Impact of the 1981 Springbok tour

A taste of things to come?

In Hamilton the protesters occupying the pitch had chanted, ‘The whole world is watching’. The same applied to New Zealand as a nation. Some believed the tour was an opportunity to address the issue of racism in New Zealand while showing solidarity with the oppressed black majority in South Africa.

Impact in South Africa

Nelson Mandela was freed from prison in February 1990 and inaugurated as the first democratically elected state president of South Africa on 10 May 1994. The 1981 tour was part of a long process that led to this significant change in South Africa, and in this respect, it represented New Zealand's contribution towards a major international event in the closing decades of the 20th century.

The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was buoyed by events in New Zealand. Nelson Mandela recalled that when he was in his prison cell on Robben Island and heard that the game in Hamilton had been cancelled, it was as ‘if the sun had come out’. Some back home in New Zealand maintained that how South Africans ran their country was none of our business and criticised the anti-tour movement for being run by ‘perennial protesters’ and ‘rent-a-mob’ demonstrators interested only in fighting the police. In this way sections of New Zealand society tried to mask, or at least minimise, the long-term impact of the tour and the questions it posed for New Zealand society.

In the short term, it could be argued that the pro-tour lobby came out on top; the tour went ahead, apartheid remained intact and provincial New Zealand secured the National Party a narrow victory in the November general election. But these outcomes masked major changes that were just around the corner.

In 1984 the Muldoon government was swept away in a Labour landslide. The new government introduced nuclear-free legislation and enabled homosexual law reform, both of which struck at the core of what might have been described as the values and image of New Zealand society.

The division between city and country

Support for the Springbok tour was particularly strong in rural and small-town New Zealand. In the Taranaki dairy town of Eltham, 50 lonely protestors were showered with eggs and bottles as they marched up the street one Friday night. In the 1981 general election National held on to power because it won provincial seats that might have fallen, such as Gisborne and Whangarei.

One survey at the time found that over half of the anti-tour protestors had a university degree and another third had university entrance. In 1981 there were over 50,000 students enrolled in tertiary institutions. The educated middle class was critical to the anti-tour movement. Exposed to the international world of learning, they were articulate in their promotion of the issues. The unions and working-class activists played an important role in anti-tour protest, but the largest numbers in the streets were educated middle-class people.

Britain of the south versus independent Pacific nation

Historian Jock Phillips saw the tour as representing the emergence of an independent Pacific nation to challenge the previous image of New Zealand as the 'Britain of the South Seas'. Playing rugby against South Africa was consistent with New Zealand's traditional identity as a loyal servant of the British Empire. The anti-tour movement had a different vision. New Zealand could be seen as an example of an independent, racially tolerant society, a moral exemplar. Jock Phillips argues it was only a short step to extending this role and becoming the nuclear-free example.

Policing the tour

Ben Couch, the minister of police in 1981, had been an All Black, and as a Maori, his own rugby career had been affected by apartheid policies. However, he believed strongly in rugby ties with South Africa. His attitude to apartheid was that it was a political policy of South Africa and therefore their business. He somewhat optimistically argued that rugby contact with New Zealand could promote change for the better in South Africa. As the minister responsible for policing the tour, Ben Couch took his responsibilities very seriously and believed the police were morally obliged to ensure that the games went ahead. The police spent an estimated $15 million on 'Operation Rugby'.

Mixing politics and sport

The issue of sports and politics not mixing had been central to the pro-tour argument. Doug Rollerson, the All Black first-five in 1981, was adamant that the tour should have gone ahead.

Reflecting on the tour in 2006, he believed it was important to 'get them [Springboks] over here' and show them a multiracial society living in relative harmony. Above all, it was important to beat them, almost as a way of confirming apartheid was wrong. In his own way he was confirming that sport and politics really did mix — whether people liked it or not.

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How to cite this page: 'Impact - 1981 Springbok tour', URL: http://www.nzhistory.net.nz/culture/1981-springbok-tour/impact-of-the-tour, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 20-Dec-2012