Skip to main content

1981 Springbok tour

Page 6 – Battle lines are drawn

1981: a divided New Zealand

Tour supporters were determined that the first Springbok visit to New Zealand since 1965 would not be spoiled. The anti-tour movement was equally determined to show its opposition to it. Although HART committed itself to non-violent disruption, Prime Minister Robert Muldoon condemned the organisation for having ‘spread lies about New Zealand’ overseas. People involved in the anti-tour movement were described as stirrers and troublemakers.

John Minto, the national organiser for HART in 1981, became one of the public faces of the anti-tour movement and attracted special criticism from Muldoon and pro-tour supporters. The long batons used by riot police during the tour were nicknamed ‘Minto bars’.

Several other organisations were prominent opponents of the tour, including CARE (Citizens Association for Racial Equality) and NAAC (National Anti-Apartheid Council). Many other organisations were based around local action. Co-ordinated action was a feature of the protest movement.

SPIR (Society For The Protection Of Individual Rights) was one organisation that actively put forward an alternative view to that of the anti-tour movement. Men such as Ces Blazey, the NZRFU chairman, and Ron Don, the chairman of the Auckland Rugby Union and an NZRFU councillor, also gave the pro-tour movement a public face. Over the course of the tour these people and organisations became household names due to their exposure in the media. Some people wore their allegiances on their sleeve with badges that promoted their position on the tour. Heated debate and argument raged across the nation from dining room tables to smoko rooms as each side tried to make its point.

Many of the protesters had grown up in the relatively prosperous 1950s and 1960s. Many were also rugby fans. Prosperity and peace had given them the freedom to challenge the old order. This generation had come to political consciousness marching against the Vietnam War, French nuclear testing and nuclear ship visits in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The anti-tour protest movement included many urban, educated professionals but also enjoyed strong union support.

Historian Jock Phillips sees the tour as a clash between the ‘old and the new New Zealand’, which revealed itself in five main ways:

  • the struggle between baby boomers and war veterans
  • city versus country
  • men versus women
  • black versus white
  • ‘Britain of the south’ versus independent Pacific nation.

Some people connected the plight of black South Africans with racism here. For generations New Zealand had prided itself on having the ‘finest race relations in the world’, but events during 1981 challenged this assertion. The protesters specifically attacked racism, and Māori increasingly joined the protests. As they did so, they confronted non-Māori New Zealanders with a question: ‘If you campaign about race in South Africa, what about at home?’ Looking back, John Minto thought that the tour’s greatest impact on New Zealand society was to stimulate debate about racism and the place of Māori in New Zealand.

How to cite this page

Battle lines are drawn, URL:, (Manatū Taonga — Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated