FORTY YEARS AGO, New Zealand was convulsed by mass protests against the touring Springbok Rugby team. For 56 days, in big cities and small provincial towns, tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders risked injury and arrest to obstruct the South African tourists’ progress. Hamilton’s Rugby Park pitch was invaded by several hundred anti-tour protesters who, aided by what today would be described as a ‘credible terrorist threat’, succeeded in having the game called off. (A Waiuku farmer, Pat MacQuarrie, seemed ready to fly a rented Cessna aircraft into the stands, and the Police Commissioner could not be sure he was bluffing.)
New Zealand was extraordinarily lucky that no one – on either side of the Police barricades – was killed in the Springbok Tour protests. So high were feelings running that a murderous cycle of retaliation could very easily have been set in motion – with tragic and politically poisonous consequences.
Throughout the protests, however, one vital piece of information remained uppermost in the anti-tour movement’s strategic deliberations. They were a minority – and a relatively small minority at that. Set against the scores-of-thousands of Rugby fans who packed the stands, the thousands protesting outside Carisbrook, Lancaster, Athletic and Eden Parks must have looked pretty feeble. New Zealanders who believed that politics and sport should be kept separate vastly outnumbered those who argued that, thanks to Apartheid, the two had become inseparable. In 1981, the battle for the hearts and minds of the majority had yet to be won by the opponents of racism.
Being in the minority does, however, allow protesters to bear witness to their beliefs with the moral strength that numerical weakness often, paradoxically, confers upon a cause. Even their opponents can be impressed by the dogged determination and courage displayed by those willing to put their bodies on the line – non-violently – for a principle they hold dear. Think Gandhi. Think Dr Martin Luther King.
Forty years on, however, I can’t help thinking how self-righteous we must have seemed to a great many of our fellow citizens. There is a famous incident described by Geoff Chapple in his book 1981: The Tour:
“‘What is this? A rising of the workers?’ Yelled a passer-by on his way to the [Hamilton] game. ‘You’d better hope not fella,’ [Tim] Shadbolt yelled back. ‘Because most of the workers are down in the park.’”
The protest movement against the Springbok Tour was, overwhelmingly, a movement of the educated middle-class – and their offspring.
A few years later, in the clutches of Rogernomics, I often asked myself whether the indifference of so many tertiary-educated middle-class New Zealanders to the suffering of the working-class victims of the Fourth Labour Government’s brutal reforms was in some strange way an expression of their contempt for (and fear of) the “Rugby Thugs” who backed the Springbok Tour.
That formative historical event certainly widened many of the fissures dividing New Zealand society in the 1970s and 80s. The Tour exposed a lot of ugly truths about the way Kiwi men regarded Kiwi women. It shone a light on the tortured relationship between Maori and Pakeha. Most of all, however, it revealed the vast gulf between the educated middle-class and the people Rob Muldoon, the prime minister who made the Tour possible, liked to call “the ordinary Kiwi bloke”.
At the end of those eight tumultuous weeks the pollsters of the day discovered something quite remarkable. Public opinion had shifted. No longer was the support for sporting contacts with South Africa anything like so one-sided. Whether New Zealanders’ change of mind was due simply to the vituperation and violence unleashed by the tour; or to the penny finally dropping on the true meaning of apartheid; it became clearer and clearer that they didn’t want any more years like 1981.
It was a victory of sorts.
I suspect that we anti-tour protesters would have considered it an even bigger victory if we’d been told that our children, forty years hence, would be engaged in a revolutionary campaign to stamp out all forms of sexism and racism in Aotearoa. That the 2021 equivalents of those Rugby Thugs who, forty years earlier, had attacked their mums and dads, would soon be facing charges of “hate crime” and “hate speech”. And, this time, the Police would be on their side.
Truly is it said: “Be careful what you wish for.”
This essay was originally published in The Otago Daily Times and the Greymouth Evening Star of Friday, 9 July 2021.