Thirty years on: The 1981 Springbok tour and protest today

July 20, 2011

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. Read the rest of this entry »


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