Thirty years on: The 1981 Springbok tour and protest today

The following article is written by John Edmundson, a member of the production team of The Spark and Christchurch Branch of the Workers Party. John was highly active in the anti-apartheid movement and was arrested during the Gisborne match of the 1981 tour.

This year New Zealand hosts the Rugby World Cup and TV viewers all over the world will be getting up at all hours of the morning to watch the games. Something similar was happening exactly thirty years ago this month, when South Africa’s Springboks accepted an invitation from the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) to tour this country. The 1981 Springbok Tour was a momentous time in New Zealand’s history and has been the subject of much debate since. It is sufficiently significant that it is taught in school social studies and history courses as one of the defining and formative episodes in New Zealand’s history.

In 1981, the apartheid system was at its vicious peak in South Africa; memories were still fresh of the 1976 Soweto uprising, when the South African security forces gunned down black school children in the streets for protesting against discriminatory schooling. South Africa was fighting a war in Namibia and was projecting its war into the “frontline states” of Angola and Mozambique with virtual impunity. For its part, the South African resistance was engaging in mass strikes, popular mass protest and a fairly limited armed struggle, primarily through the medium of the African National Congress’s (ANC) Umkhonto we Sizwe (Spear of the Nation).

The campaign to oppose the Springbok tour of New Zealand was part of a huge international campaign to isolate South Africa in every aspect of its international dealings. There was a widely supported boycott of South African exports, a campaign to prevent trade with the Republic, and a sporting and cultural boycott. In New Zealand, the campaign had really kicked off with the “No Maoris No Tour” campaigns in the 1960s, a response to the South African demand that teams touring South Africa “respect” South Africa’s apartheid system and select only white players for their national squads. South Africa’s response to that campaign was to grant “honorary white” status to Maori All Blacks, thereby allowing them to stay in the “Whites Only” team hotel, travel on the team bus etc, rather than use the inferior “Blacks Only” facilities they would normally have been restricted to. The activists leading the anti-apartheid movement saw this as mere window dressing” and argued that even a fully merit based South African team would not be sufficient to lift the boycott since the boycott was not really about sport, but a lever to use against the apartheid system as a whole.

The old style conservative Muldoon government paid only lip service to international agreements to isolate South Africa and saw the impending tour as an opportunity to shore up crucial support in marginal, primarily rural, electorates in the general election due later that year. The government was an unpopular one and had only won the previous election due to the vagaries of the electoral system, polling less actual votes than the Labour opposition but winning a majority of seats in parliament. The prospect of the government actually losing the election was very real and the tour, a very long one with fixtures in many smaller towns in marginal electorates, along with the chance to play the law and order card, was an opportunity too good for Muldoon to pass up.

The Protest Campaign
The campaign here saw the largest popular mobilisations in the history of New Zealand protest movements. Prior to the arrival of the tram, the focus had been on building such large numbers at demonstrations that the government would abandon their tacit support for the tour as an electoral liability but Muldoon’s calculations – essentially that those opposing the tour were not in the critical marginal electorates – meant that he completely ignored the demonstrations. Once the tour was in progress, the strategy changed to a two pronged approach. The movement would attempt to disrupt or stop the games themselves in the various centres as they were played, while people in other centres would organise large disruptive protests that would stretch police resources, preventing them from deploying reinforcements to the locations of the games themselves. The protests were well supported throughout the whole tour and, while only one game was actually stopped, there is a case to be made that the campaign was a success as no South African team ever toured again until after the dismantling of the apartheid system.

In other respects though, the campaign was less successful. Despite the mobilization of tens of thousands on the streets, and of thousands willing to confront the police, wearing helmets and carrying shields to protect themselves from the unprecedented scale of police violence, the movement evaporated as quickly as it had formed. Focused on a single issue and with a predetermined timeframe, the momentum was lost once the Springboks had left the country. Of course it was inevitable that the intensity of activity could not have been sustained without a tangible target, and that exhaustion would take its toll. But the reality was that most people simply retreated back into their old lives, voted at the next election Labour (with no joy since Muldoon’s gambit had worked) and engaged in no further radical political activity. Those who remained involved in political protest activity generally moved either into the anti-nuclear movement or the Maori Sovereignty movement. The left barely grew at all, as was evident when a neo-liberal Labour Party was elected in 1984 and only a few years later, the Employment Contracts Act was passed without effective militant opposition.

South Africa today
In South Africa itself, apartheid had reached its peak and the clock was ticking. The 1980s had been dubbed “The decade for victory” but it was not until 1994 that the first elections were held under universal suffrage. The election resulted in a landslide victory for the ANC and for Nelson Mandela as the country’s first black president. The euphoria of this victory was short lived however as the ANC in government launched a program of neoliberal economic reforms that preserved the wealth of the white minority, enriched a small black minority and left the vast majority to languish in continuing poverty. In fact the continuing effect of the global economy over the decades since liberation combined with the ANCs harsh economic strategy has left the majority of South Africa’s black population worse off than under apartheid, in both relative and absolute terms.

Lessons for the future
Internationally, the closest contemporary equivalent to the anti-apartheid struggle is the campaign around Palestine, and in particular the campaign for Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS). Activism in support of the Palestinian cause has the potential to involve large numbers of people once again in militant struggle. The danger is that the same mistakes will be repeated. Building a campaign around a single issue, however worthy that issue might be, without making effective and clear links to the root causes, the everyday functioning of capitalism and imperialist domination of the less developed world, could well see another dramatic but short lived campaign that does not lead on to greater things. That the BDS campaign is building now, just as the “Arab Spring” also unfolds, is a positive sign, but of course the long term direction and success of that movement is far from certain. For us in the West, remaining true to radical left politics, and bringing those politics to broader campaigns, is more essential than ever.


  1. Alec Morgan says:

    It was most unfortunate that the ANC assumed office at the height of neo liberalism. The ‘Freedom Charter’ of course had revealed that the ANC was a national liberation rather than a socialist movement.

    The then approx 15 NZ groups/tendencies/parties of the marxist left when they were not fighting amongst each other, over whether to support the ANC or PAC etc. actually played a reasonable role ensuring that ‘racism in NZ’ got on the agenda post tour. Where one way or another it has remained.

    The ’81 tour saw communists play a proud role even if it was a one issue rather elongated mass action rather than an ongoing mass movement that was built.

    As for the ECA, thousands were willing to take action and did. I and a core of delegates organised our car plant site, the union I belonged to voted for a National stoppage at the CTU special affiliates meeting. But…

    It is always easy to point the finger at leaderships as the old NZCP did for too many years-once calling the FOL for crissakes “social facists”. But Ken Douglas had decamped to social democracy some years earlier in the ’80s, conveniently forgetting to mention this to most of his SUP comrades. Along with the PSA and (now) EPMU, technical “numbers” democracy ruled and National action was narrowly voted down. Despite Engineers and PSA members being involved in stopworks and marches. The movement suffers still from that capitulative decision.

    Sure the tour legacy is a mixed bag but it shows that large scale mass action can be organised in this country. And it needs to be again.

  2. Interesting your still going on about the ECA and lack of fightback despite the willingness of the membership. Its like talking to a Krushevist or stalinist who is still talking about the colapse of USSR or that socialism has a bad name because of american cold war propaganda. Wake up its 20011. Todays young adult potential revolutionaries were born after these events and know little about them and are no less likely to be interested in socialism because they occured.

    The tour protests were the greatest explosion of Nz working class discontent but like the anti-war and civil/gay rights movements and other such single issue campaigns they all dissapted when the issue did. The challenge (where all previous socialists have failed) is to turn these movements into anti imperialist ones that specifically point to the problem being capitalism not americanism or conservatism or racism or sexism etc. All these are symptoms of imperialist capitalism in its highest foulest conditions and nothing of significance will be achieved in the fight against said injustices inless there cause is clearly diagnosed as capitalism and the cure international working class socialist revolution starting if possible right here in New Zealand.

    I dont wish to down play the heroism of the many otherwise law abiding kiwis who felt the piggies trunchon on their heads, and those cast into the dunguns, prisons, and cells of the New Zealand Injustice system however I was watching some utube videos of Castro talking about the Cuban contribution to the fight against apartied. Cubans didnt just face the pigs batton but Apartied South Africas Military forces. Cuban volunteers faught a succesful military struggle against the appartied regeime making the freedom and independence of Angola and Namibia possible.

    I know this is the 30th aniversary of the tour and its protests and thus extensive coverage of these historical events should be given. Maybe it was the year or two I spent with the Cuban Friendship Society but somehow I think Mandela was more sincere in the thanks he gave to Fidel Castro as representative of the Cuban people for their help in fighting apartied than he was too New Zealand and the then National government. Yes When Mandella visited New Zealand in the 90s even John Banks was lining up to shake his hand. John Banks described Mandella as a terrorist in 1981 and the ANC as a terrorist organisation. Mind you John Banks is a great arguement for a womens right to choose. Abortion was illegal when he was born and he states himself he would have been aborted if it had of been legal. He was also minister of police…

  3. the springbok tour of 1981 was a sad time in our nations history my mother was sad badly hurt in protest against the tour and when she went to the hospital she met my father and they fell in love it was love at first sight i was born soon after my father sadly passed away a year ago today i still thank him daily for saving my mother they will be forever in love

  4. I was a potester and it was a very dark time that i remember.

    • Josh Whittington says:

      Im a gay, fell in love with another male protestor, love at first sight.

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