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Trevor Richards in 1983. Photo/Jane Ussher/Listener

Springboks tour veteran Trevor Richards on the purpose of protest

A hero of the anti-apartheid movement is marking a 50-year milestone by looking at the past, present and future of protest. 

In 1981, Trevor Richards was one of the small number of people who most New Zealanders instantly recognised and either loved or hated. With his luxuriant long locks and trademark moustache, 31-year-old Richards was almost a daily presence on television or in newspapers, as he addressed supporters on a loudhailer or led protest marches. For decades, rugby contact with South Africa had been a political hot potato. Māori players were excluded from All Blacks tours to South Africa until 1970 – and were then allowed only because South Africa granted them “honorary white” status. Along with John Minto and Tom Newnham, Richards was the driving force and public face of the anti-tour movement set up to stop sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa.

Halt All Racist Tours (HART) took on successive governments and a rugby-mad public in its efforts to pressure the South African government to end apartheid. Major battle lines had been drawn three times since HART’s founding: first, against the 1973 Springboks tour of New Zealand, resulting in its cancellation; second, against the 1976 All Blacks tour of South Africa, which went ahead with the blessing of then Prime Minister Rob Muldoon and resulted in 28, mainly African, countries boycotting the Montreal Olympics in protest at New Zealand’s presence; third, the Springboks tour here in 1981.

Richards last month. Photo/Ken Downie/Listener

The tour divided the nation as no other issue before or since. The Hamilton game was cancelled after a pitch invasion by protesters; razor wire and containers were used to protect other grounds; a light plane dropped flour bombs on Eden Park to disrupt a test and specialist police squads, equipped with batons, beat protesters in Wellington’s Molesworth St. The tour, with its unprecedented protest and violence, propelled Richards to new levels of public recognition.

Fifty years after forming HART, Richards is planning a symposium in Wellington to examine the role, limits, and challenges facing protest movements in New Zealand today.

Richards was born 72 years ago to Ruth and Bill Richards and has a younger sister, Shirley. He and his partner, Patti O’Neill, returned to New Zealand three years ago after 12 years living in Paris, where O’Neill worked for the OECD. From 1985, Richards worked for the Public Service Association and Volunteer Service Abroad. During three years as a fellow at Victoria University of Wellington’s Stout Research Centre, he wrote Dancing on Our Bones: New Zealand, South Africa, Rugby and Racism. Richards received the Queen’s Service Medal in 1989, is a distinguished alumnus of the University of Auckland, and in 2004 was appointed a Supreme Companion of OR Tambo, the highest honour granted by South Africa to foreign citizens.

Shelf Life visited Richards at the couple’s high-rise apartment in central Auckland, a book-filled home that is usually occupied only during New Zealand’s warmer seasons.

Photo/Getty Images

Why are you here now? It’s warm in Europe, where you spend part of each year …

We’re getting the symposium organised or we wouldn’t be here. I hope that people who were involved in the past will come and that it will also bring out young activists who are concerned about human rights in New Zealand today. Patti has observed that if we hadn’t had the ’81 protests, we probably wouldn’t have ended up with the very strong anti-nuclear and homosexual law-reform protests that followed. The first half of the 80s saw an end of what I’ve described as “a battle for the soul of New Zealand”. By 1985, internationalist values first promoted in the 1960s had largely triumphed over values predating World War II.

Your childhood was pretty much grounded in the old ways, wasn’t it, especially sport?

My father was very keen on sport and my parents would have loved their son to become an All Black. But during the HART years, I described myself as a pacifist by physique – and playing rugby wasn’t really my thing. I liked running, though – Peter Snell and Murray Halberg were hitting it big time in Rome and I followed the Arthur Lydiard method, running about five or six miles a day.

With Nelson Mandela in 1995. Photo/Richards family collection/Supplied

Were you keen on rugby as a spectator?

Extremely – I loved it. During the HART years, one of the common things thrown at me was: “You’re just anti-sport, you’re anti-rugby”, and it was ironic because I followed the game closely. A number of my friends went right off rugby in the 70s and early 80s, but my interest in it never diminished. But I never went to rugby games after HART was formed because I just figured that would be a red rag to a bull.

What did you do before HART?

I went to university in 1966 and HART was formed in my fourth year, so I didn’t have another job before HART. I worked in my parents’ dairy in Paihia, in the Bay of Islands, over Christmas to support myself at university. During the HART years, I would often get shouts of “get a job”. The only comment I got more than “get a job” was “get a haircut”. For the conservative, short-back-and-sides people who supported rugby, long hair was a symbol of wild living, sexual promiscuity and revolutionaries.

After the police batoned anti-Springbok tour protesters in Wellington’s Molesworth St on July 29, 1981. Photo/Supplied

Did you think of yourself as a revolutionary?

No, I was just a diligent student with long hair. I wasn’t trying to be revolutionary; I was just trying to stop sporting tours with South Africa. Rosemary McLeod came down to Christchurch in about 1972 to interview me for the Dominion. She was going to spend a day in my life. By 11am, she was totally bored – people had this idea of the wide-eyed radical doing revolutionary things when, in fact, I was sitting at a rumpty old desk licking envelopes and stamps and sending out newsletters. Tedious stuff, but absolutely essential to build up the movement.

In the Listener, South African academic and former Truth and Reconciliation Commission member Pumla Gobodo-Madikizela described post-Mandela South Africa as “a crime against humanity”. What do you think?

It’s gut-wrenching. The corruption that [former president Jacob] Zuma oversaw is so entrenched that I think it’s very difficult for [President] Cyril Ramaphosa to do the things that he would like to do because large sections of the African National Congress are part of the Zuma gravy-train camp. But talk to white South Africans who were in the anti-apartheid cause and black South Africans and they mostly say what’s happening today is not nearly as bad as life under apartheid. We now have a South Africa that is democratic and where you can have commissions of inquiry into corruption. Hopefully, this one will have a positive outcome in terms of changing the corrupt nature of South African politics.

With Springbok captain Francois Pienaar in 1994. Photo/Richards family collection/Supplied

You went to Paris with Patti for her job. What did you do in your 12 years there?

I had a very good time. I took care of French bureaucracy for us both; there is a rule for everything. We had so many friends passing through Paris, at times I felt as if I was running a small hotel and restaurant. I love cooking; I am not so keen on washing sheets and changing beds! And I wrote probably about 60 pieces for New Zealand newspapers and magazines, everything from the whimsical to the serious. For the Listener, I wrote about Gallipoli, Le Quesnoy, the 2007 Rugby World Cup, the Charlie Hebdo and Bataclan terrorist attacks and Iran. Patti’s job involved a lot of travel, including many visits to European countries as well as to India, Vietnam, Mexico, Korea, Morocco, Turkey and Ethiopia. And, as bag carrier, I visited New York, my favourite city, more times than anywhere else.

How do you follow global affairs now?

We are plugged into international newspapers. We subscribe to the Times, the Guardian, the Financial Times and the New York Times.

Richards with partner Patti O’Neill. Photo/Ken Downie/Listener

And books: what are you reading?

I’m reading a Scandi-noir thriller, The Reckoning, by Yrsa Sigurðardóttir. I recently read Home Fire, by Kamila Shamsie, and I am looking forward to the latest Chris Pavone novel, The Paris Diversion. A friend has given me A Bloody Road Home: World War Two and New Zealand’s Heroic Second Division, by Chris Pugsley. It covers the battlegrounds known to my dad. Patti is keen on podcasts, such as The Red Box, by Matt Chorley, about UK politics, and David Axelrod’s Hacks on Tap for US politics.

As an old hand, what do you make of the climate-change protests organised earlier this year by secondary-school children?

Patti and I were standing on our balcony looking down on Queen St, and in the way that old protesters do, we were shouting, “Slow down, get off the footpath and get on the road. Bunch up!” But they couldn’t hear us, obviously. When I was younger, people would say, “You can’t trust anyone over 30”, and then I became 30 and thought that was a ridiculous notion. But if this was the 1960s, the now 72-year-old Trevor Richards would never have set up HART. Experience teaches you that this or that isn’t possible, whereas, when you’re young, away you go. Youth thinks it is immortal and invincible. Today, I would lack the courage and confidence to do the things I did back then.

This article was first published in the September 14, 2019 issue of the New Zealand Listener.