Dialogue: 20 years on a good time to review rugby rumpus

By David Hill

The reasoning of those who protested against the 1981 Springbok tour stands up to scrutiny two decades on, in the opinion of DAVID HILL*.

Twenty years ago this autumn, New Zealand was gearing up for the 1981 Springbok rugby tour. Gearing up seems the apposite term.

The police were looking at the possibilities of the PR24 long baton ("six times the striking power of an ordinary police baton," enthused one article).

Protesters were talking about crash helmets, thick gloves, padded jackets and trousers. On the other side, tour supporters were clothing themselves in phrases about individual freedom. A group called Spir - Society for the Protection of Individual Rights - claimed we should be able to play sport with anyone we wished.

Tell that to black players in racially segregated South Africa, anti-tour groups replied.

Two decades on, what are the legacies of that 1981 tour - apart from the swelling hordes of people who now claim to have been nobly, sincerely opposed to it?

The most unfortunate effect is probably a changed public perception of the police.

Trapped in the middle, increasingly targeting and targeted by protesters, suffering such public relations disasters as the Molesworth St batonings in Wellington and Red Squad excesses at the Eden Park third test, the police have never really been viewed with the same general benign approval again.

Other effects? Rugby went into a decline from which it took six years to recover. The cry "keep politics out of sport" never had any credence again, partly because politics were so transparently embedded in South African sport, and partly because Prime Minister Robert Muldoon equally transparently saw that letting the tour go ahead would grab him the provincial vote and another three years in office.

How about effects on and in South Africa? Did the anti-tour protests of 1981 contribute to apartheid's disintegration? Some Hart (Halt All Racist Tours) leaders have claimed so, but surely it can't be that simple.

Nelson Mandela says that the African National Congress, and he in his prison cell, were enormously encouraged by the support implicit in attempts to stop the tour. Others have claimed the 1981 demonstrations were just an irrelevance, a distraction from efforts towards true political reform. Now as then, the two sides seem to be describing different worlds.

What is more invidious is the equation sometimes put forward that 1981 anti-tour activities helped to end apartheid, but in doing so they in fact contributed to the violence permeating South Africa in 2001. Along with this sometimes goes the covert suggestion that evil though it was, apartheid might, after all, have been the best solution for a riven nation.

The Rainbow Nation certainly is bruised by violence. We were there for just a couple of weeks recently - too short a time to understand, but long enough to see. The visitor brochures were disturbing enough. "Don't drive into black townships ... If you see a body on the road at night, don't stop."

Then there were the baton-toting security guards in liquor marts and school playgrounds, the white homes with guard dogs and lights and wire and Armed Response signs, the newspaper in a Hamilton-sized town whose page 3 reported four to five killings each day. (The front page screamed "Madonna Remarries," which is beyond moralising.)

But to suggest that apartheid is somehow defensible because it meant law and order and less violence seems like claiming that Hitler was okay because his policies reduced unemployment. Let's also remember that law and order under apartheid benefited one minority ethnic group, was defined in that group's terms and was reported - or not reported - in its press.

Another claim still in circulation is that apartheid was needed to give whites the authority to keep Zulu, Bantu, Xhosa and so on from one another's throats. The tribal killings which have flared since the end of white rule supposedly show how necessary that rule was.

Anyone who still believes this should read such books as Z.K. Matthews' Freedom for My People. In this memoir, the lecturer/ambassador/ANC and World Council of Churches leader shows how such inter-tribal tension was increased by the white Nationalist Government's 1950s policy of deporting thousands of blacks from their homelands and placing them in raw new townships where ethnic groups had to compete for the few facilities.

It was a cynical policy of divide and rule and its effects are still felt nearly half a century later in the violence lacerating South Africa. Apartheid didn't prevent intertribal bloodshed, it exacerbated it.

So let's kick aside these two specious attempts to defend apartheid. But let's admit that South Africa remains a brittle, often brutal, place and wonder if those 1981 anti-tour protests were justified after all.

I guess the ethical question is: should you still support a good cause if that cause seems likely to bring fresh wrongs in its wake? To which the only answer is surely yes - if the alternative is to condone something as evil, dehumanising and corrupt as apartheid.

Twenty years on, I still reckon this aspect of 1981 - and 2001 - definitely is that simple.

* David Hill is a Taranaki writer.

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