Remembering the 1981 South African Rugby Tour

By Alun Thomas


It may not be headline news or worthy of retrospect in anywhere but New Zealand and South Africa, but the months of July through September mark the twenty fifth anniversary of the 1981 South African rugby tour to New Zealand, a tour that incited national protests and violence on a scale that had never been witnessed in the nations history. For two months protestors clashed with police in ongoing battles in order to halt a tour that flagrantly violated the 1976 Gleneagles Agreement in which all sporting contact with South Africa was barred due to the ongoing Apartheid situation. New Zealand flouted it in 1976 by touring South Africa, which led to African boycotts at the 1976 Olympics. Bear in mind this was undertaken by the National Party, the country's equivalent of the Republicans. The previous government, Labour (Democrat) had banned such tours. A typical move from such a party, National, who's agenda turned out weaker than George Bush's currently is.


  The issue split the country in two. Where do sport and politics mix? On one hand you had fanatical rugby supporters determined to reaquaint old rivalries with our fiercest opponent while on the other were groups like HART (Halt All Racist Tours) who were defiant in the face of such blatant racism that was being practiced by the South African government. The New Zealand Prime Minister Robert Muldoon declared as a democracy the country was free to pursue any sporting venture it pleased. What his real agenda was I am uncertain, but 1981 was an Election year. The tour therefore went ahead. Surely Muldoon could not have foreseen the ugly scenes that would follow. It woke a nation up, one that was relatively free of such incidents, for the most part to my knowledge you could say New Zealand was placid up to that point.


  By 1981 unemployment was creeping in, Pacific Islanders were increasing in population and Maori's were openly voicing concerns about land rights which dated back to the 1840's. This combination of factors possibly fueled the battles which followed. Rugby fans were a different breed however and probably still are. The image in 1981 of beer drinking farmers, university students and wife beaters was probably stronger then than it is now. To them defeating South Africa meant rugby supremacy. But the day the South African's arrived the protestors were instantly mobilised. The Police devised the infamous Red and Blue Squads to handle the crowds. But the vocal demonstrations quickly dissolved into pitch invasions and attempts to have games postponed.


  As a five year old I was too young to appreciate this scenario and it was only in 1990 when I viewed the book By Batons And Barbed Wires that I caught a glimpse into how heated the tour was. The most famous incident was the abandonment of a game in Waikato when protestors made it onto the field and caused the game to be called off. Watching the documentary 'Patu' which chronicled the protestors side it is frightening to see the hatred the rugby supporters unleashed on the invaders when they were escorted off the pitch. Massive beer bottles were hurled, those of the thick gallon size almost, with the irate fans getting their shots in where possible. For the time it was unbelievable.


  That set the tone for scuffles nationwide and the police showed little mercy, clubbing defenceless protestors with batons, leaving a mass of bloodied and wounded in their wake. In unprecedented scenes barbed wire was placed around the pitch to prevent more invasions. Imagine that sight. A game of simple rugby, barricaded by barbed wire. It was as crude as it looked. The actual rugby was irrelevant in the overall course of the tour, few mention it. Why would they? The country was in self perceived turmoil and the sight of protestors in motorcycle helmets to protect their craniums was unforgettable.


  In hindsight the book that caught my attention about the tour was from the point of view of the protesters, so the many images of beaten marchers and the ugly pig like faces of the police and beer holding rugby fans was perhaps slanted. It may have made the incidents look worse than they were, but footage I've seen indicated this wasn't entirely true, as the final test between the All Blacks and South Africa contained the fiercest protests of the tour, ironically on the last game. By then the 'stop the tour' leaflets were jokeworthy.


  It didn't stop an overhead plane however from dropping flour bombs onto Eden Park to disrupt the game, one of which hit All Black Alan Whetton. The Blacks won the game and the three test series 2-1, but that was a non factor as the streets turned into third world war areas, with molotov cocktails thrown, cars overturned and unarmed protestors dressed as clowns being beaten to a pulp. Thankfully it was the final incident but the fallout never faded. The police brutality brigade came out in force afterwards, but really it seems there was little other way to handle things. Sometimes you need an event like this to see what a nation is made of.


  Rugby itself really took a nosedive as the country's main sport. Soccer boomed for a few years as Rugby languished in the face of the tour. Many will still claim it was just supposed to be about rugby, little else. That was the motivation. To ruin the matches for rugby die hards was intolerable. The urge to continue playing South Africa was so strong a renegade outfit known as the Cavaliers toured South Africa in 1986 and were handily beaten as skipper Andy Dalton had his jaw broken from a punch by a South African.  Only when the All Blacks won the inaugral World Cup in 1987 did the tour finally fade to many degrees in my opinion.


  The National party was voted out in 1984, but were on hand through most of the 90's when Apartheid collapsed and all sporting contact was re-established with South Africa. To this day I believe South African rugby never quite recovered, despite winning the World Cup in 1995. They always run hot and cold and all the years out of the picture took their toll. Should a sport be heavily penalised for a nations doctrines? It is always debatable and taking either side of the fence is impossible. What it showed was New Zealanders in their thousands believed otheriwse and opposed everything South Africa stood for. The resulting chaos has never been repeated except for a 1984 riot in downtown Auckland which summarised a nation heading to economic and social decline. The tour indicated New Zealand was far from free of melting down.