1981: Springbok Tour and Protests

Last week, on 15 August, it was the anniversary of the first test match held in Christchurch of the infamous 1981 Springbok Tour. A controversial time in New Zealand’s history, the 1981 Springbok Tour demonstrations represent a time when New Zealand was divided culturally and politically.

By Batons and Barbed Wire

The context of the 1981 Springbok Tour was the political climate at the time, specifically, that the legal status of citizens in South African was determined by their race. This was the era known as Apartheid, and it was how South African society was organised from 1948 until the end of the regime in 1991.

There were three racial categories under Apartheid Law; White, Black, and Coloured. Under the rules of Apartheid people from the different racial categories were not allowed to interact with each other. This applied to sport, too. What this meant, in practice, was that White, Black, and Coloured athletes were not allowed to compete against, or play with, each other.

During the Apartheid regime, South Africa became an international pariah, marginalised in many arenas by the international community. This extended to international sports as well as the United Nations called for a sporting boycott on South Africa. This led to South Africa being expelled from FIFA and the IRB. For this reason, South Africa were not present at the first two Rugby World Cups in 1987 and 1991. 

The controversy involving New Zealand, and specifically New Zealand rugby, has its own history before the 1981 tour. In 1970, the All Blacks toured South Africa with a mixed race team. In this instance, a mixed race All Blacks team was allowed to play the all white South African team on the condition that the Māori and Pasifika players in the All Blacks were declared as “honorary whites” for the duration of the tour. This sparked controversy in Aotearoa-New Zealand for multiple reasons. Not only did this go against the UN call for a sporting boycott on South Africa, it also reflected badly on the race relations in New Zealand that Māori and Pasifika people had to disavow their identity in order to play.

Following this, in 1977, member nations of the Commonwealth - including New Zealand - agreed to the Gleneagles Agreement. In short, the Gleneagles Agreement was to show support for the international campaign against Apartheid and meant that the member nations would not have any sporting contact with Apartheid South Africa. However, by 1981, the government of Robert Muldoon had established a policy of not mixing politics with sport, and in accordance with this it saw no fit reason to stop or suspend the Springbok Tour. 

The 1981 Springbok Tour started on 19 July, as the Springbok rugby team arrived in the country and had their first tour game against Poverty Bay on the 22nd. This is where the protest against the tour began. 

The first test was on 15 August in Christchurch. The game took place with the All Blacks winning on the day, 14-9, but the real action is what occurred outside the ground on the streets surrounding Lancaster Park. Large confrontations happened outside the ground between the police and protestors. Batons were used as police force was directed at the protestors who wanted to occupy Lancaster Park in order to prevent the game from happening. 

Map of the Springbok tour protest route, 15 August 1981, CCL-StarP-01049A, In copyright, Christchurch Star.

The following two tests - in Wellington and Auckland respectively - were also met by protesters and violence. Batons were used by the police on the protesters on both occasions. The final match in Auckland is particularly infamous due to a plane flying over the stadium and dropping smoke bombs and a flour bomb onto the playing surface.

Over the entire duration of the tour, more than 150,000 people participated in over 200 demonstrations across the country. Of those 150,000, 1,500 were charged with offences stemming from those protests.

Police and Springbok rugby tour protesters, 15 August 1981, CCL-StarP-01042A, In copyright, Christchurch Star.


The events of 1981 mark a dark part of Aotearoa-New Zealand’s history. The 1981 Springbok Tour casts a long shadow over any conversation about race relations in Aotearoa-New Zealand, and the sporting relationship that was maintained with Apartheid South Africa during this period needs to be remembered as a great blemish upon Aotearoa-New Zealand’s claim of being a world leader in regards to Human Rights. It is something that needs to be remembered and reflected upon within our own race relations and as we continue to develop as a nation moving forwards. With this said however, the fact that 150,000 New Zealanders stood up to what they perceived as a great injustice is also to be remembered and held up as an example of how good New Zealand could be.

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