From Our Archive: Days of Rage 1981

by Fiona Rae / 15 July, 2011
August 1981, and Tony Reid and Phil Gifford reporting from the Springbok tour find a country "unrecognisably changed, angrily divided and threateningly alien".
August 22 1981, and the cover story on the Listener is about the major new television series Landmarks, presented by 68-year-old geographer and farmer Kenneth Cumberland. But New Zealand was undergoing another landmark event: the Springbok tour, and in a major story about the tour and the protests against it, Tony Reid and Phil Gifford found that “anti-tour action might have released forces almost as ugly as the apartheid system”. On July 25, the day that the match at Rugby Park, Hamilton, had been stopped by protest, “all of us were too confused to define or understand them. But it was already clear that the face of protest, the police and the rugby world had suffered a frightening change. That one-minute charge from Rugby Park’s perimeter fence to the centre of the ground had meant our country could never be quite the same again.”

In an earlier editorial, Listener editor Peter Stewart wrote that there was very real doubt that the qualities of "hope and goodwill, tolerance and conviction would guide us through the next few weeks without considerable pain". Here is that editorial in full:

Living with the Tour

“The melancholy days are come, the saddest of the year …” William Bryant’s poem was about the death of the flowers. But New Zealand’s melancholy stems from a decision to invite a sports team to this country – an invitation that was as unnecessary as it was insensitive.

There is little need to restate at length the arguments against the rugby tour by the Springboks. Essentially, if New Zealand had refused to host such a tour it would not only have been a clear expression of our condemnation of apartheid but would also have added pressure on South Africa to break down its racial barriers. Any progress – whether it is regarded as cosmetic or genuine – in this latter area in recent years has occurred only through outside pressure and South Africa’s frustration at its isolation. Pressure through its national sport could have been particularly effective. The invitation was issued, however, by the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, which was able to claim that political considerations were really the responsibility of the Government; and the Government did not interfere, for it stressed that “democracy” provided the Rugby Union with freedom of choice. There was no mention of the fact that freedoms, or rights, in any community, are always complemented by responsibilities or duties; and that duties are both “logically and actually” prior to rights.

Instead, a number of red herrings were offered – like the visa question, like the bleating protestations against “blackmail” and against New Zealand being “singled out” for attention. If the Rugby Union had had the moral sensibility to postpone the tour, or the Government sufficient probity genuinely to discourage the tour, the red herrings and the insecure reactions to Commonwealth pleas would never have surfaced.

Probably the actual decision was all that could have been expected from the Rugby Union. From the Government, however, leadership could have been expected. Indeed, a country confused and divided might justifiably have demanded clear leadership. Instead, there were red herrings – and political bait tossed out hopefully but deliberately to catch larger electoral fish in November.

In many ways, of course, the public debate about the tour has been an unusually healthy exercise in democracy. Matters of principle have seldom forced our citizens to probe deeply inside themselves. Our lands, in other times, and were brought to this country. Even the fact that we are an island nation has protected us from many of the pressures facing older democracies. The tour debate has extended our understanding of democracy that much further.

But there have been unwholesome signs as well, and now the melancholy days are come. The debate has showed up a malady within our society. A spasm of white arrogance, expressed in the name of rugby, is a symptom of a totally undesirable ailment. Each New Zealander must be his own physician for this: it is not something that warrants what Gladstone called “The allowance that must be made for the frailty and evil in man”. What is threatened here is our own endeavour to create a just and harmonious multi-racial society.

Yet if New Zealand has been tested already (and found wanting to a degree), there are more tests to come. The police and the extremists among the tour protesters and tour supporters have already had their roles defined. And irrespective of who finally provokes it, violence stalks side by side with extreme “passive” protest. There are many New Zealanders of genuine persuasion, however, who are going to be caught in the continuing moral dilemma over the Springbok tour. They will recognize that the device of political government is very artificial and that democracy itself can seem to be an accident of necessity – one which cannot always reconcile the conflicting demands made on it with the expectations it arouses. But how far does the genuine man go in an expression of protest? Where does moral indignation stop and observance of society’s laws begin?

Hope and goodwill, tolerance and conviction – there is very real doubt that these qualities will be sufficient to guide us through the next few weeks without considerable pain. Indeed, the pain has begun already. It must be doubted, too, whether any chance remains for a rational and intelligent approach, such are the battle-lines which have been drawn.

Perhaps we deserve the penalties incurred by the ignorant and selfish folly of the Rugby Union and the irresponsible and convenient omission by the Government. It will be small consolation if the rugby fanatic and the opportunist politician alike learn that this tour is but a shabby expression of “right”, or the protester learns that stopping the tour is a hollow victory because it would be for the wrong reasons – civil upheaval rather than a clear moral decision by the whole country.

But these are negative views. Looking ahead, beyond these saddest days, we must remain hopeful. If we learn something about ourselves – as individuals and as a people – during this period, we could be the richer for it. Many things will emerge which we may not like, but recognizing them and acknowledging them (as with any malady) could be the first step to a cure. Rebuilding the trust that ultimately maintains our fragile democratic order may take much longer. Yet it will not take as long as the blacks of South Africa have to wait for that most precious flower of all bloom – human dignity. Theirs are indeed the saddest days.

Peter Stewart, Editor, August 1 1981

Redmer Yska's story about the inside story of the tour here.

You can also view the archive pages as a pdf document here

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