1981 Springbok Tour: Tom and my ‘cold war’

This post is part of a series remembering the 1981 Springbok Tour.

I watched Tom Scott’s drama Rage about the 1981 Springbok Tour on the tele last Sunday night. Though I didn’t think much of the femme fatale storyline – it centred on a Māori police graduate who infiltrated an anti-tour protest group, hopped into bed with a Pākehā protest leader and then fed the pillow talk back to her bosses – the premise that the tour was profoundly personal rang true.

The tour divided families, friends and fraternities. In my case, the tour strained the closest relationship I had at the time: with my twin brother Tom. As kids we were best friends. We shared the same room, played the same games and were in the same classes at school. By the 6th form (year 11) we had begun to find our own identities. He started wearing rugby jerseys and threw himself into the first-15 culture; I bought a Clash T-shirt and drifted towards the art-room gang of politicos and punks.

In the lead up Tom and I had a few talks about the forthcoming tour. He spouted the rugby boofhead line that the sports and politics should not be mixed and all he was interested in was the rugby. I retorted that such an ideal was absurd and had been since Hitler staged the 1936 Olympics – but he hadn’t done 5th form history so didn’t get the allusion. We decided we wouldn’t change each other’s view, so we formed a kind of détente where we agreed we would try and get along for the length of the tour. At that stage I was still hoping Muldoon would come to his senses and pull the plug before the Springboks arrived. But of course he didn’t and the team arrived on 19 July – which was also Tom’s and my 17th birthday.

The pitch invasion at the Hamilton game

The pitch invasion at the Hamilton game

After the pitch invasion that stopped the Hamilton game I shouted in triumph and Tom got surly. Following the batoning of anti-tour protesters in Molesworth Street, he bluntly told me they got what they deserved. The détente was cracking. When the Wellington test came I joined a protest march trying to invade Athletic Park; he went to a friend’s place to drink beer and watch the game on the tele. In the following weeks the curtain that hung down the middle of our room to prevent disturbance from reading lamps became permanently drawn: our ‘iron curtain’. And the conversations that we used to have about our days before going to sleep ceased. Sneers replaced smiles.

In retrospect, Tom had it harder than I did. We were a family of woolly liberals. Dad had been involved in the 1960 ‘No Maoris, No Tour’ campaign and had recounted tales of joining a moving picket around the Square in Palmerston North and being pelted with abuse. Tom no doubt felt isolated from the rest of us and clammed up. But I think we did all watch the final Eden Park (flour bomb) test together and cheered when Allan Hewson kicked the series-winning penalty. For Tom I imagine it a great All Black rugby moment; for me it was relief that it wasn’t a propaganda victory for the apartheid regime. Not long after the tour our older brother left home and Tom moved into the vacated room. We were soon speaking again but, since then, have never mentioned our ‘cold war’. Perhaps, like many other battle-weary New Zealanders, we just wanted to forget that the tour’s 56 surreal days had ever happened and get on with living.

It seems to me that the only winner out of the fiasco was Muldoon. The pro-tour rural vote saw him narrowly win the 1981 election. One of the things Rage depicted was the extent (unknown to me) to which his officials tried to get him to call off the tour even as it was proceeding. That he ignored this advice and was prepared to let his country rip its own guts out for political gain highlights the deep cynicism of the man. So this Monday – 12 September and the 30th anniversary of the end of the tour – I’ll celebrate that we’ve never had another leader like him. I’ll also give Tom a ring.

Who were the Springbok Tour protestors?

This post is part of a series remembering the 1981 Springbok Tour.

Poster for a 'Women against the tour' march

Poster for a 'Women against the tour' march

In the summer of 1981, when unemployment was high and public sympathy for the unemployed was also high, the Labour Department paid for 14 students to work with staff in the Victoria University History Department, collecting oral histories and other research material on the just-completed Springbok Tour.

I was one of the staff involved, and I put my energies into working with one of the students, Peter King, to try and find out just who those who had protested against the Springbok Tour were.

We issued a questionnaire to protestors at the last Wellington march of the tour; and we wrote to everyone on the mailing list of the local anti-tour organisation COST (Coalition to Oppose the Springbok Tour) and asked them to complete a form. We also checked up the whole list against the electoral rolls.

Of course, Wellington is an unusual town, with a higher number of middle-class people than elsewhere, and those who bothered to fill in a form may not be entirely typical. But the results were revealing.

What did we find? The results can be briefly summarised:

  • The protestors were not overwhelmingly young people. Fewer than a quarter of those marching were under 25, and they made up under 15% of those on the mailing list. The largest number came from those aged 30 to 34, and close to half of those on the mailing list were between 30 and 49. In other words, many of those participating were people who had come to political consciousness in the 1960s and were veterans of other protests, such as marches against the Vietnam War.
  • The protestors were very middle class in occupation. But it was not the whole middle class – there were very few from professions such as lawyers, doctors, accountants, and there were few involved in business activities. Overwhelmingly the marchers came from the educationally based ‘caring’ professions, normally on a government salary. They were teachers, researchers, librarians, public servants or social workers.
  • More than half of the whole group had university degrees – and this excludes the students yet to obtain a degree. This is not entirely surprising; these were people who had learned in classes about the realities of apartheid, and had developed habits of reading about foreign regimes.
  • Everyone who answered the surveys indicated that they had marched against the tour because of opposition to apartheid. But there were also other interesting motivations – one was a hostility to rugby and its culture, especially among women. ‘Bugger Rugger,’ wrote one survey respondent. Another motivation was an intense dislike for Prime Minister Robert Muldoon. A third motivation was a concern about New Zealand’s world reputation.

It has to be emphasised that this was a selective survey, the results of which were not necessarily true of the whole country. Very few Māori were represented in this survey, although we know from photographs that many Māori protested in Auckland against the tour. But our results did suggest that the liberal middle class, educated in universities and coming into activism through the protests against the Vietnam War and then on into other movements such as the ‘Save Manapōuri‘ campaign, were crucial. It was that group who made a big contribution to changing the value system of New Zealand between the 1960s and the 2000s.

Days of shame or days of rage? A personal memoir of the ’81 tour

This post is part of a series remembering the 1981 Springbok Tour.

Masked protestors lead an anti-tour protest in 1981

Masked protestors lead an anti-tour protest in 1981

‘July 22nd, Day of Shame, Rugby Union is to blame!’ The old chant still pops into my head every now and then when this date comes around on the calendar. Through the 30 years since the Springbok Tour I have read and heard a variety of accounts, with the emphasis generally on the national trauma our country went through during that season of chaos. I feel compelled to write as someone who was energised rather than traumatised by their involvement in the anti-tour protests.

A true provincial, I grew up in the blandness of suburban Stoke, Nelson, among a family of mechanics. I remember the joy of watching the 1974 Commonwealth Games, with its brilliant array of athletes from newly independent Africa and the Caribbean. Following on from the ‘friendly games’, we had the rise of Muldoon. Soon we had the All Black Tour to South Africa in 1976, playing rugby while kids were shot in the streets of Soweto. That tour lead to New Zealand’s international shame as the cause of the African boycott of the Montreal Olympics. The generation who watched these events as teenagers were the ones who stood on either side of the lines in 1981.

In 1981 I was a 19-year-old lad in his first year studying zoology at Canterbury University. I traded sunny Nelson for the excitement of the big city of Christchurch and the big world of tertiary education. Before leaving Nelson I had become involved with a group of environmental and peace activists, who also began to organise anti-tour activities. On arrival at Canterbury University everything went up a notch. There was a strong and quite militant anti-tour movement on campus. There was also a strong and vocal, but smaller, pro-tour group, centred around the Engineering School. Student meetings were lively and well-attended; abuse flowed freely. Despite the volatile situation, I still had plenty of mates in the opposing camp.

In town itself the feud crossed over into other realms. The boot boys and rastas, who had regular punch ups at this time, also took sides on the tour. We knew to always remove our HART badges before going into a pub if we wanted to walk out unscathed. It was a time of many narrow escapes from violence, including my own dash out of a dairy to a waiting car, pursued by several rather angry rugby-heads with pro-Tour badges.

Once the tour actually started, there was a march on the day of every game; that was every Wednesday and every Saturday. The Saturday marches were always followed by a do at varsity, put on by the anti-tour club, where invariably the songs played included ‘Police on my back’, ‘I fought the law’, and ‘No depression in New Zealand.’

The first march, 22nd of July – the day of the Gisborne game – was designated the Day of Shame. The sequence was wrapped up with the final game, the Auckland test, held on the anniversary of Steve Biko‘s death: 12th September, the Day of Rage. While we took the whole business very seriously, marches were also, in the early days at least, great social occasions.

Even with the events at Hamilton and the batoning at Molesworth Street, many of us in Christchurch had yet to comprehend the scale of the violence going on. That all changed two nights before the Christchurch test, when the Red Squad appeared, blocking a night march. There were no batons drawn that evening, but the sight of the faceless storm troopers blocking the street brought home the reality of events to the crowd. The response was anger rather than intimidation, though that night ended peacefully.

It was a different story that Saturday, with merry mayhem all around Lancaster Park, followed by night raids to try and wake the Springboks. Days of running on adrenalin and working with large groups of people in a common cause were a heady experience for a young provincial hick. Where else could you quickly learn the optimum number of people needed to tear down a security fence, or how to manufacture paint bombs from hollowed-out eggs?

In Christchurch the umbrella group, Coalition Against the Tour, had a lot of students and varied lefties involved in it, but the most significant organisers were from the churches. Catholics were particularly strongly represented, with the organiser being Mary Baker, a staunch Catholic activist and mother of the later-to-be-famous athletes Erin and Phillipa Baker. Speaking of Catholics, I also remember sitting with a couple of nuns watching the news coverage of the riots in Auckland at the third test. As the crowd drove the police away with flying missiles, both nuns broke let loose cheers of triumph.

At the end of it all the ‘boks went home and we were left with a feeling of anti-climax. Yet I do not remember anyone in the anti-apartheid movement at that time seeing the tour as a defeat.

On reflection, there was a lot of naivety to our approach. Most of us had only a vague idea of the racism within New Zealand itself. And young tearaways such as myself had little idea of the trauma faced by people whose jobs or lives were threatened due to their role in the movement. For those who made a stand outside the main centres, the odds were even more stacked against them. These people were some of the real heroes of the movement.

I continue to believe that disrupting the rugby, the national religion of New Zealand and apartheid South Africa, was the most direct way we show support for the South African struggle. I think this even though, while living in Otago I rejoined the faith and now watch rugby on a semi-regular basis.

It is clear now that the tour was as much about a culture clash within New Zealand as it was about racism overseas. Yet, while it may have been a long dark night of the soul for the nation, for some of us young activists it was an exhilarating experience. For me, that time was one of purpose, where I saw things that changed forever the way I view power in this country.

Rugby, protest and poetry

This post is part of a series remembering the 1981 Springbok Tour.

Poetry Day 2011

Poetry Day 2011

Today is National Poetry Day in New Zealand. Today is also the 30th anniversary of the first game of the 1981 Springbok Tour. That first game in Gisborne was the beginning of 56 days of protest, violent clashes between protesters, supporters and police, and division in communities and even families.

Not that I remember that much about it – I was seven. But it seems to me that afterwards this enormous country-wide experience wasn’t much talked about in society at large – or at least not around me. But I think that’s changing, and more people are able to look at what happened in context, see what it meant for the country, and examine the many different threads that led to this sort-of civil war.

Protestors and police at the Hamilton game, 25 July 1981

Protestors and police at the Hamilton game, 25 July 1981

In commemoration of the tour we’re planning a series of blog posts from a variety of people looking at what happened or sharing their personal memories. For a good overview of the tour, check out NZHistory.net.nz’s coverage, which includes an interactive map of the games and what happened at them.

And, because it’s National Poetry Day afterall, I’m going to kick it all off (pun intended) with a poem that I wrote not long after the 20th anniversary of the tour. At the time I worked at the National Library, which is on Molesworth Street in Wellington, site of the infamous Battle of Molesworth Street.

Memories of the civil war

When the Springboks came
we were six or seven or eight.
I didn’t know much
about that
but I knew all about
the Royal Wedding.

Karen says
that she was probably
making veils for her
friend’s Barbie. They’d play weddings
‘But don’t worry,
we’d always drown her afterwards.’

I was in standard one
and my friend Catherine
was English and had the
same haircut as Lady Di. In class we
wrote stories about royal visits
but not about riots in
the streets of Wellington.

Brian was fifteen
and lived in the Waikato.
‘We were very pro-tour and pro-rugby.’
He begins to explain how
it was the last straw
for the Kiwi blokes
who’d recently been
told they were racist and
sexist and now
they couldn’t even watch the footy.

I think we must have watched
one game on television, because
I remember my South African mother
saying she wanted the Springboks to win.
I remember some other kid
telling me that his mum said
South Africans were bad. Most kids
just said ‘Your mum can’t be South African –
she’s not black!’

Joeli says she remembers being
scared, but she hadn’t been
back long from Iran, escaping
during the revolution. Loud noises
still terrified her.

We’re watching footage on the television
twenty years later. There’s a riot and
I can see the building
where I work.
I had no idea
what was going on
outside my window.

(Source: Helen Rickerby, Abstract internal furniture. Wellington: HeadworX, 2001)