Forty years ago, Aotearoa New Zealand erupted into violent protests when the South African Springbok rugby team toured the country from July to September 1981. Curator History Stephanie Gibson takes us through some of the items in our collection that record what many people wore as personal protection during the protests.
The Springbok tour exposed deep rifts in society. Pro-tour supporters argued that politics should be kept out of sport. Anti-tour protesters argued that sport was not separate from politics and that playing rugby against South Africa condoned apartheid.
Many saw the tour as an opportunity to address racism in New Zealand. Protests caused obstruction and the cancellation of games, and violence escalated between protesters, supporters and police as the tour progressed.
The 1981 tour left behind a rich archive of protest objects and images in collections around the country. Te Papa holds many such objects given by activists themselves, or by their friends and families. Curator Stephanie Gibson highlights a selection that focuses on protection (or lack of).
This scooter helmet was worn by John Minto, HART’s national organiser during the tour. The most recognisable person among the anti-tour movement, he was often seen out front wearing overalls and his blue scooter helmet.
Minto’s girlfriend at the time gave him the helmet for protection after police and pro-tour violence against protesters escalated.
On the day of the cancelled Waikato-Springbok game in Hamilton on 25 July, Minto was attacked on the head with a bottle, then pursued into a nearby house and beaten again by pro-tour supporters.
The clashes became increasingly violent and confrontational as the Springbok tour progressed. The role of the police was to maintain law and order, with specialist police (commonly known as the Red and Blue Squads) tasked with ensuring the security of the Springbok rugby team.
But because of their high visibility as the front line of defence, and the violence of their riot control tactics, the police were sometimes accused of defending apartheid itself.
Protective clothing was essential for anyone demonstrating on the front line. Protestors needed to be resourceful in their use of protective accessories as clashes with rugby supporters and police became increasingly violent.
Many wore motorcycle or safety helmets to protect themselves from police batons and objects thrown by tour supporters.
This chest protector was worn during protests against the test in Wellington on 29 August, providing protection against the police’s newly introduced long batons.
After the ‘Battle of Molesworth Street’ in Wellington on 29 July, when short batons were first used on anti-tour protesters, the police decided that the new long baton should be issued as they would better administer sharp thrusts to the chest.
In response, this chest protector was one of many mass-produced at Trades Hall in Wellington and is made from sturdy cardboard tubes covered with corrugated cardboard.
Protestors who hoped to demonstrate in peace, and didn’t wear protective clothing, became increasingly vulnerable as the tour progressed.
This certificate was awarded to activist Jacques Monroe who was dressed as a clown for the protests against the last test of the Springbok tour, held in Auckland on 12 September 1981.
Monroe was part of a small group who were dressed as clowns, rabbits and a bumblebee. They had come to join the protesters in a non-violent capacity to bring light-heartedness to the angry and charged environment. They carried flowers and French bread (instead of batons) and offered lollies to police officers.
Protests were particularly violent that day. The clowns took cover against a hedge on Dominion Road as violence erupted near them.
Without provocation, three members of the Red Squad assaulted them with batons. Two of the clowns were severely beaten with batons, and Monroe suffered a ruptured eardrum. A gash to his head required twelve stitches.
An internal police investigation failed to resolve the case. Instead, a civil trial against the Police Department in 1984 was successful with each of the injured receiving $10,000. No officers involved in the beating were ever identified.
For detailed information on the 1981 Springbok Tour, see New Zealand History: The 1981 Springbok tour.
For more objects and stories about the anti-apartheid movement in New Zealand, see Protest Tautohetohe: Objects of resistance, persistence and defiance, by Stephanie Gibson, Matariki Williams and Puawai Cairns, Te Papa Press, 2019.
From July 23 at the National Library, Ngā Taonga Sound & Vision has a special exhibition called TOHE | PROTEST – the ’81 Springbok Tour, exploring the divide in New Zealand exposed during the Tour, and has a focus on the PATU!, the definitive protest documentary that the film archivists have spent nearly five years digitally preserving. You can see an earlier print of PATU! on NZ On Screen.