They called it the tour that divided a nation. Father argued with son, husband turned his back on rugby while his wife attended matches. The scars went deep within New Zealand’s society over the contentious issue of the South Africans’ 1981 tour to the Land of the Long White Cloud.
There had never been a tour like it for creating splits, conflict, angst and bitterness.
The toxic fall-out from South Africa’s odious apartheid system seeped into the very soul of New Zealand’s people. What ensued was a grim experience that stained not just the pages of rugby football, but the history of the two nations.
Today, 30 years later, Sir John Graham, eminent New Zealander, former headmaster of Auckland Grammar School, ex-All Blacks captain, former president of the New Zealand Rugby Union and chancellor of Auckland University, reflects on a time when, he remembered, his country was divided as never before.
Graham had seen at close hand the evil of apartheid.
On the All Blacks’ 1960 tour of South Africa, he had accepted an offer from the police to take him and just one other player to Cato Manor, just outside Durban.
“What I saw all but knocked me over; it had a huge negative impact on me” said the imposing former No 8 forward.
“I had never seen such poverty, filth or degradation. I could not accept any nation that could deal with a high percentage of its people in such a way.
“What it taught me was that all people, no matter where they live or what their state is, are human beings and have got to be treated equally and fairly.
“Yet I don’t think there is any Western society where that has been achieved. For example, there is a poverty cycle here which is disturbing for a country of four million people.
“The riots they had in England this year could very easily happen here. There is an undercurrent here of violence, of ignoring the police and seeing them as the enemy. That is very strong in a country where 20 percent of youngsters leave school with no formal qualifications. That is a massive indictment of what is going on.”
What was going on in New Zealand back in 1981 was the worst example of civil unrest this nation had ever witnessed.
Protesters against the South African tour marched in the streets, forced cancellation of games in Hamilton (after a massive pitch invasion) and Timaru, and caused chaos throughout the land.
Graham says today “1981 was a year etched into our history. It split the nation more than any other single incident I can think of. Families were on different sides, for and against”. Including his own…
Having seen Sharpeville and Cato Manor 21 years earlier, Graham refused to have anything to do with the tour. He did not go to a single match, refused even to watch the games on television. Yet his wife attended some of the matches.
“What happened that year was the culmination of frustration by New Zealanders in the history of the game prior to 1981, where All Black teams toured, but were not permitted by the South African Rugby Union to pick our best team.
“It was that issue that could have solved the whole thing if it had been conceded. Or at least it might have solved it. So in my view, ‘81 was the result of the angst that had gone before.”
Whatever the cause, the outcome was terrible. Rugby football came a distant second to scenes of bloody urban unrest, protesters fighting and the police struggling to sustain control. The moral arguments raged across the entire media platform.
One of those South Africans on that tour was a young Danie Gerber of the Eastern Province union. Gerber would become one of South Africa’s finest ever backs, yet to this day his recollection of that tour is undimmed.
“I had always wanted to play against the All Blacks, especially in New Zealand. For me, they were the best in the world, the toughest side of all the rugby playing nations. I had never been to New Zealand and wanted to experience it.
“But if I’d known before I left what I would experience on that tour, what it was going to be like, maybe I would have stayed at home. One thing’s for sure, there will never be a tour like that again. I just went to play rugby, I wasn’t interested in the political stuff. I didn’t think I’d be afraid of what would happen, I just wanted to play the All Blacks.
“But I was afraid, especially when we saw the plane coming low over the ground at Eden Park for the third Test. It was so low that some fans were throwing things at it, although they were warned not to do so.
“I reckon I could have hit it if I’d kicked the ball hard enough up into the sky. It didn’t seem much higher than the top of the goalposts.
“We were worried that the plane would get hit or collide with something and crash on the field. By half-time we were 16-3 down because we played the first half facing the direction from which this plane kept coming, and it must have made 50 or 60 sorties low across the ground.
“When we played with our backs to it in the second half, we could focus more on the rugby.
“We had an instant introduction into what was going to happen when we first landed in New Zealand at the start of the tour. There were about 300-400 demonstrators at the airport and they were shouting and screaming. The bus came on to the tarmac to pick us up at the plane, but we could hear them. It was unnerving.
“The tour split the NZ people in terms of opinion. There were problems throughout the tour, and afterwards too, in the country.
“Because of the demonstrations wherever we went, we couldn’t use hotels everywhere, and some nights we stayed in the local cells at the police stations. At least it was safe in there, if not very comfortable on the bunk beds. On other occasions, we’d bed down in the pavilion at some sports ground where they’d installed bunks.
“Before the first Test in Christchurch, we stayed in a building that housed squash courts. Again, we were camping out on makeshift beds and the mattresses weren’t very comfortable.
“Often the sleeping places were cold and occasionally we would have to go by bus to the ground at five or six in the morning to avoid demonstrators. That meant a long wait until kick-off at 3pm, but we did it.
“And at some places the New Zealanders put in entertainments for us like pool tables and they cooked us food there. A few of the pavilions became like hotels for us because the police could guarantee security there.
“After the match against Hamilton at Waikato was cancelled when the demonstrators broke down fences, invaded the field and threw stones and nails on to the pitch, we were in two minds about whether we would stay or go home.
“Our management went to a meeting with the police to discuss it. When they got back they told us that the game at Timaru would also have to be cancelled. But the good news was, we were staying and completing the rest of the tour.
“But it became difficult to concentrate on the rugby. The moment you saw all those demonstrators, you were a bit worried. They were throwing eggs and stuff whenever you went to board your bus.
“One day I went out of a hotel to a shop to buy some chocolate. When you went out like that, you could never wear your Springbok blazer, tie or jumper or anything that made it obvious who you were.
“But a lady and two guys recognised me and three other players I was with (Hennie Bekker, Louis Moolman and Divan Serfontein) from photographs, I suppose, and they started berating us. They were shouting ‘You are racists, go home, you have split our country, we don’t want you here’.
“It was pretty unpleasant and we had a lot of problems in those circumstances. The people said a lot of terrible things to us and it was quite hard to take.
“What these people didn’t know, and didn’t want to know, was that someone like me had played with black and coloured players in invitation teams for some time.
“I didn’t have a problem playing with them. I also coached rugby and cricket in black townships long before I was a Springbok. But people didn’t want to know that. Because of the political situation, the New Zealand public who criticised us, thought we were against black people all the time. But I couldn’t help what my government was doing.
“I knew things were wrong in South Africa and that we had to change. But those decisions weren’t in my hands or the hands of other Springboks. I’d hoped we would have changed before we did, but the politicians did what they wanted.
“However, what is also important to remember about that tour is that many New Zealanders were in favour of it. They are a wonderful people and I have nothing against New Zealanders. We were welcomed by many of them and had some great parties in their company.
“Could we have won that series? Well, we had our chances in the first Test, but in the final Test, I certainly didn’t agree with the penalty in injury time that lost us the match and the series. One of their players took a tap penalty and the guy ran at least 25 metres before we tackled him. But the referee gave the penalty and they won the series with it.
“It was important they won that match and the series. The way that last penalty was given suggested that!”
Andy Dalton captained New Zealand in that series and insists he has never regretted his decision to play. Today, he says, he would still play, still make the same choice, not least because the continuing inconsistencies in sport bewilder him.
“We have just welcomed Fiji, a country that is run by a military dictatorship, to the World Cup.
“And the New Zealand cricket team continues to play against Zimbabwe. Where are the protesters about those tours? I see a lot of inconsistent behaviour here. The minute you start questioning the political beliefs of your opponents on a sports field, you leave yourself very wide open.”
But like all New Zealanders, Dalton was shocked by the scenes he witnessed at that time. “It created a massive divide in New Zealand we had never seen before. And a lot of people are still sitting on the same side of those discussions, even now.
“It was a tragedy for the country, and some of the violence was nasty. The police got caught in the middle.”
One player of that era, wing Stu Wilson, participated in the series while his wife, Robyn, was out protesting. They later parted.
“We have definitely moved on now,” said Dalton. “But what happened certainly left a scar on New Zealand society. The South Africans who made that tour must have gone through a dreadful time. They couldn’t get out and enjoy the community at all.”
Today, John Graham believes that the wounds in his country’s society which lasted for years are finally healed.
So who ultimately was to blame, in Graham’s view?
Was it the New Zealand Rugby Union for determinedly going ahead with the tour when so many people spoke against it? Or was it the politicians?
“It wasn’t just the politicians, not entirely,” he said. “But they did not help. Many of them were keen rugby people, and they allowed that to blind them to what was morally wrong.
“They didn’t take a stand, particularly the Conservative party and the NZRU made no attempt to insist that tours of South Africa would only go ahead if NZ could select its best players, which could then include Maori players who deserved to make the team.”
As Graham recalls, the chief opposition to the tour was led by the liberal left, a small group whom he admits were seen as “oddballs”. But he says in the case of some people, the great benefit of hindsight proved they were right. The tour should not have gone ahead.
As he looks back now, Graham calls that period “a pretty sad time for our country”. He readily concedes he had never known anything like it.
But he says of South Africa, “Once they had made the major stand (to allow democracy), which was a huge thing, I could forgive them. Indeed, I have huge sympathy for the South Africans today. At least they have tried, although there is a hell of a lot more still to do.”
Time, you see, is a remarkable healer.