Historian Matthew Wright, writing in the Dom Post today, reminds us that it’s 30 years since the Springbok tour.
I agree with Wright’s premise that the protests against the tour were about much more than apartheid and rugby. They were an eruption of frustration and resentment against years of suffocatingly authoritarian, conservative government. The Springbok tour and the polarising figure of Robert Muldoon provided a convenient touch-paper.
However I question Wright’s conclusion that anti-tour protests had little impact on the white South African government or apartheid. He writes that “the white minority government wasn’t listening to international pressure”, but in fact the evidence suggests the republic’s burning desire to play rugby against New Zealand was a critical factor in bringing about political reform. Chris Laidlaw, who was New Zealand’s first diplomatic representative in black Africa, told me in 1994: “Rugby played a far bigger part in the transition to democracy [in South Africa] than most people realise.”
The African National Congress recognised that white South Africa’s rugby fervour was a pressure point that could be exploited to the ANC’s advantage. Laidlaw hosted secret meetings in Harare between ANC officials and South African rugby bosses Louis Luyt and Danie Craven, at which the message was clear: no more international rugby until apartheid was abolished.
“Once he [Luyt] got that into his head there was no stopping him,” Laidlaw told me. “He went straight to the South African government and said: ‘Things are going to have to change.’” So Wright may be slightly off the mark when he writes that New Zealanders bashing each other in Molesworth St weren’t going to change anything.
And it’s unfortunate that his piece is marred by a couple of minor factual errors. I observed the so-called Battle of Molesworth Street at close range and I don’t recall the police Red Squad being there, as Wright says. The Red Squad’s job was to protect the Springboks and match venues. What’s more, they weren’t commanded by Ross Meurant, as Wright implies, although that was a common misconception that Meurant may have been happy to go along with. The Red Squad was actually led by Phil Keber.
Oh, and I don’t recall seeing any PR-24 police batons (the so-called Minto bars that Wright refers to) at Molesworth St either. The batons used that night, as is clear from Evening Post photographer Ian Mackley’s black-and-white picture accompanying Wright’s piece, were standard, old-fashioned truncheons.
Footnote: As Wright remarks, the bloody clash between police and protesters in Molesworth St coincided with the marriage of Prince Charles and Princess Diana. This presented The Dominion with a dilemma: which story should take precedence? In the end, the Dom went with the royal wedding on the top half of the front page and the Battle of Molesworth Street below the fold.