The night of the batons: still defiant 30 years on

Last updated 13:17 03/08/2013
Springbok protest

CONFRONTATION: Baton-weilding police and demonstrators clash in Molesworth St, with Parliament in the background, during the Springbok rugby tour protest of July 29, 1981.

Alick Shaw
Fairfax NZ
ALICK SHAW: "For some more senior police, they were surprised when the batons were drawn."
Karen Brough
OUTSPOKEN: Karen Brough has no regrets.
Karen Brough
NOT AFRAID: At 16, Karen Brough too a police baton to the head, back and arms.

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The veterans of the 1981 Springbok tour protests are still proud of having stood up for something they believed in, despite their scars. Tom Hunt reports. 

For 32 years, the hair hasn't grown from the scar on Karen Brough's temple.

It's a brutal reminder of the evening of July 29, 1981, when she was at the front of 2000 anti-apartheid protesters who came up against baton-wielding police in Molesworth St, outside Parliament.

The 16-year-old Wellington High School pupil was hit in the head with a baton, knocked to the ground, then hit on the back and arms.

"I could hear the pinging of batons on people's heads," she remembered this week.

She has no regrets about her participation in the protest: "No revolution without blood," she says.

Eight years earlier, in 1973, Labour prime minister Norman Kirk had sent a powerful message to South Africa, withdrawing an invitation for a white- only South African rugby team to tour New Zealand.

In 1981, the Springboks were invited back by Rob Muldoon's National government, which supported the tour in election year. New Zealand was divided between those supporting the tour (sport and politics shouldn't mix, they said) and those who thought South Africa should be isolated from the sporting world till apartheid ended. Rugby was seen as the key sporting boycott weapon via which opponents of apartheid could place pressure on South Africa.

Anti-tour protesters had already forced the cancellation of a game in Hamilton when Ms Brough and her friends attended the rally in Parliament Grounds on July 29. The protest was then due to head up the road towards the South African consulate-general.

Inspector Bert Hill, using a megaphone, warned the protesters: "Would you please not go out on to Molesworth St."

The crowd surged ahead anyway. Outside Parliament's main gates, five lines of police blocked their path. Protest marshals warned they would keep going; police stood their ground.

The crowds behind forced those in front directly into the police line. A Dominion reporter was two metres from the front line, yet heard no order for batons to be used.

"But suddenly, the policemen in the front line began hitting the front rows of demonstrators," the paper reported the next day - a day when coverage competed with the wedding of Prince Charles and Lady Diana Spencer.

Police said they were pushed, kicked, and had their ties torn off, and they were acting in self-defence. Batons were drawn for 20 seconds at the most, Deputy Chief Inspector Peter Faulkner said.

Ms Brough ended up on the ground. She was dragged out by friends and later treated in hospital. "There were a lot of injured people but there were no ambulances," she says.

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Alick Shaw, who would go on to become a Wellington city councillor, was a "chief marshal" of protesters that day.

"We had made a decision, if a line was formed, we would keep going, which was the last time we ever made that decision."

He remembers cadets from the police college were in the front row. "I think it would be fair to say, for some more senior police, they were surprised when the batons were drawn."

The Molesworth St incident ended direct confrontation between anti-tour protesters and police.

That decision was further enforced when it was claimed (though never confirmed) that the military, on behalf of police, had a warehouse of barbed-wire and tear gas ready for an upcoming Palmerston North game.

Protest leader Trevor Richards says there was a concerted effort to stretch police resources during the tour. On the day of the Waikato game, 2500 people marched on to the Wellington motorway.

Early in the tour, about 45 people walked on to the runway at Wellington Airport and closed it down after Air New Zealand had become a target for flying the Springboks around.

"Many of us did things that, under any other circumstances, we would never have contemplated," he wrote in his book Dancing on Our Bones. "If the police wanted to send everyone to the match venue in an attempt to protect the game, they could. We would close down the rest of the country."

Thirty-two years later, Ms Brough lives near Dannevirke, where she is a support worker for people with intellectual disabilities. She remains outspoken, notably on issues to do with the environment and the sale of state assets.

"I'm still protesting, more so because National is in government."

- The Dominion Post

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