Why I watched Charles and Di as blood spilled

17:00, Jul 14 2011

It's 30 years this month since I had the option of joining an anti-Springbok tour protest down Molesworth St and having my head beaten in. Or going home and watching Charles and Di get married on TV.

Royalty won. Naturally. I had no interest in rugby, for or against. But a lot of people did.

A few days before, protesters had managed to stop a match in Hamilton.

Now other protesters were heading through the Wellington dusk for the South African embassy in Wadestown  and police confronted them with PR-24 batons, the notorious "Minto Bars".

Blood was spilled on Wellington streets in the most brutal clash between Establishment and public since the

"Red Fed" protests of 1913 were broken up by horse-riding, club-wielding farmers.


The "Battle of Molesworth Street" was the first big stoush of the infamous 1981 Springbok tour  but it was not the last. Over three months from July 1981, large slabs of the population marched in opposition to the tour and the South African regime. Others went to the games. Families were split. People were hurt. It led to open street battles between protesters and police.

Students were prominent in Wellington protests. I was studying at Victoria at the time, and my lasting memory is of an on-campus attitude coloured by sanctimonious intolerance and vicious hypocrisy. Those who failed to openly advocate a narrowly prescribed anti-tour line were dubbed racist  which made them a lower form of life that had to be discriminated against.

Overstated? Not really. The tour was tailor-made for a self-righteous student community to vent indignant anger at the world.

But most protesters elsewhere were ordinary New Zealanders. Conservatives. Family folk. That came home to me in Napier on August 25, where the Springboks pitched themselves against NZ Maori, while mothers with prams walked up to water-filled skips and a line of baton-toting, helmeted Red Squad members.
Thirty years on, it seems to me the anger and emotion that ripped through New Zealand on the back of the 1981 tour were disproportionate.

Rugby was, after all, just a game. And yeah, the South African apartheid regime was disgusting  but the white minority government wasn't listening to international pressure. Kiwis bashing each other in Molesworth and other streets wasn't going to change that.

History works in long sweeps. These days we look on the 1980s as a decade when New Zealand properly shrugged off the legacies of its colonial past. After nigh on a century of imagining ourselves Britain's try-hard "best child", it wasn't easy.

The thing is that social change on that scale does not just happen. It certainly wasn't triggered by a snap election announced in slurring words by an unpopular prime minister late one night in 1984.

The origins stretched back years, a growing reaction to the safe, dull, domesticated, meat-and-two-veg paradise built during the 1920-1950 era in response to the trauma of the world wars. By the late 1970s that society was past its use-by date.

Beneath the surface, the tour became a device for venting local frustrations.
At this level it was no coincidence that events boiled down to direct confrontations between police  symbols of the Establishment  and protesters. It was no coincidence that the protests ran against rugby  one of the three pillars of 20th century New Zealand's bloke culture.

Kiwis were, literally, attacking the symbols of their mid-century world.

That explains a good deal about the unprecedented scale of the protests. At the time, nobody knew what the future might bring. But what people wanted was clear; and it came out, often violently, in that bitter and divisive winter of 1981.

Matthew Wright is one of New Zealand's most published historians and has written more than 45 books.

The Dominion Post