Waging war on and off the pitch

Blood and tears mingle on the face of this Wellington protester after a clash with the infamous police Red Squad in Molesworth St on July 29, 1981.
Blood and tears mingle on the face of this Wellington protester after a clash with the infamous police Red Squad in Molesworth St on July 29, 1981.

It's the closest this country has come to civil war. Thirty years ago on Friday, Molesworth St in Wellington dissolved into a seething, cursing mass. Civilised people - many of them now occupying the upper echelons of society - screamed "Fascist pigs" at their erstwhile cop mates. Stung by the humiliation of the cancelled Hamilton game, rookie police unleashed their batons. A young girl's face spilled blood. And the crowd got angrier.

From the winter's day in 1981 when the Springboks landed in New Zealand from apartheid-torn South Africa, the country was divided. In 56 days of protest mayhem, more than 150,000 people marched in over 200 demonstrations in 28 New Zealand cities and towns. Some 1500 were arrested. Town was pitted against country; parents against children; men against women.

The peaceful tide turned when protesters stormed Hamilton's Rugby Park on July 25, forcing the game's cancellation. Angry fans hurled full beer cans; frustrated police staged a leadership coup and protesters tasted victory.

But Molesworth St intensified police resolve. The riot-trained Red Squad earned notoriety, with its long batons and aggressive tactics. Protesters, too, were brutal. Cops were seriously injured.

The boot of Wellington-based All Black Allan Hewson sealed the tour at Auckland's Eden Park on September 12, and perhaps prevented full-scale war. But the battle scars remain, even three decades on. Everyone has a story from the 81 tour. Here are some from those closely involved.

The Negotiator
Lawyer Rob Moodie, then head of police union the Police Association.

Rob Moodie was working behind the scenes to broker an accord between police, the Government, protesters and rugby officials. And keep the peace in a police force as divided in its views as the rest of the nation.

No easy task when dealing with the deeply divisive personality of then Prime Minister Rob Muldoon. Meetings with Deputy Prime Minister Duncan MacIntyre were making progress. But then Mr Muldoon returned to the tables.

"Duncan, who was very sympathetic, rang me one evening and said, 'The boss is back, we're not going to get anywhere now.'

"The meetings were very tense. The difficulty about Muldoon was he was so intelligent and so aggressive and he had enormous knowledge of all these various treaties and conventions and accords on South Africa."

Dr Moodie was a rugby fan and, when the Springboks ran on to the field, the hair on the back of his neck stood to attention for the "famous and great Springboks". But he didn't support the tour, believing that sport and politics were inextricably linked.

That view changed when Police Commissioner Bob Walton called off the Hamilton game as reports filtered in of a stolen plane heading for the ground. "It seemed to me that no society could give in to that sort of terror."

The protesters' storming of Rugby Park, and Mr Walton's decision, humiliated police and sparked a coup in the ranks, led by Red Squad second-in-command Ross Meurant, who believed they could have prevented the pitch invasion. The Police Association planned a vote of no confidence in Mr Walton and Dr Moodie drove to Hamilton to stop them.

"It was ridiculous. The Red Squad might well have done the job but they'd have created a nightmare for the police. Troops don't pass votes of no-confidence in the generals during battle, you can't have that. And we were in a battle. It was a war."

He knew he'd done his job when Mr Walton turned up to a function of dignitaries at Wellington's Royal Oak hotel soon after, and the room fell silent, then erupted into applause.

The Protest Organiser
John Minto, protest organiser for Halt All Racist Tours, now head of the Unite Union.

Like so many others caught up in the Springbok tour melee, John Minto was just doing his job. It's a mark of the scale of the protest movement that it could employ a fulltime organiser for five years, from 1980-85.

Mr Minto got involved with Hart while at teacher's college in Auckland. Anti-tour planning started way back in 1979, so by the time the Springboks jetted into the country, Hart was more than ready.

The Wednesday before the Hamilton test, a vanload of protest organisers drove down from Auckland to case out Rugby Park. They picked the most vulnerable spot and said, "Right, that's where we're going in."

"We were excited and scared," he says. "And angry. Anger is a positive emotion if it's directed well. I don't think New Zealanders get angry enough about things.

"We went in with bolt cutters and wire cutters and ropes to pull the fence down. In the end, none of that was needed. It was just the sheer force of humanity, grabbing it. The wire mesh peeled off like a banana."

Invading the pitch is still his over-riding tour memory, and the best and worst moment. "[Police Commissioner Bob] Walton said to me, 'I don't think we can hold the crowd, you people need to leave.'

"They were chanting, 'We want rugby, we want rugby' and 'Kill, kill, kill'. At that point I felt not so much personal fear but a sense of responsibility for the fact that we had got on the field. You plan the thing out but, of course, we hadn't planned an exit strategy."

Police gave him a loudhailer to explain the danger and offer a police escort for those wanting to leave. No one moved. "At that point, I relaxed. People were making their own decisions."

While he had death threats and landed in hospital after being knocked out by a full can of beer, Mr Minto had the luxury of supportive family and workmates and never really felt unsafe.

Three decades later, he's adamant it was worth it. "We lost the battle but we won the war."

He still believes 30 people with megaphones and placards can be more powerful than 1000 letters to politicians and would be eager to be involved in any future protest against injustice.

The New Mum
Lisa Sacksen, Citizens Opposed to the Springbok Tour organiser. Now works part-time for the Social Development Ministry and is studying for a PhD in history.

Lisa Sacksen wasn't allowed to march in the May Day protest she'd organised for Wellington anti-Springbok tour group Cost.

She was so heavily pregnant that her colleagues made her wait in Civic Square.

Two weeks later, baby Lawrence was born. The newborn spent his first months in the Courtenay Place Cost office, while dad Peter Beach marched against the tour, and Ms Sacksen took out her fretting and frustration on office equipment.

"There was this Gestetner, an extremely evil, ink-filled copy machine. When I got really worried about everybody going out I used to take it to pieces and clean it, it made me feel a lot better. During the Palmerston North game, I must have taken that Gestetner machine apart five times."

She busied herself organising hundreds of hard hats from Wellington building sites, and made protective chest covers from taped-together rolls of food wrap.

On the Friday before the Athletic Park test, police tried to raid the Cost office. Ms Sacksen and others locked themselves in. At the same time, a 1000-strong march came face-to-face with the police riot squad that was supposed to be deployed only to protect players and rugby grounds.

"I was standing at the windows looking down on to Courtenay Place when the wretched Red Squad came round the corner. I was just incandescent with rage. I was so angry that these people were standing there. They were doing this 'hut, hut, hut' business. If I hadn't had Lawrence, I'd have been down there kicking them in the knees, I think."

Although the protests failed to stop the tour, she believes they were worthwhile.

The Rugby Man
Graham Atkin, Wellington Rugby Football Union chairman.

Even if you'd asked him 30 years ago if he supported apartheid, Graham Atkin would have said no. But he believed then and still does now that rugby is rugby and politics is somebody else's problem.

"We let others carry on with that - all the nutheads. I would still do everything the same. We just did our job."

Mr Atkin was only interested in presenting the best of New Zealand rugby and giving his players the chance to face off against the mighty Springboks. And he was happy to do anything to smooth that process. It was his idea to send out a dummy bus the night before the Athletic Park test to foil protesters, and then pile the Boks into another bus, which spirited them away to their grandstand digs.

"That was a crafty one, wasn't it," he says, proudly.

At six foot and 16 stone, Mr Atkin was big enough to look after himself and copped only limited abuse. Both sides, he says, had their rough elements.

The Flour Bomb Pilot
Marx Jones, pilot of the hired Cessna that flew over the Eden Park test, dropping flour bombs and leaflets. Now a builder.

Named in memory of his Communist grandparents, Marx Jones couldn't help but become a revolutionary. He learned to fly with the intention of becoming a top- dressing pilot but drove oil tankers instead. He got involved in the union movement and the Bastion Pt occupation, so anti-tour protests were a natural extension.

The flour bombs were Pat McQuarrie's idea. The World War II bomber had dropped powdery missiles on a softball game against South Africa in 1978. But he was in jail for stealing a light plane from Taupo and flying it toward the Hamilton game.

Hart asked Mr Jones if he'd take over the mission. They intended to disrupt the earlier Whangarei game but the plane was blown off a tiny airstrip while being loaded with brown paper bags packed with flour by his Ponsonby mates.

Flying at 150kmh, it took a few low passes for young bomber Grant Cole to perfect the missile trajectory. Mr Jones rejects the accusation the flight was reckless and has no regrets, despite the stunt earning him a six-month jail term, away from his wife and five- year-old. He was arrested on landing at the airfield, by a former first XV teammate.

"I went to three jails and in each case a Maori guy came up to me and said, 'You get any trouble, you let me know.'"

The tour changed Mr Jones - he moved into forestry and building - and changed New Zealand, he believes. But the hatred took longer to subside. He had to ask permission to enter pubs and, at a family funeral 15 years later, one of the pro-tour Joneses refused to shake his hand.

The Rugby-Mad Maori
Ray Ahipene-Mercer, protester, now Wellington city councillor.

For Ray Ahipene-Mercer, the fight was personal. He'd felt the sting of racism, having been called "nigger" by Hutt Valley schoolmates. He was Maori, had been captain of the first XV, and his Pakeha dad had been active in the earlier No Maoris, No Tour movement.

"I came back to this country in 1981, having been a musician and guitar-maker in London. Some of my Maori musician friends were unable to get off in South African ports. I was infected by this sense of injustice."

He remembers the "absolute mayhem" when the cops began batoning the crowds at the Battle of Molesworth St. "They batoned an old woman to the ground with no provocation. They just smashed into people. It did the opposite of what they intended. It lifted the commitment of everybody there. You're wound up, there are people with their faces split open.

"There was unbelievable anger. The Maori police were labelled Uncle Toms to their faces. They were as much victims of the situation, they were being cynically used. But that's not an excuse. There's times when you have to examine your soul, and if they weren't, we had to remind them they should be."

When Mr Ahipene-Mercer's ex- Maori All Black uncle found out he was involved with Hart he "went spare". "He said 'I'll see you on the other side of the barbed wire.' He was incredibly, intensely angry. He had been really supportive with my rugby but wouldn't talk to me for a very long time afterward. I went from being a strong rugby follower to not watching a single game for maybe 15 years."

Rugby and relationships eventually bounced back, but the tour had a lasting effect - turning attention to racism in New Zealand, Mr Ahipene-Mercer says.

The Player
Allan Hewson, 1981 All Black and kicker of the series-winning penalty.

"I wanted to play rugby and rugby only for the All Blacks, simple as that. I didn't think about anything else. Pretty selfish, eh?"

Allan Hewson wasn't interested in politics. His wife took a different view - she was against the tour and boycotted all the games. Thirty years on, he thinks his wife was right.

When the Athletic Park test came around, the Springboks were cunningly secreted in the social rooms under the grandstand, so they wouldn't have to drive through protesters on match day. Mr Hewson reckons that isolation won them the match.

"They were on [to] a winner, locked away from everybody else. We were stuck out at the airport hotel, subjected to protesters and all sorts of yelling and screaming in the middle of the night. They were all protected from that."

Despite the abuse, players never really felt unsafe, Mr Hewson says. They had the protection of the notorious police Red Squad, and there was a naivety about the likelihood of real violence.

At Eden Park, with the series locked at 1-1, the pressure was intense on and off the park. To see a light plane sweeping above the field, dropping unidentified missiles, was just another chapter in a surreal experience.

"It was absolutely bizarre. The forwards didn't really know what was going on because they were all head down, bum up. But us skinny, little backs could see what was happening. It was quite frightening really. You didn't know what was being thrown."

They played on, and Hewson found himself poised to kick the series-clinching penalty. This wasn't just about a game of rugby. If he missed, all that anger and pain would have been for nothing.

"I felt quite relieved that it went over so that we'd won and it made it all worthwhile. If we hadn't won, it would have been a nightmare. It was bad enough anyway with people not looking at rugby in a positive light afterward. We would have felt terrible and I might not have played too many more tests, so it was quite important all round really."

Though he now believes the tour was a mistake, it didn't dim his love of rugby. And he believes it made a difference to New Zealand, throwing a spotlight on police methods.

The Cop
Grant O'Fee, Wellington CIB detective sergeant, now responsible for policing this year's Rugby World Cup. He has also co-written Springbok tour movie Rage with cartoonist Tom Scott.

The first thing Superintendent Grant O'Fee did when asked to manage World Cup policing was get out the old Springbok tour debrief notes. Not because he expects massive protests, but because it was a huge policing operation.

As a 30-something detective sergeant, it was hard to believe the fervour surrounding the tour. "It was a bit surreal. Most of us kept pinching ourselves thinking, 'What the hell's going on?' All this over a bloody rugby game?"

Molesworth St marked a clear shift in police policies. Protesters had been allowed free rein, including blocking the entire Hutt motorway. But, after the "miserable failure" to prevent the Hamilton pitch invasion and game cancellation, police were demoralised. The briefing was clear - "Tonight, protesters will not cross our lines".

The ensuing violent clash was, he believes, the result of protest organisers failing to take police warnings seriously and inexperienced recruits on the front lines resorting to force to push back the ever-advancing mass.

"It's been painted as a bloodthirsty baton charge. It certainly wasn't. Neither was it a charge up Molesworth St by rioting protesters."

While he accepts "we'd rather we'd made the point in a more subtle way", unfettered protest wasn't an option. "Sadly, it then became a them-and-us situation."

For him, it reinforced just how thin is the veneer of civilisation. Lawyers, rugby mates, rational, reasonable people he'd drunk tea with only months ago were suddenly spitting insults: "Police pigs, puppets of the Fascist state".

Though he was committed to his duty as a police officer, Mr O'Fee was "totally and utterly opposed" by the end of the tour.

Face Of The Red Squad
Ross Meurant, Red Squad second-in- command, later MP and businessman.

Ross Meurant and John Minto agree on one thing - they were all pawns in Rob Muldoon's scheme to win the votes of rugby-mad provincial New Zealand.

He's "sick to bloody death" of talking about the tour, but makes no apology for his specialist riot- control squad's violent quelling of protests, or the use of the long batons that earned them such notoriety. But he rejects suggestions he revelled in the clashes.

"We were the meat in the sandwich. We had to deal with the crap in the middle. What we did was lawful at all times. Pretty rugged and violent, but lawful."

This month Mr Meurant admitted for the first time that he stymied police attempts to identify a Red Squad member alleged to have beaten up passive protesters dressed as clowns in Auckland.

He warns against the romanticising of the protest movement. "There was brutality on both sides, no question about that." One cop had both shoulder blades smashed, another lost a finger.

"There were two gangs. I was on the gang the state employed. If the state's gang doesn't win, you have revolution. You had to meet force with force."

He candidly admits that the profile he gained through the Red Squad, and his subsequent book about the experience, bought him a seat in Parliament.

But it came at a cost. While police won the battle on the streets, they lost the battle for hearts and minds of average Kiwis. And as support for the tour rapidly diminished, he was increasingly vilified.

"Protest is a powerful tool, far more powerful than I understood at the time. With my business interests, and the amount of time I spent in the Middle East, one is very aware of the power of the people."

The Rogue Commentator
Brendan Telfer, TVNZ sports commentator who refused to cover the tour. Now Radio Live commentator.

When Television New Zealand offered its staff a no-strings option to opt out of tour coverage, Brendan Telfer didn't think twice.

While on his OE in South Africa he met future wife Gina, and stuck around. A Chinese South African, Gina was classified as "non-white".

"It wasn't a very pleasant experience. It gave me as a European a chance to see what apartheid was like if you were a black South African. We were stopped in the streets. We couldn't go to movies together, to restaurants.

"On the train, she had to travel in the non-white section. All that sort of crap. I was pleased to get out of there."

There was division and ill- feeling in the TVNZ sports department, where only two journalists opted out. And Telfer clearly remembers a lecture from senior journalist Richard Harman, while out drinking with mates.

"I remember him saying to me in front of a whole bunch of my colleagues, 'You should be ashamed of yourself, standing there on the sideline refusing to do anything on the tour. You are a journalist, you're paid to be objective, you should be out there covering the tour, not indulging in some sort of half- baked moral theory about your opposition to this debate.'

"It was quite a dressing-down and I've never forgotten it, or probably forgiven the guy for what he said."

When the tour was over, and Telfer resumed duties commentating at Rugby Park in Hamilton, he was jeered and abused and TVNZ cancelled all on-pitch coverage out of fear for their safety. He was even abused at the New Zealand Maori Rugby Awards dinner.

"I've often chuckled at how ironic that was, the one place I thought I would be free from redneck rugby supporters. I remember going up to the bar and copping it from redneck Maori rugby supporters."

The Dominion Post