the level that they felt was appropriate for them.  This is an essential element in any attempt to mobilise large numbers of people one that we would do well to learn from if we are serious about stopping the current war[1] and achieving revolutionary change.

The end of activism?

As this year is the twentieth anniversary of the tour, there have been a number of attempts by various media to revisit the events of 1981, to discover what New Zealand as a country learnt from the ‘trauma’ of that year, and how it has shaped New Zealand’s political life, particularly in terms of popular protest since then.  They have focussed on the violence which erupted on the day of the last test at Eden Park, insultingly played on the anniversary of the murder in police custody of black rights activist Steve Biko.  From this, they have drawn the conclusion that the experience of ’81 scarred New Zealanders’ collective psyche, claiming that this explains the comparative lack of a social protest movement in New Zealand in the last twenty years.

What’s abundantly clear is that not since before World War One has there been as long a period in New Zealand’s history so devoid of major protest activity on the streets.  The 1930s saw protest over unemployment during the depression.  Within five years of the end of World War Two, there was major conflict in the industrial arena, which culminated in the 151-day lockout of waterfront workers in 1951.  The sixties and seventies saw the emergence of the anti-Vietnam War movement and active campaigning around women’s liberation.  The late seventies and early eighties witnessed the highpoint of mass protest in New Zealand with intensive anti-apartheid activism, but the period since then has been largely characterised by its lack of a protest movement on anything like the scale of what went before.

There have been exceptions: Sue Bradford’s Unemployed Rights Centre protests, anti-nuclear protests and the activities around Maori Sovereignty and the Treaty of Waitangi.  But none of these has sparked a nationwide movement or even a localised movement on anything like the scale and intensity that was witnessed in the past.  This has led many media commentators to speculate that 1981 represented the end of “the culture of mass protest in New Zealand”.  They argue, as ex-Communist Party member and anti-apartheid activist turned Quaker and Labour Party politician Marion Hobbs does, that the potential for violence within the protest movement, and the capacity for deep antagonisms lurking just beneath the surface of New Zealand society, frightened people off the streets, possibly forever.

Apartheid, sport and NZ

Apartheid, the systematic and legalised implementation of racial segregation in South Africa, became the official policy of that country following the election of the Nationalist Party in 1948.  Extreme racism had been a feature of South African administration long before this time but, with the election of the Nationalist Party, it took on a more pervasive and vicious nature.  Under apartheid, the state gained for itself unprecedented

Racial segregation in apartheid South Africa

power to intervene in the lives of its citizens, particularly the majority black population, for whom brutal repression became a daily reality.  While the term apartheid translates as separateness , and was more loosely translated as separate development, its reality was the enforced racialisation of capitalism in South Africa, with the black population condemned to life as low-paid workers in white- and/or foreign-owned businesses, as domestic servants in white homes, or living in poverty as surplus workers sent to eke out an existence in Bantustans or reserves.

The link between New Zealand sport and the issue of apartheid in South Africa had a long and sordid history.  The New Rugby Football Union acceded to the demand that All Black teams touring South Africa throughout the century adhere to South African government policy and exclude Maori players. The New Zealand Maori team, condemned as “reverse racism” by supporters of sporting contact with South Africa, was ironically a projection of South African government policy, as it was formed to provide a tour of the Pacific Islands for Maori rejected for a South African tour on racial grounds.  In other words, when Maori were excluded from an All Black tour of South Africa, they were given the New Zealand Maori team as compensation.  Consequently, many Maori felt insulted by the suggestion that the existence of the New Zealand Maori team represented some kind of privilege.

‘60s radicalism

By the late sixties, the upsurge in activism in New Zealand around issues like the Vietnam War succeeded in radicalising people around other issues too.  One such issue was the continued existence of the apartheid regime in South Africa, and the extension of its obnoxious policies into New Zealand with the continued exclusion of Maori players from All Black teams touring South Africa.  The “No Maoris No Tour” campaign grew up around this issue, forcing a change in NZRFU policy and delivering a victory to the anti-apartheid movement.

At the same time, the independent South African non-racial sports bodies, independent trade union organisations and the political opposition operating both within and in exile outside South Africa were calling for the isolation of South Africa on all fronts, economic, political and cultural, as long as apartheid remained in place in South Africa.  This call included a ban on all sporting contact with South Africa.  It was out of this embryonic movement, and in response to this call from the progressive elements within the South African population, that the anti-apartheid movement of 1981 emerged.

History of the movement

The New Zealand anti-apartheid movement actually had its beginnings in the late 1950s with the formation of the Citizens All Black Tour Association (CABTA).  Official rugby contact between South Africa and New Zealand had begun in 1928, and had unofficially excluded Maori players, even the great George Nepia being denied selection.  That policy continued, being made more explicit as time went on, so that by 1949, Ben Couch was excluded from a tour of South Africa.  By 1981, Couch was the NZ Minister of Police, responsible for the ‘protection’ of the same system that had excluded him 32 years earlier.

The CABTA protests focussed on the exclusion of Maori players from the All Blacks on the basis that this was effectively an extension of South Africa’s race laws into New Zealand.  Then just as the “No Maoris No Tour” campaign wound down with the departure of the All Blacks in 1960, the anti-tour movement became aware of a campaign in South Africa itself to link the exclusion of Maori players with the exclusion of black South African players from the Springboks.  The anti-apartheid movement took on a more internationalist character as it responded to a call from within South Africa itself to fight racism not just as it affected New Zealand, but as it affected black South Africans themselves.

In South Africa, under-funded but committed sportspeople had established non-racial sports bodies.  These groups lobbied increasingly loudly for a complete cultural and sporting boycott against South Africa, initially until apartheid in sport was abolished, but later maintaining that only the end of apartheid itself was sufficient.  No longer would an All Black tour including Maori be acceptable – no All Black tour would be acceptable.

HART Demonstrators, Palmerston North, 1970

The Citizens Association for Racial Equality (CARE) was formed in 1964 and HART (Halt All Racist Tours), an umbrella group including CARE and a range of student, church, Maori and other left groups, was formed in 1969.  These groups campaigned against the away tour of 1970 and the visit by the South African surf-lifesaving team in 1971.  These campaigns included non-violent disruption for the first time.  CARE and HART adopted policy supporting such actions in 1971.  Some skirmishing around the edges saw the proposed 1973 Springbok tour of New Zealand cancelled under pressure from the Kirk Labour government which saved the 1974 Commonwealth Games for Christchurch.

The next flashpoint came in 1976 when New Zealand hosted the World Softball Tournament at Lower Hutt, including a racially-selected South African team.  A minister in the Muldoon government was present and the governor-general opened the tournament.  Then an All Black team left to tour South Africa.  Protest and, in the case of the softball tournament, disruption, occurred again.

The National government began a campaign to appease both the ‘international community’, which was increasingly in favour of isolating South Africa, and at the same time bolster its electoral support in key rural seats by insisting it would not intervene to prevent a tour from taking place.  However, the anti-apartheid movement kept key international organisations informed about the government’s domestic pronouncements and, despite its attempts to project an acceptable image, the New Zealand government was increasingly seen as aligning itself with South Africa.  The result of this was the boycott of the Montreal Olympic Games by African nations in protest at New Zealand’s participation.

The next big sporting contact with South Africa was to be a Springbok tour of New Zealand in the winter of 1981.

Anti-tour strategy

The strategy adopted by the anti-tour movement in 1981 was one that had evolved over a long period.  People who had been involved in anti-Vietnam War or earlier anti-tour campaigns had a reasonably good idea of what might or might not work.  The strategy had to be one that would raise people’s awareness about the campaign itself, but also educate people about what the issue was in South Africa, which for many people included a critique of capitalism itself.  So the initial campaign was based around massive education campaigns, speaking tours by people involved in the struggle in Southern Africa and the printing of leaflets, not just to be handed out at demonstrations but also to be delivered to people’s letterboxes by members of local anti-tour groups.

Secondly, and following on from this, it was decided that this must be a huge movement, a mass movement in which every possible person could participate, but at a level of commitment that they were comfortable with.  Only by demonstrating the commitment of a huge number of people would the government be persuaded to call off the tour.

Finally, there was a determination on the part of the anti-tour activists that, in the event that the government did not stop the tour, the movement would take upon itself the task of physically stopping the tour form proceeding, by causing the maximum possible disruption of events, including, where possible, forcing the cancellation of actual games.  Combining the mass element with the ‘hardline’ activism would be the most difficult test for the movement.

Pre-tour planning

Well before the tour was scheduled to arrive, organisational steps were initiated by HART to establish the infrastructure of a nationwide movement.  People like Trevor Richards traveled around the country, speaking at meetings and bringing together the people who would go on to set up the network of anti-tour groups.  The speaking tours by people involved in the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa were stepped up, with allo the fundraising activity that inevitably involved.

In January 1981, Christchurch hosted the 4th Veteran Games.  The normal ‘constitutional’ forms of protest – like writing letters to the relevant bodies and the government – were carried out.  When they were ignored, it was decided that disruption was the only option.  Various demonstrations occurred which were responded to with violence with the athletes and the arrest of activists.

The experiences of people involved in the Veteran Games protests demonstrated beyond doubt that the police response to protesters would be hostile and heavy-handed.  The event was an eye-opener for many who had illusions in the police as impartial enforcers of the law.  The events also demonstrated to all those involved that it would be necessary to prepare people for the sorts of physical confrontations that would occur.  Workshops on non-violent protest became a common feature throughout the following months as increasing numbers of people prepared themselves for the impending confrontation.

Mass mobilisation

The strategy of mass mobilisations took the form of a series of rallies, most importantly the May 1 and July 3 rallies, which saw tens of thousands of people marching in cities and towns the length and breadth of the country.  These were by far the biggest demonstrations New Zealand had ever seen, and laid an important foundation for the more militant action that would occur when the tour finally arrived.  Unlike the small but dramatic actions that have characterised subsequent protest activity in New Zealand, later actions in the anti-tour campaign occurred in the

Anti-Tour protesters

context of a mass movement.  They had a mandate of tens of thousands of New Zealanders who had already demonstrated their support for the movement by having attended, and continuing to attend, the mass rallies.

The course of the actual protest action during the Springbok tour has been well-documented.  From the first game in Gisborne on July 22 through to the final test on September 12, the anti-tour movement engaged in a huge range of high and low profile work, intended to continue the educational work it had begun long before, but also to physically attempt to stop the tour from proceeding any further.

There was only one complete victory in that sense – when the Springbok/Waikato match in Hamilton was called off following a pitch invasion by several hundred protesters.

Throughout the two months that the Springboks were here, a combination of mass actions and smaller, but dramatic actions, were carried out.  This continued the tradition of combining inclusive mass action, easily participated in by people new to the movement and new to the experience of direct challenge to the state, with direct action by other activists.

Throughout the country, whenever a match was scheduled, mass actions occurred in all the main centres and many smaller centres.  The supporting actions were designed specifically to be, or appear to be, disruptive actions which would stretch police resources and make it harder to move large numbers of police to the centre where the match was being held.

The groundwork carried out by the anti-apartheid movement in the build-up to the tour meant that by the time these demonstrations were occurring, there were thousands of people ready to directly confront the police and risk arrest or assault from them in order to contribute their part to the campaign.  When the tour finally ended in mid-September, New Zealand had witnessed a mass confrontation with the state unprecedented in its scale and intensity, but also unrepeated in the twenty years since then.

Lessons: what we did well

There is no doubt that the long, slow often quiet and boring, work of the movement building through education was worth the effort.  The mass rallies of 1981 saw unprecedented numbers of people marching on the streets and participating in action in direct confrontation with the state, in the form of the police.  Important to the creation of an environment where people felt confident to get involved was the nature of the organisation itself.

Democracy within the movement was a key.  The anti-apartheid movement endeavoured at all times to remain a genuinely democratic movement where the accommodation of people willing to participate at different levels was considered essential.  This meant nobody would feel pressured to become involved in something they felt was beyond them.  The outcome of this was important.  There were many events organised during the tour where arrest was considered inevitable.  People, however, are not automatically radicalised by their negative experiences of the state.  If they are arrested due to events seemingly beyond their control, it is likely that they will merely be intimidated.

Similarly, there were many situations when people, although not expecting arrest, were prepared for the possibility of it as a result of their participation in an action.  There were also many people at those events who had no intention of being at risk of arrest.

This meant that when the police acted to arrest large numbers of people in the face of minimal provocation people saw that it was the police who were responsible for the arrests, not the march organisers.  Had the participants in the marches not had confidence in the organisers, they simply would have stayed away, especially if they were arrested as a result of what they saw as irresponsible or bungling action on the part of protest organisers.  This did not happen.  Instead, people were radicalised by the experience of arrest.

The anti-apartheid movement organised itself as a broad coalition, going out to many different sectors of the community to find support.  Consequently there were many different groups “against the tour”.  There were different workers’ groups, mainly union centred, against the tour.  At tertiary institutions there were “Students Against the Tour”, at high schools there were “School Students Against the Tour”.  There were “Women Against the Tour” and Christian groups like “Catholics Against the Tour”.

These groups all came together under local umbrella bodies to plan activities.  This brought in a lot of imaginative people and resulted in a wide range of actions, which kept momentum going and attracted the (increasingly favourable) attention of the media.  It also meant that the mass rallies reached out to a much greater number of people than would have been possible utilising only the resources of the anti-apartheid movement.  And, ultimately, it was the sheer numbers of people willing to turn out in confrontational marches all over the country that was the immediate measure of the success of the anti-apartheid movement.

Lessons: what we did badly

For all the success of the anti-apartheid movement in mobilising and radicalising many thousands of people against the Springbok tour, the reality is that when the tour was over the vast majority of those people disappeared from sight.  So, in a sense, the greatest success of the anti-apartheid movement was also its greatest failure.

Most of the core activists within the movement understood that the anti-apartheid struggle was a struggle against capitalism.  The movement was also not afraid to associate itself with the liberation movement in southern Africa – in South Africa and Namibia and, earlier, Zimbabwe – bringing speakers from liberation organisations out on speaking tours and raising money for those groups.  Initially it funded only ‘humanitarian’ projects such as education or health programmes in the frontline states, but later no-strings-attached aid was sent to the liberation movements themselves, at a time when the New Zealand government referred to them as terrorist organisations.

Despite that, however, there was a weakness in the movement’s theory.  The anti-apartheid movement linked race too closely to class, believing that capitalism in South Africa needed the unique environment of apartheid to survive.  The fight against apartheid was the fight against capitalism and the defeat of apartheid would mean the defeat of capitalism.

Events were to prove that formulation tragically wrong.  Capitalism in South Africa, as elsewhere, was able to survive the loss of formal racism.  The lesson of that failure is that the real enemy of the South African masses was not apartheid, an historically specific form of capitalism, but capitalism itself.  The ability of the African National Congress, the major current within the liberation movement, to reinvent itself as a party of capitalism is proof beyond doubt of that.

The second problem with the focus of race over class in the anti-apartheid movement was that those activists who did continue to be involved in politics after the tour tended to drift away from movements demanding equality and liberation and towards either Maori Sovereignty politics or the anti-nuclear movement, forms of politics largely devoid of class.

Sue Bradford’s Auckland-based unemployed rights movement was an exception to this trend but tended to launch enthusiastic new activists into arrest situations at a rate that burned people out with no gain.  The anti-nuclear movement’s Nuclear-Free New Zealand programme rapidly became government policy after the election of the fourth Labour government and became completely mainstream with its acceptance also by the Bolger-led National Party government which followed.

The last problem, and probably the most serious in the long term, was the movement’s attachment to the Labour Party.  Labour policy towards the anti-apartheid movement was always ambivalent.  While the party maintained an official anti-apartheid policy, it found the existence of a large campaign operating beyond its control an embarrassment.

Many Labour individuals were active members of the movement.  This reinforced a view within the movement that the Labour Party was retrievable.  The result was that many in the anti-apartheid movement, even those who were sceptical about Labour, went on to vote for, campaign for and even stand for Labour.  When the party went on to unleash the greatest attacks on workers’ living standards since the Depression of the 1930s the only results could be political disorientation and demobilisation.


One of the most important things to learn, then, from the massive and militant mobilisations of 1981 is the importance of good political theory to underpin the action.  The anti-apartheid movement did an excellent job of organising the action and the numbers of people prepared to stand up and put themselves on the line was unprecedented in New Zealand history.  But when the tour ended many went home or, worse, into the Labour Party.

If we are to achieve real, revolutionary change in New Zealand we need a movement that debates the politics behind the action, exposes the bankruptcy of Labour and its imitators, and moves ahead with a clear purpose of advancing the interests of the working class.

The above article is slightly condensed from a two-part feature that appeared in revolution magazine in late 2001 and early 2002.  Read our other article on the 1981 anti-tour protests.  And our article on what happened in South Africa after the end of apartheid, here.

[1] This article was originally written in 2001 in the context of the Western imperialist occupation of Afghanistan.


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