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July 31, 2006 | by  | in Features |
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The National Game

In violation of international agreements, the Muldoon led National government allowed a South African rugby tour to take place in 1981, a story that is so very familiar to most New Zealanders. 25 years on, SALIENT Feature Writer Brannavan Gnanalingam talks to Wellington Deputy Mayor Alick Shaw – who was at the fore front of the Wellington resistance to the tour.

It is a long held adage that sport and politics don’t often mix well. Twenty-five years ago we saw first hand the explosive nature of such a combination in what was one of the more controversial moments of New Zealand’s twentieth century.

In 1981, the South African rugby team came to play the All Blacks in New Zealand for the first time since 1965. The issue was the fact that South Africa continued to pursue apartheid policies domestically against the black population. For some, New Zealand’s allowing of the Springbok Tour was an official condoning of apartheid policies – their rugby team was emblematic of a racist society. The tour became a watershed moment in New Zealand history as anti-tour protesters clashed with pro-tour supporters and the police (in particular, the infamous Red and Blue Squads who were set-up to deal with pesky protestors). Protesters managed to get a game cancelled in Hamilton, a plane dropped flour bombs during the deciding third test match in Auckland, and protestors in Wellington shut down the motorway. One of the key figures in organising the protests in Wellington was now-deputy Mayor Alick Shaw. I talked to him on the topic of his views and memories of the tour. A quarter of a century later, the man could still spin a good yarn about it. “My position on the issue has not changed one jot,” Shaw tells me.

“There was a particular set of circumstances which related to the isolation of South Africa which made it entirely appropriate. And also, because of the explicit character and explicit impact of the apartheid policies on the character of the teams, and the importance that the South African government placed on this relationship, it was an important thing for us to oppose.” Furthermore, these policies also impacted on New Zealand teams in the past – Maori players weren’t allowed to tour for some time, and in the 70s when they did, they did patronisingly so, as “honourary whites”.

In 1973, a Springbok tour was cancelled by the Labour government. However, a New Zealand tour to South Africa went ahead in 1976, leading to twenty-eight, mainly African countries boycotting the Montreal Olympics in protest. The tour also took place around the Soweto Riots where hundreds of blacks were killed in anti-apartheid protests. However Prime Minister Robert Muldoon of the National government promised to keep an upcoming tour planned for 1981 on (despite New Zealand’s signing of the Gleneagles Agreement which was to stop sporting involvement with South Africa), partly in order to placate his rural and conservative voters. His argument was indeed, “sport and politics don’t mix” (which was interesting considering he had fought for the New Zealand boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics in protest to the invasion of Afghanistan). As soon as it became clear that the tour was indeed going ahead, protesters rallied to try and disrupt the tour, indeed attempting to force its cancellation.

And I said to the cops, ‘look I’d like to move people out of here before the crowd comes’. They said ‘no’. And the game ended and the gates opened and the police walked away. So the crowd and the demonstration collided inevitably. And you cannot imagine what it was like, well, you possibly can.

Shaw says that, “at the outset I think we believed if we made the tour unpoliceable, in conventional terms, then the tour will be stopped. After Hamilton [where the game was cancelled], again I think everybody expected that that had demonstrated that it was unpoliceable.” The protestors employed mass protests, even in cities and towns where the games weren’t being played at the time. “The tactic…I think worked. The police weren’t able to concentrate the resources they would like to have concentrated and so, they were at their wits end on how to deal with it. When the event in Hamilton occurred, in Wellington we were occupying the motorway.”

This didn’t win them friends with the police. On July 29, protesters headed up to Molesworth Street to protest at the South African consul. As the protesters headed up, they caught up with the police, who started using their batons on the front rows of the group. According to the book 56 Days: A History of the Anti-Tour Movement in Wellington, “there is considerable evidence that the police action was a premeditated show of strength. The use of batons was specifically mentioned in the police briefing that afternoon.” The Government passed off the violence as a law and order issue. Shaw says “because the police said to themselves, ‘well hey, we don’t have the resources conventionally to deal with this, in this way, and when there’s big games in big towns, how can we cope with these bastards? And so we’ll give them a whack and we’ll see how they respond to that.’ And from their point of view I think that was a tactically sound decision because it did cause people to think again. But what it also was, was a response to the decision by the government that come hell or high water, the tour was going to go ahead, and nothing would stop it. The whack around the ears for us meant that we had to reflect very carefully, given that the tour was going to go ahead come what may, we had to think very seriously whether people being seriously injured or killed was something that was morally acceptable.” Boots, fists, and long batons were used by police on demonstrators, however the protesters weren’t above doing crazy things either, such as explosions on the overhead lines for the commuter trains, or climbing up communications towers on Mt. Kau Kau. Activities done by people, which Shaw acknowledges, “these days who would be described as terrorists and would see you go to jail for a long long time”.

“There is, I think, a bit of a conceit among some people who think that these things toppled the apartheid regime. Well of course they didn’t. The things that toppled the apartheid regime were mostly things that happened in South Africa. There’s no question at all that the support internationally sustained that struggle in weakening the regime.”

But despite that, the police weren’t all united in their cause. While the Red and Blue Squads (commanded by a future Police Minister under Jim Bolger, Ross Meurant – who went on to criticise Bolger’s apology to Nelson Mandela for National’s stand in the Tour and argue that the police should have taken a stronger stand against the protesters) were strongly opposed to the protesters, Shaw highlights how policemen indeed were divided. Many often had family and friends in the protests. Shaw even found himself on the receiving end of some hospitality. When laid down with the ‘flu, he found a had a brown paper bag delivered to him by police full of “a bottle of scotch, half a dozen lemons, a packet of Panadol, a jar of honey and a get well card from senior officers.” He was also given a police radio by a member of the police to assist in organising the protests. However he also mentions how he had all the street facing windows of his house smashed in. “I’ve got little or no doubt that was done by a plain-clothes cop, for various reasons.” However one story stands out for showing the ambivalent nature of the police.

“The incident was at the Wellington test when we’d come down and we had some thousands of people in McAllister Park, opposite Athletic Park. And the decision was made, we weren’t going to cross the road or try and get into the park. Frankly it would have been impossible because of the sheer back wall of the Millard Stand. So we had this face-off that went for forty, forty-five minutes and went for the whole of the second half and a bit. Before the game came to an end, we should never have got there, but the cops got out-smarted geographically. It was a sort of Long March, I suppose you’d say. And I said to the cops, ‘look I’d like to move people out of here before the crowd comes’. They said ‘no’. And the game ended and the gates opened and the police walked away. So the crowd and the demonstration collided inevitably. And you cannot imagine what it was like, well, you possibly can. Bottles and cans were raining down on people and we made very slow progress indeed. We must have looked like a very rag-tag and bob-tail remnant of the Roman army with shields over peoples’ heads sitting down. And as we made our progress down towards John Street in Newtown, Bob Walton, who was the then Commissioner of Police saw what was happening. I have this vivid memory of Bob Walton in a tan swaid leather jacket running, with his radio in his hand, running to gather police to try and create some sort of barrier between the two.”

So what was the impact of the tour? Is it accurate to describe this tour as the closest New Zealand’s got to civil war in the 20th century? Shaw emphatically says that talk like that “is pure hyperbole.” While he says, for example the student involvement was “huge”, this was no example of Communist shenanigans as many people, including Muldoon attempted to pass it off as (Shaw was included on Muldoon’s notorious “Red List”). Shaw mentions how prominent businessman like Sir Ron Trotter and senior civil servants took part. “And so that doesn’t look like a civil war to me. What it does look like is a citizen’s movement on a particular issue.” After all, after the protests, “you went back to work on Monday.”

While people like Mandela have acknowledged the importance of the protests in helping keep spirits up, it could be easy to over-emphasise the protests. “There is, I think, a bit of a conceit among some people who think that these things toppled the apartheid regime. Well of course they didn’t. The things that toppled the apartheid regime were mostly things that happened in South Africa. There’s no question at all that the support internationally sustained that struggle in weakening the regime.”

The tour also stood on a threshold in New Zealand history. No longer were we in the isolated 50s and 60s, and we were forced to acknowledge serious problems such as race relations, labour relations and the continual criminalisation of homosexuality. “This was a pretty unpleasant country from a social point of view. And it’s interesting you know, when people reflecting on the Labour government 84-90, they’ll say NZ was a kinder place in the 60s and 70s. Bullshit. It was a deeply intolerant society which was quite pleasant to be in if you conformed to the norm, but if you didn’t, it was not a good place.” The tour appeared around the time when the Maori renaissance was occuring – and it’s easy to see why some people suggest the ‘81 protests were just as much about acknowledging Maori rights as they were about blacks in South Africa. Shaw says Muldoon was a deeply divisive Prime Minister who was “deeply, deeply reactionary”, “unpleasant” and “dangerous”. “Muldoon talked about the South Africans being our kith and kin. I don’t think he was talking about black South Africa.” Although he won the election in ’81 by one seat, his time was soon to be up. Jim Bolger went so far as to basically apologise to Mandela in 1996, Shaw suggests he “almost was taking credit” for his previous Government’s conduct, suggesting that we had indeed moved on. (Though to be fair, it would have been hard to stand up after Mandela and go, “yeah, you know what you said about the tour helping you out in prison, nah, sport and politics don’t mix, y’know?”).

So twenty-five years on, protesters like Shaw have carried on with their lives, apartheid has been finally defeated and the All Blacks have resumed constant test match contact with the Springboks. The events proved how only a very, very naïve or ignorant person could argue that sport and politics don’t mix, 1981 shows us the results can be explosive. It’d be easy to both underestimate and overestimate what happened back in ’81, but whatever did occur was certainly a crucial chapter in our country’s history.

Oh yeah, the All Blacks won the series 2-1.

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About the Author ()

Brannavan Gnanalingam has come a long way from being born in the teeming metropolis of Colombo, Sri Lanka. He may be known as feature writer for Salient, but is also the only man in history to have simultaneously donated both his kidneys. He is also an amateur rapper going under the moniker Brantank and hopes to win a Grammy.

Comments (4)

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  1. Joanna says:

    I really really like the personal narrative style of this piece. It makes it easier to imagine being there.

  2. sam says:

    u smell

  3. andre says:

    your article is prity good,……… not

  4. hui says:

    i have only just realized how much of an impact those protests had on not only nz but probibly more in south africas development as a democratic country

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