Mandela remembrance at Hamilton sports ground

Last updated 09:14 11/12/2013

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Kyro Selket has some vivid and terrifying memories of the last time she was in Rugby Park.

That was July 25, 1981. She and about 350 other people were in the middle of the pitch, surrounded by riot police and, in the stands, thousands of angry rugby fans baying for blood and raining bottles, cans and other objects upon them.

When she returns on Sunday night it will be a very different atmosphere that greets her. The Hamilton sports ground will be the venue for a candlelight remembrance ceremony for former South African leader and freedom fighter Nelson Mandela.

Rugby Park was the site of a pivotal battle in the fight against South Africa's brutal apartheid regime in 1981, when the touring Springbok rugby team's match against Waikato was called off after protesters broke through a fence and ran onto the playing pitch.

Dr Selket, who is helping organise Sunday night's ceremony, said negotiations with the Hamilton City Council to allow mourners access to the Rugby Park grounds were still under way, but she was hopeful they would be permitted to gather on the pitch, where the protesters linked arms in defiance of the police and rugby supporters furious at missing out on their entertainment.

"This will be a remembrance. It is not a protest," Dr Selket said.

"The fact we are holding it at Rugby Park is purely symbolic . . . It is a place of great significance."

John Minto, one of the anti-tour movement's main organisers, will speak at the event.

At the time of the protests Mandela was a prisoner on Robben Island. Mr Minto met him when Mandela visited New Zealand in 1995.

"One of the things he said was that when he was in prison in 1981 and they heard that the [Springbok tour game against Waikato] had been stopped by protest, all the prisoners rattled their doors throughout the jail and he said it was like the sun came out," Mr Minto later recalled.

Many involved in the anti-tour protests had been invited to Sunday night's event, Dr Selket said.

"I'd like to think we could get around 100 people here. Anything more would be a bonus.

"We can't forget that special connection we have with Nelson Mandela . . . Hamilton City Council are very receptive in looking at letting us into the grounds. We know they have a multimillion-dollar investment to protect. Even if they decide against it we will still gather outside, at the fence we ripped down.

"I think most of us were stunned that we managed to get on the field that day. ‘What are we going to do now?' we asked ourselves. It was really frightening. There were bottles and full cans of beer coming down at us from the crowd. Somebody threw a warratah paling at us. They wanted blood."

Dr Selket's memories of that day include the sight of the South African side looking down at them from the stands - and the team's sole black African member being ushered inside, away from his view of the conflict. Another frightening moment came when the protesters realised the media were also being moved away from the scene.

"You become so distant from it that you end up romanticising it to a degree . . . But it caused a lot of pain. The country really was at siege with itself. Families were divided. My father refused to speak to me when he found out I was involved.

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"Some might say we are stuck in 1981. We aren't. But this sports ground, this place, has a big connection to Mandela. It's a political site in a sense. It's where something big happened."

The Sunday ceremony will run from 8.30pm to 10.30pm. A Facebook page has been created for the event, called "Remembrance for Nelson Mandela".

- Waikato Times


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