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A Nation of two halves

Twenty-five years ago this month New Zealand was torn apart by civil conflict. It was a turning point in our history.

Thousands in the streets surging towards the park, drama and tension everywhere - this was a nation at war. We might be talking about the Springbok tour 50 years ago or, equally, the Springbok tour 25 years ago. But in 1956, the violence was all on the rugby field. New Zealand was at "war" with South Africa, the country was united in a passionate determination to defeat the old enemy. In 1981 the country was divided, and the violence was between New Zealanders in the streets.

What brought about that change in one generation? In 1956, the Springbok team was all-white, the personification of the apartheid regime. Yet no one in New Zealand protested. In 1981, the team even had some token blacks, yet thousands took to the streets. At the most obvious level, the conflict in 1981 was between those who believed that apartheid was wrong and that playing football with South Africa implicitly recognised an evil regime; and those who held to an old ideal of keeping politics out of sport. But deep-seated social changes lay behind the debates. The tour represented a crucial moment in the journey between the New Zealand of Sid Holland, Canterbury farmer, war veteran and "Britisher through and through", and the New Zealand of Helen Clark, woman, former academic and Auckland urbanite.

There were at least five critical ways in which the 56 days of the 1981 tour represented this struggle for identity between the old and the new New Zealand. These conflicts were strikingly revealed when, at the end of the tour, some colleagues and I carried out a survey of people who had marched on the last anti-tour march in Wellington or been members of the Wellington anti-tour group, COST (Citizens Opposed to the Springbok Tour).

==Baby Boomers v War Veterans==

The first defining factor was that more than two-thirds of those who marched and three-fifths of those on the COST mailing list were under the age of 40, and the greatest number in both lists were aged 30-34 in 1981. These were people who had been brought up in the relatively prosperous years of the 1950s.

In the late 1960s, Tim Shadbolt had proclaimed the coming of a new generation with new values: "Don't trust anyone over 30," he said. This generation cut its teeth marching against the Vietnam war and French nuclear tests before moving on to other causes, such as the environment. Among those causes was sporting contact with South Africa. HART (Halt All Racist Tours), the leading anti-tour organisation, founded by young Auckland university students in 1969, brought to the 1981 tour all the techniques refined on marches and demonstrations through the late 60s and 70s. The insistence on non-violence, the banners and the chants, the eye for symbolic actions and street theatre - these typified the youth revolt of the late 60s. Shadbolt was among those who tried to storm the field at Gisborne during the first tour match on July 22.

On the other side were many New Zealanders in their fifties and sixties. Born in the 1920s or earlier, they had grown up in depression and war. Hard work and the need to save was the legacy of the slump; a belief in the British Empire and the role of New Zealand men in armed conflict was the legacy of the war. Rugby was central to that culture. The game had achieved that status during the first half of the 20th century when it was seen as perfect training for war. This generation was personified by Robert Muldoon, born in 1921, a war veteran and now Prime Minister. He had seven war veterans in his first Cabinet. When the choice came as to whether or not to stop the Springbok tour, he talked about "our kith and kin" in South Africa and their mutual war service.

The year 1981 was not just a conflict of boomers and veterans (many older people marched or gave money to HART), yet the tour represents a moment when the politics of a new generation showed itself. Before long, people who had come to political consciousness in the 60s would be ministers in David Lange's Cabinet.

==City v Country==

In 1956, more New Zealanders lived in cities than in the country, but the nation's mythology remained resolutely rural. Farmers were regarded as the "backbone of the country" and sheep farmers were among the nation's wealthiest. The cities were heavily suburban; downtown streets were virtually deserted at night and weekends. By the 1980s, farmers were facing the consequences of Britain's entry into the EEC and the switch away from wool to synthetics. Robert Muldoon had put sheep on the welfare rolls. The city was changing fast. Auckland had grown from some 300,000 in the 50s to more than a million and had become ethnically diverse, with rural Maori and Pacific Islanders entering in large numbers. A new urban culture emerged - the end of 10 o'clock closing and liberal liquor laws led to trendy restaurants and music in bars. There were film festivals and plays. And the young middle classes were beginning to move from their suburban gardens to inner-city apartments.

Behind these changes lay a crucial revolution. In 1956, university was the minority pursuit of a few aspiring school teachers and beleaguered intellectuals. There were about 10,000 students in total. But urban jobs were based on education; lawyers, teachers, civil servants, computer specialists had all been to university. By 1981, more than 50,000 students were enrolled. This flood of graduates had been exposed to the international world of learning, and they were articulate. In our survey we found that more than half of the anti-tour protesters had a university degree and another third had University Entrance. The unions and working-class activists played an important role in anti-tour protest, but most of the protesters were from the educated middle class.

Of these, the largest numbers were those directly involved in the educational profession as teachers, lecturers or students; those doing other kinds of intellectual work as librarians, scientists or artists; and public servants and social workers. In other words, people who comprised the "liberal middle class" - people who often had a government salary and stood at one remove from the capitalist system.

On the other hand, support for the Springbok tour was strong in rural and small-town New Zealand. In a famous incident, 50 lonely protesters were showered with eggs and bottles as they marched up the main street of Eltham one Friday night. All the evidence from the political polls in 1981 showed a marked contrast in attitudes towards the tour between small town and city. In the 1981 election, Muldoon's National Party held provincial seats that might have fallen, such as Gisborne and Whangarei, but lost big-city seats like Miramar and Wellington City.

This, too, was a portent. The 1980s saw further conflict between small-town and big-city New Zealand, especially over homosexual law reform. And arguably since then urban culture has become increasingly dominant.

==Men v Women==

For Kiwi males growing up in the 1950s, rugby was the essence of manhood. As a young boy in 1956, I vividly remember feeling myself grow another foot in height and a couple of stones in weight when the whistle blew at the end of the fourth test. To be Peter Jones, even with his swearing, or Don Clarke, even if he was from the Waikato, was what we aspired to. Rebels like the poet James K Baxter were dismissed as "beardies and weirdies".

As a new educated urban generation emerged, and as a women's movement exploded, both men and women began to question the worship of the great black jersey. Close examination of anti-tour photos reveals about as many women as men. When we asked marchers to explain their motivations, some women lambasted the culture of rugby: "Loathe rugby - primitive game"; "Bugger rugger"; and, most explicitly, "I also disliked the macho aspect of rugby and resent the way it has dominated New Zealand culture."

Not all 1981 protesters were anti-rugby. After the tour was over, there was a match at Athletic Park, and it was amusing to see how many of the blokes who had been out protesting the weeks before took the opportunity to renew acquaintance with the game. It was also a bit chilling to be part of training sessions for protests when we practised resisting the cops. It seemed uncomfortably close to rugby practices or cadets at school!

Nineteen eighty-one did, however, represent a fundamental challenge to a bastion of male culture; and the challenge had long-term effects. Rugby itself took a lesson from the event - the game here has since been more creative, less narrowly focused on bullocking forward power - and our society has seen a remarkable rise of women to positions of influence and power.

==Black v White==

It may be uncomfortable for us to remember that, until the 1980s, we were part of the "white Commonwealth". We paid lip service to the "finest race relations in the world" but, until the 1960s, Maori and Pakeha lived largely separate lives. We operated a white New Zealand policy by encouraging immigration from the UK or, as an alternative, by the fair-skinned Dutch. In the 1970s, we tried to discourage Pacific Islanders with dawn raids.

The 1981 protesters specifically attacked racism. Through education, often, they had learnt the fallacy of racist theories; they had been influenced by the worldwide impact of black American culture and had often seen other cultures overseas. There is no doubt that the anti-tour movement was about race.

In that respect it was also a crucial moment. By 1981, the Maori protest movement was established. The Land March had occurred six years before. But Pakeha had largely stood aside. During the 1981 tour, Maori increasingly joined the protests, and as they did so they confronted non-Maori New Zealanders with the searching question: "If you campaign about race in South Africa, what about at home?" After the tour, some tried to answer that question through groups like Project Waitangi, and there were stronger efforts to examine the local situation. Within a few years, the Waitangi Tribunal would be empowered to examine claims dating back to 1840 and the immigration laws would be radically changed to give priority to skill, not race or skin colour.

==Britain of the South v Independent Pacific Nation==

At the heart of the 1981 conflict was a battle for the nation's soul. Playing rugby against South Africa was consistent with the traditional identity of New Zealand as a loyal servant of the British Empire. Our people were "better Britons", whites or, if Maori, "honorary whites", schooled in the outdoors and having a place in the world as fine rugby-players and soldiers. The national importance of rugby competition with South Africa explained the huge headlines in 1956. The anti-tour movement had a different vision. We would still have a distinctive place in the world - remember the chant at Hamilton, "The whole world is watching" - but the role would be that of an independent, racially tolerant society. From our place in the Pacific we might be a moral exemplar. It was but a short step to extending this role and becoming the nuclear-free example.

In these five ways the 1981 tour represented a defining moment in the journey from 1956 to 2006. There are some qualifications. First, it is worth noting that, for all the intensity of the conflict, New Zealanders did not end up shooting one another in 1981. The old constraint on the use of guns in civil disorder held firm, and the conflicts retained a high degree of ritual and theatre, despite the bashing by batons.

Second, for all the anguish, both those who marched and those who attended rugby games were minorities. Many Kiwis got on with their lives as they always had. There is a lovely story of the final test in Auckland in 1981. In order to protect the rugby fans, the police blocked some roads around Eden Park with large waste-bins. When collected after the game, they were full of household rubbish. In the midst of all the rocks being thrown and the batons being wielded, locals had taken this pivotal moment in our history as an opportunity to dispose of their garbage.

Third, the 1981 tour was not the only crucial moment in the extraordinary transformation of New Zealand over the past half-century. It was essentially a cultural battle; other impending issues of an economic character were barely impacted by the Springbok tour.

Yet the tour remains a crucial moment in that transformation, a time when we fought on the streets about the nature of the society we would become. In the end, if one looks at issues of gender or race or culture, we are a very different society compared with 50 years ago, in part because of what happened during those tumultuous days 25 years ago.