It's hard to imagine now, but there was a time when the rugby Springboks knew they could compete with the All Blacks. It was also a time when flour bombs shook apartheid, writes Telford Vice
South Africans turned on their televisions before dawn on July 25 1981 expecting to see the Springboks play Waikato in the second match of their tour to New Zealand.
Instead, they saw chaos. Rugby Park in Hamilton was strewn, not with 30 brawny men, but with around 350 scrawny protesters — the vanguard of a total of about 5,000 — living out their opposition to the tour.
Angry spectators were throwing bottles at the pitch invaders. Police were increasingly overwhelmed in their attempts to keep order.
“Kyk die langhaar gedrog [look at the long-haired freak],” commentator Gerhard Viviers told his incredulous audience.
Andrew Beyer, a leading figure in the protests, hoped not to see rugby that day. But he feared he would see death.
“It was like there was a set of miraculous alignments that prevented someone getting killed,” Beyer, now 67 and an Anglican parish priest in Auckland, said this week.
The match was cancelled after police were told a protester had stolen a light aircraft and that it was heading towards the stadium.
No one died, but many were assaulted by a crowd that had chanted “We want rugby” and were enraged when that was denied them.
Almost 36 years on, that day in Hamilton is for many who were involved the abiding memory of 56 days of turmoil that changed forever the way New Zealanders saw themselves.
“It was a manifestation of change,” Beyer said of the protest action, which snowballed as the tour continued and culminated in Pat McQuarrie dropping flour bombs from a light aircraft piloted by Marx Jones on Eden Park in Auckland during the last match on September 12 — the fourth anniversary of Steve Biko’s death.
“We made a decision, when it became apparent the tour was going to go ahead, that whenever and wherever the Springboks were, we would protest,” Beyer said.
“It caught on and it became quite the thing to turn out and protest.”
An estimated 150,000 Kiwis put their bodies on the picket line. Of them 1,500 were arrested.
“Collectively, I was struck by the courage and the wisdom showed — few people did stupid things and most had a sense of constraint.
“Personally, when I was faced with violence and danger I entered a place of calm — it was a good thing we were doing; it was about the commitment of a whole bunch of people. That winter became [the winter of] opposition to that tour, and our opposition became opposition to racism.”
Not all New Zealanders felt that way. On the day the Hamilton match was called off, a woman who still lives in the city but declined to be named lay in a nearby hospital.
“I was anti-tour, and I gave birth to my first child that day,” she said. “My father was also against the tour, and he came straight from the protest to meet his grandchild.
“Right next to me, in the next bed, was another woman who had just had a baby. She was what she called ‘pro-rugby’, or in favour of the tour.”
Close-to-the-bone division was common.
“My family are all staunch people who see the world in a way,” Beyer said. “But, in my own church, I got taken aside and spoken to quite severely by parishioners.”
For former All Black player Stu Wilson, who appears in an episode of the documentary series More Than a Game, it was “for and against — there was no one in the middle; no one”.
“My wife at that time was protesting,” Wilson said. “I was playing in Wellington at Lancaster Park; my wife was out in the frontline.
“We had to make her a shield, go buy her a motorcycle helmet.
“How’s that work? I’m playing against them, she’s out in the bloody back preventing people going to see the game.
“That marriage didn’t last long, I’ll tell you that, mate.”
Wilson moved from wing to centre in the first two matches of the series to fill the vacancy left by Bruce Robertson, who made himself unavailable for a range of reasons — among them what he had seen on New Zealand’s tour to South Africa in 1976, which had started two weeks after the June 16 uprising.
“We travelled to a lot of places and we made a lot of friends with coloured people,” Robertson, now 64 and living in Whangarei, said.
“Some of the places we went to, I don’t think white people had ever been there. Things were not the way they should have been for a lot of South Africans.
“The way they were treated at the time, it seemed the right thing to do to pull out. It helped make a mark.”
Robertson never played for the All Blacks again.
“I made my decision but I didn’t try and convince anybody else,” he said. “But some crazy people would ring my wife up and abuse her.”
The first match of the tour, against Poverty Bay in Gisborne, three days before the Hamilton game, had gone ahead but not without the activists making their presence felt.
Among them was Murray Ball, the celebrated cartoonist, who died last month.
His father, Nelson Ball, had played five tests for the All Blacks and Murray himself was a talented centre who turned out against the 1959 British and Irish Lions for Manawatu-Horowhenua and New Zealand Juniors.
Ball had spent some of his boyhood in South Africa, where his family emigrated in 1948, the same year the National Party won power.
He matriculated from Parktown Boys’ High in Johannesburg, where he played rugby for the first XV and Transvaal, and held South Africa’s under-17 pole-vault record.
Ball returned to New Zealand during the 1970s, and his opposition to the 1981 tour led to him demanding that his iconic character, Dog, no longer be used as the All Blacks’ official mascot.
He also drew to illustrate his stance, and became vocal in highlighting what he saw as the erosion of cherished values in New Zealand.
“Murray Ball was keen on his sport and highly competitive at it — this came out in several stories at his funeral,” said Ian Grant, the founder of the cartoon archive at the National Library of New Zealand.
“But if he cared about sport, he cared more about his political and social principles.
“As Ball began a career in journalism his distaste for apartheid had broadened into a strong egalitarian streak and a concern about discrimination based on race, sex and position in society.
“He was further disillusioned by the ‘market forces’ policies of the Labour government from 1984 to 1990, with the subsequent growth in the gap between the rich and poor in what had been a largely egalitarian country.
“He ended his very popular Footrot Flats strip in 1994, saying that he could no longer go on drawing it when the sort of country and values it represented had been destroyed by successive governments.”
One of the cartoons Ball drew in opposition to the tour was captioned: “Excuse me — which of you gentlemen is the minister of police?”
The New Zealand national library website describes the panel thus: “The cartoon shows a photo of the minister of police, Ben Couch, in amongst a crowd of cartoon figures.
“They are all standing in an alley under the light of a single street lamp. The cartoon figures all look very rough and most have a weapon of some kind.
“There are newspaper clippings of words such as ‘violence’, ‘stab’, ‘beat’, ‘kill’ and ‘murder’ attached to the top left of the cartoon.
“A more conservative member of the public is standing at the corner, dwarfed by the rest of the crowd, looking for the minister.”
The Red Escort Group was the police unit at the sharp end of the New Zealand government’s attempts to control protesters.
The media took a dim view of the unit. In its coverage of events in Gisborne, the New Zealand Listener magazine reported, “One woman with a baby lay in the mud while female companions tried to crouch over them to provide physical cover against the police onslaught.”
Half a world away in Soweto, Lingelihle and KwaMashu, South Africans knew how they felt.