Saturday, July 31, 2021

Anti-tour protesters pushed their luck that night in Molesworth St

Trevor Richards, who led opposition to sporting contacts with South Africa during the apartheid era, has written an opinion piece for Stuff recalling the famous Molesworth Street incident that occurred 40 years ago this week.

You know the one. A crowd of more than 1000 anti-tour marchers found their path blocked by lines of police armed with batons.  In the ensuing confrontation, protesters were bludgeoned and some were injured.

I was there that night and my memory differs from that of Richards in one or two significant respects.

He says the crowd assembled in Parliament grounds. “The plan was for a peaceful march from Molesworth St to the home of the South African Consul-General, three kilometres away in Wadestown.”

That’s not quite how I recall things. Memory is notoriously unreliable, and either mine or Richards' is faulty. But I took part in that protest and I remember it forming uptown, in the vicinity of Civic Square, then marching without incident through the city to a spot at the bottom of Lambton Quay, near the Cenotaph. There it stopped and the crowd was addressed by protest leaders.

The marchers had been told the protest would finish at that point. I understood that was the basis on which it had been cleared beforehand with the police. But suddenly we heard through the megaphone that the organisers intended to press on to Wadestown.

Though that wasn't in the previously disclosed plan, the crowd had built up a head of steam and was raring to carry on.

I decided to pull out. As far as I was concerned, we’d made our point. To carry on to the South African Consul-General’s house, blocking roads and causing further public inconvenience, seemed gratuitously provocative. (You’ll deduce from this that I’m no one’s idea of a wild-eyed revolutionary.)

But I had some time to kill so out of curiosity, I decided to tag along for a while – this time as an observer rather than a participant. The result was that I was able to view proceedings from close range as the protesters closed on the police lines and the batons started flailing.

With the benefit of hindsight, what happened was entirely predictable. It became clear from the heavy police presence on Molesworth St that the cops had anticipated the protest organisers’ tactic.

Neither should it have been a surprise that the police responded with force. Having been humiliated only days before when protesters forced the cancellation of the Springboks vs Waikato match in Hamilton, they weren’t going to be outmanoeuvred again.

For their part, anti-tour protest leaders were on a high after Hamilton and may have thought they were unstoppable. It was never going to end well.

It didn’t help that the marchers at the rear couldn’t see what was happening 100 metres ahead of them and kept surging forward, forcing those at the front into the unyielding police defences. For those in the vanguard – including the veteran communist Rona Bailey, whom Richards says ended up in hospital – there was no escape.

It wasn’t pretty, but the protesters – or at least their leaders – asked for it. I thought so then and I still think so now. They were pumped up and unable to see past the self-evident righteousness of their cause. And I say that as someone who supported their aim, if not their methods. (I refused to take part in any protest that prevented people from going about their lawful business, such as attending tour matches. You can see I would have been utterly useless at the storming of the Bastille or the Winter Palace.)

Richards’ account, four decades on, implies that the police reacted violently without warning or justification. Naturally, he doesn’t mention the possibility that the protesters invited retaliation by going beyond what had been agreed. It’s not entirely cynical to suggest that the injured were casualties of the protest leaders’ eagerness to test police resolve.

Molesworth St was a line in the sand and a test of wills. If the police had capitulated in the face of that direct challenge to their authority, their standing and credibility – not to mention their own morale – would have been toast.

The martyrdom of the Molesworth St marchers has become a bit tiresome. Richards should just admit that the protesters pushed their luck too far that night.    


Tinman said...

Mr Richard's comments should be taken as what they are - yet another rewrite of history.

The 1981 tour protests were not about showing South Africa that New Zealanders were opposed to apartheid (many of us still are) but an attempt by a small group, including racist groups (Black Power etc.) to tell NZers what to do.

I doubt, in 1981, you could have filled a small country hall with NZ's apartheid supporters (Now you can fill the majority side of parliament with such, and we have.), the argument was whether you get a better response by showing South Africa their mistake by example or by refusing to play with them.

Most adult New Zealanders supported the first method as evidenced by the result of the 1981 election in November that year

WWallace said...

I am sad that NZ media are commemorating the pointing out to South Africa that they have an apartheid spec in their eye, when we now have a log (nay, a forest) of race-based policies in our own eyes. And none of the previous protest leaders are willing to call it out.

Trev1 said...

I protested against apartheid. I was subsequently stationed in Southern Africa for my job, and visited several times later. Such a rapid decline in human rights and living standards, except for the tiny, corrupt elites, particularly the ANC. I feel ashamed of what we helped bring into being. People there have never been more oppressed or afraid for their lives.

Don Franks said...

My flatmate was protesting there that night and got bashed to the extent that at one stage he feared for this life.Across town I was at another action, a brief occupation of the NZRFU office. A handful of us gained entry, the sole occupant at the time, an elderly typist, fled on our approach. Minutes later police smashed down the door and chucked us in the van. Some weeks later we were found guilty of Forcible Detainer ( supposedly kidnapping the office worker)and sentenced to 100 hours community service. I got a real telling off from Rona and several other Workers Communist League comrades for taking a provocative and pointless action that didn't advance the anti apartheid cause. Trevor Richards has my lasting respect for his anti racist work and I think his book"Dancing on our bones" is mostly very good. That said, there has been enough back patting about what we all did during the tour. Many other issues of oppression and exploitation cry out today and are not being addressed.

Paul Goldstone said...

I wasn't there, but I was in the protests at the Basin a few weeks later. My flatmates were there. They said the protest organizers screwed up and the march blundered into the police line they believed would pull back. And the police were just young cadets from Porirua police College, and they didn't know what they were doing. It was just a fuck up.

Karl du Fresne said...

To pdm: Thanks for your comment. Ross Meurant was 2IC of the Red Squad, which wasn't involved in the Molesworth Street fracas.

Hilary Taylor said...

My then husband was in the Red Squad...probably broke up our marriage but won't bore you with that. A difficult time for him with family members on the other side of the barricades. A good read thanks Karl & commenters.

Russell Parkinson said...

Thanks Karl a good read and as someone who attended 4 matches in 81 including the Waikato game refreshing to see someone who opposed the tour but respected the rights of other Kiwi's to go about their lawful activities and go to a game of rugby. The moment in Hamilton the protestors got on the field and the police turned to face the crowd, in fear of the crowd attacking the protestors I suppose, a low growl went up in the crowd which I think was more than just people angry over a cancelled game of footy.

I have also never forgotten going to the 1st test in Christchurch and afterwards chatting to a rugby supporter who opposed the tour. He wouldn't even watch it on TV but did ask me how his favourite player went. I respected his honesty and views and the fact he didn't try to impose them on me. We talked amiably for some time on the pro's and cons of the tour but we both agreed that once a legitimately elected government had decreed it was legal then we were entitled to attend and no one was entitled to prevent us.

Unfortunately the worst of the protestors didn't share that view and turned up looking for a fight and looking to disrupt my rights to attend a gathering (for whatever purpose).

A group of people tried to take away my rights by force and in Hamilton succeeded.

Its why I still loath them till this day.

On a bright note the Boks didn't win any of the matches I attended so that was a bonus.

Tepee said...

Karl, I was in the second row of the march which went up Molesworth Street. You are correct that the decision was made to push on to the SA embassy from Parliament grounds. We set on up Molesworth St from the Cenotaph entrance to Parliament and just before the main gates into Parliament (near to where the now demolished Molesworth Fish and Chip shop was) a line of police came across and locked arms to try to halt the progress of the march. Momentum forced the police officers back. Then a line of police with plum wood cudgels came at us and started clubbing. It was particularly violent and frightening. I fell to the ground and scrabbled off to the right and ran down an alley near to the fish shop. The police wished to make a stand. There was no violence or intimidation on the part of the marchers, although I suspect the organises new what was coming.