The rugby tour that split us into two nations

By Jared Savage, Andrew Stone

It is 30 years since the 1981 Springboks flew into New Zealand. For 56 days the country was bitterly, even violently divided. Today we hear from two pivotal figures from opposite sides of the conflict.

Ross Meurant (left) and John Minto. Photos / Paul Estcourt, Natalie Slade
Ross Meurant (left) and John Minto. Photos / Paul Estcourt, Natalie Slade

The face of the red squad

Ross Meurant is tired of talking about The Tour.

He is the face of Red Squad, the infamous riot-control group which kept protesters at bay during the 1981 Springbok tour. The controversial tour - and the actions of police - divided the nation, resulting in unprecedented civil disorder.

Then 32, Meurant was second-in-charge of Red Squad. The crack team donned riot gear and adopted tactics never seen in New Zealand before. Meurant says Red Squad, armed with with long batons, "smashed, bashed and ploughed through thousands of protesters, passive and volatile alike," to make sure the games went ahead.

Since 1981, he's given countless interviews about his part in that turbulent time. Meurant says this is the last.

And on the eve of the 30th anniversary of the tour, he reckons it's time to move on.

"To this day I still defend that police action. We had no choice. We were the meat in the sandwich - fail and the institutions of the State would have been emasculated by a competing brute force. But the police were cynically used for a political objective."

His comments cannot be dismissed simply as a former cop protecting his own. Meurant has undergone somewhat of a transformation in recent years, openly criticising police culture - "deep in the forest" as he calls it.

"It is true that during this three-month time frame New Zealand witnessed unprecedented civil disorder, but no one was killed."

In fact, he says the actions of Red Squad "pale in comparison" to the 2007 raids on supposed terror camps in the Ureweras.

The Springbok Tour was "bitter sweet" for Meurant. Writing about the controversy in The Red Squad Story - despite instructions to the contrary from police hierarchy - later gave him the profile to successfully stand for National as the MP for Hobson in 1987.

"That was the sweet. On the other hand, because I wrote the book and because I became an MP, I rapidly became the face of Red Squad. This was the bitter."

Meurant says Red Squad was vilified by the protest movement and media, but points out the riot squad did not invite the Springboks to New Zealand.

"Personally, I believe [Prime Minister Sir Rob] Muldoon unashamedly used the police in a cynical political initiative of dividing the nation over rugby to gain a marginal win at the polls on the support of conservative, rugby loving provincial electorates.

"I also know enough about the National Party to know that Muldoon could not have brought the Springboks to New Zealand without the support of a majority of his team."

Hamilton was the turning point in the tour, Meurant says.

Thousands of protesters broke through boundary fencing at Rugby Park and poured into the middle of the field, in what Meurant saw as a humiliating defeat.

After the anti-tour victory, Police Commissioner Bob Walton said: "We did our best. Even if I had the entire police department out there today we could not have prevented what occurred."

That was untrue, says Meurant "I knew that had Red Squad not been locked beneath the grandstand until the protesters had broken through the fence line, Red Squad alone could have stopped them," Meurant says.

"As we did on every subsequent occasion we deployed, and at venues like Athletic Park and Eden Park where the hordes of protesters were vastly greater in number.

"But at Waikato I saw the inability of the police to prevent unlawful trespass by protesters disrupting the rights of thousands of law-abiding Kiwis, as a degrading experience. For the following three months, I did my part to lead Red Squad to victory after victory as we smashed, bashed and ploughed our way through thousands of protesters, passive and volatile alike - to ensure that every game thereafter was played out."

The intimidating tactics were "pioneer stuff", says Meurant. To don riot gear and "hack into the opposition" with long batons had never been seen before in New Zealand.

According to Meurant, police tactics hardened after he spoke with Prime Minister Rob Muldoon. Through his National Party links, Meurant called MP Jim McLay and told him the Red Squad could have stopped the protest invasion in Hamilton. Two days later, Meurant says Muldoon called him and asked him to repeat what he told McLay.

Several years later, Meurant was the MP for Hobson and enjoyed a whisky with Muldoon. He says the Prime Minister told him the promise the police could ensure every game went ahead "if the reins were slackened on Red and Blue Squad" was what he had wanted to hear.

Mr Walton is now dead. In a 2001 Weekend Herald story to mark the 20th anniversary of the tour, the former police commissioner denied Meurant's claims that police tactics hardened as a result of political interference.

But from Hamilton on, Meurant says, the Red Squad engaged in the "pioneer stuff" during the tour.

Though successful from the point of view that no further games were disrupted, the Red Squad earned the contempt of the anti-protest movement. "Well, history shows we won the battle for the streets. But history also shows we lost the battle for the hearts and minds of the people," says Meurant.

In particular, the Red Squad was blamed for the 'Clowns incident' where protesters dressed as clowns were beaten. There was an inquiry but the Red Squad refused to co-operate.

No one was charged and until this interview, Meurant has denied any knowledge of Red Squad's involvement.

"Contrary to previous denials by me that I knew anything about this incident - of course I knew. I was the Squad Commander for goodness sake.

"During the tour and subsequent to the tour, I told lies to police inquisitors intent on nailing at least one Red Squad member for an assault.

"There was no way in a million years I would have sacrificed one of my troops to the guillotine. This is what one does when 'Deep in the Forest'. One looks after one's mates." Meurant says the internal police investigation, led by Chief Superintendent Jim Morgan, "went out of their way to get Red Squad".

"For me, it then became a matter of [fighting] fire with fire."

Though Meurant still defends the police actions during the Springbok Tour, he now recognises protest as a "massive and powerful tool".

He is a regular visitor to the Middle East, where he has business interests, and says the protests in Syria is a modern example.

"Violent protest did not stop the tour. But its legacy seems to me to have awakened the conscience of the majority to the reality that a game of rugby is of little value in a world were prejudice and injustice is rampant."

The voice of protest

John Minto remembers the image.

Bewildered and bleeding, and tended by two companions from the anti-tour inner circle, Minto was photographed in Hamilton on a momentous July Saturday in 1981, hours after police had cancelled the game between Waikato and the Springboks.

By then deeply reviled in the rugby communty, Minto had been attacked twice in the space of a few hours. A hurled full beer can smacked his head and then he was belted by enraged Waikato supporters who invaded the house where he had taken refuge.

On his chin there's another tour scar - this left by a 'Blue Squad' police baton that had smashed past the helmet which for hardcore protesters had become frontline battledress.

Minto says the case went to a police tribunal at Auckland Central where the sergeant who wielded the long baton asserted he was trying to knock a bullhorn from the protest leader's grasp. After waiting round all day to give his account, Minto mistakenly wandered into a noisy police canteen: "I think they were more shocked than I was."

Thirty years on, his relationship with police has altered. "I've met cops from that time. They often identify themselves to me and say things like 'oh well, that was then, we didn't really understand all the issues'."

The streets which surround Eden Park are getting a final polish before the Rugby World Cup in 62 days. In the car, Minto recalls the scene in Marlborough St, where he was marshalling the Tutu protest squad, named after then Archbishop Desmond Tutu.

In the winter of 81, the streets resembled a battlefield. Barbed wire was laid, containers blocked roads and hundreds of police, many protected by shields and helmets, confronted the thousands assembled to protest, riot and disrupt the final test. Pitched battles raged, police and protesters were hurt; while on the paddock beyond the tumult, the All Blacks withstood South Africa's fury - and flour bombs dropped from a low flying Cessna - to win the series 2-1.

Licking their wounds, anti-tour groups met the next day at Fowlds Park in Western Springs. Minto, national organiser and effectively the face of the Halt All Racist Tours movement (Hart), was challenged that the forces mobilised against the tour had failed in their ambition.

"I didn't accept that ," he recalls. "I said the Springboks will never leave South Africa again while apartheid remained. And we were right."

For a few years before 81, activists had tried using economic weapons to prod the apartheid state.

Insurance companies with investments in South Africa were harassed, consumers were urged to give up apricots from the sunny republic and its wines were off the menu. But sport remained the holy grail. "None of the others worked at the emotional level of sport. It was an issue where we could make a difference well outside the size of the country."

Since 1981, Minto says he's heard from a lot of South Africans about how disorder in New Zealand had made a profound impact in Pretoria, increasing its isolation and heaping pressure on its white rulers. "We'd given them a run for their money."

The Minto of 2011 is not a lot different from the 28-year-old of 1981. He remains intense, single-minded and committed. His theatre of war is the Unite Union, where the former teacher is an organiser and runs education workshops.

Earlier this year he even wandered down to Eden Park's open day - without a banner - to see how taxpayer dollars were being spent.

His unsurprising verdict: it's a white elephant.

And Minto has not stopped skinning sacred cows. One is his assessment of Nelson Mandela, who at the time of the tour had a mythic status in the anti-apartheid movement. When Mandela was finally released in February 1990, after 27 years in prison, Minto felt it made many in New Zealand reappraise their views about the tour.

"I think the day he got out of jail showed that he was an ordinary human being engaged in a real human struggle. People realised that what we'd been doing was part of a bigger international struggle."

But two decades on, Minto considers the promise of Mandela has faded for millions of South Africans.

"Mandela won't be regarded by history as kindly as he is now.

"I think he'll be seen as a very important figure at an important time in South Africa but the delivery just didn't follow through to make real changes in people's lives. It'll be left for another generation to do that.

"South Africa might have gained civil and political rights when apartheid ended. Social and economic rights are just as far away as ever."

Minto made his feelings about the post-apartheid republic plain when he turned down an honour which South Africa reserves for foreigners. He had been nominated for a Tambo Award, which would have put him in the company of Mahatma Gandhi, Kofi Annan, Salvador Allende and Martin Luther King jr - and anti-apartheid luminary and a founder of Hart, Trevor Richards, who accepted a Tambo Award in 2004.

In a blistering open letter to then-President Thabo Mbeki, Minto laid into the ANC government: "When we protested and marched into police batons and barbed wire here in the struggle against apartheid, we were not fighting for a small black elite to become millionaires," he wrote. "We were fighting for a better South Africa for all its citizens. The faces at the top have changed from white to black but the substance of change is an illusion."

Eighteen months ago Minto went to South Africa. One night he slept with a family in Symphony Way, a Cape Town shanty community. "They're squatters who were promised housing and are living in shacks. The story of black economic empowerment is 99 per cent bullshit."


This September, when the 1981 Springboks arrive for a reunion, the anti-tour community will screen the emblematic film Patu, Merata Mita's documentary of the events that fractured the country. Minto has arranged for an activist from the Cape Town shack dwellers to come out. "I think we've got to keep our eyes open, not just glory in what's gone on."

Life of activism

* John Minto comes from a Catholic family of 12. Growing up in a small Dunedin house, he says he soaked up church teachings which insisted "you had to have a responsibility for those who weren't so well off".

* For the first time in his life, Minto belongs to a political party. He has thrown his lot in with Hone Harawira's Mana Party, and may yet be a candidate.

* He is 58, married to Bronwyn Davies, and has two sons.

- NZ Herald

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