South African Rugby Team Tour Provokes Protests

The 1981 tour of the South African Springbok rugby team through New Zealand provoked antiracist protests that escalated to levels of social tension unprecedented in the country’s history, weakened its national sport, and called international attention to the growing protest movement against apartheid in South Africa.

Summary of Event

The 1981 Springbok tour consisted primarily of a series of matches between the New Zealand national rugby team, the All Blacks, and the South African national team, the Springboks, to be held at various venues in New Zealand. Despite the popularity of rugby in these two countries and a long history of rivalry between their national teams, the matches provoked massive and contentious protests fueled by opposition to the ongoing policy of apartheid, or racial segregation, in South Africa. Springbok tour (1981)
Apartheid;resistance and protest
[kw]South African Rugby Team Tour Provokes Protests (July 19-Sept. 12, 1981)
[kw]Rugby Team Tour Provokes Protests, South African (July 19-Sept. 12, 1981)
[kw]Tour Provokes Protests, South African Rugby Team (July 19-Sept. 12, 1981)
[kw]Protests, South African Rugby Team Tour Provokes (July 19-Sept. 12, 1981)
Springbok tour (1981)
Apartheid;resistance and protest
[g]Australia/New Zealand;July 19-Sept. 12, 1981: South African Rugby Team Tour Provokes Protests[04570]
[g]Oceania;July 19-Sept. 12, 1981: South African Rugby Team Tour Provokes Protests[04570]
[g]Africa;July 19-Sept. 12, 1981: South African Rugby Team Tour Provokes Protests[04570]
[g]Polynesia;July 19-Sept. 12, 1981: South African Rugby Team Tour Provokes Protests[04570]
[g]South Africa;July 19-Sept. 12, 1981: South African Rugby Team Tour Provokes Protests[04570]
[c]Social issues and reform;July 19-Sept. 12, 1981: South African Rugby Team Tour Provokes Protests[04570]
[c]Indigenous peoples’ rights;July 19-Sept. 12, 1981: South African Rugby Team Tour Provokes Protests[04570]
[c]Sports;July 19-Sept. 12, 1981: South African Rugby Team Tour Provokes Protests[04570]
Muldoon, Robert
Kirk, Norman

Rugby, although an obscure sport in most areas of the world, enjoyed immense popularity in New Zealand during most of the twentieth century. The All Blacks, founded in 1903, formed a tradition of rivalry with the Springboks of South Africa, as the two teams periodically embarked on nationwide tours of each other’s countries, competing in a series of “test matches” held in various venues. These tours were characterized both by intense competition and by a spirit of mutual goodwill and hospitality on the part of the host countries toward the visiting team. Early in the history of this competition, in a conciliatory gesture to apartheid, the All Blacks adopted a policy of not including players from the indigenous Maori community of New Zealand when touring South Africa.

The practice of not including Maori players in South African tours drew little attention at first; but by 1960, public opposition had grown sufficiently to prompt about 150,000 New Zealanders to sign a petition opposing the policy. Meanwhile, Springbok tours of New Zealand in 1956 and 1965 took place without incident, as the South African team was received warmly. By the late 1960’s, however, the global struggle for the civil rights of minorities and public outcry against South African apartheid had begun to permeate various aspects of life and culture previously immune to such controversy. Rugby, as one of the most prominent cultural institutions in New Zealand, became a subject of increasing criticism among civil rights activists in New Zealand who opposed the New Zealand Rugby Union New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) policy of excluding Maori players from South African tours.

A small airplane flies over the final test match between the New Zealand and South African rugby teams in Auckland, New Zealand, on September 12, 1981, in protest of South Africa’s apartheid policy. In subsequent runs, the plane dropped sacks of flour onto the playing field.

(AP/Wide World Photos)

By the early 1970’s, political pressure and organized protest from groups such as Halt All Racist Tours (HART) had forced the NZRU to decide whether to include Maori players in future South African tours. Meanwhile, South Africa continued to exclude black players from the Springboks. In reaction to this controversy, New Zealand prime minister Norman Kirk forbade the Springboks from touring New Zealand. The NZRU responded by denouncing Kirk for his alleged appropriation of the national sport for political purposes.

Past Springbok tours had also been the subject of controversy and protest. In 1969, twelve thousand protesters had shut down the city of Cardiff, South Africa, over a proposed Springbok tour, and a 1971 Springbok tour of Australia inspired a wave of nonviolent protests that has been cited as a significant factor in raising awareness of South African apartheid in Australia. The role of athletic competition as a focal point for international opposition to apartheid grew during the 1970’s, as South African sports teams faced increasing hostility when traveling to foreign countries. In 1977, the Commonwealth of Nations, an international organization made up of countries that were formerly part of the British Empire and of which New Zealand was a member, adopted the Gleneagles Agreement, Gleneagles Agreement (1977) which strongly discouraged sports teams of member nations from competing against teams from South Africa. Nevertheless, plans soon commenced for another Springbok tour of New Zealand.

The announcement of the planned tour in September, 1980, produced a backlash of opposition from New Zealanders of various professions and social classes. Most New Zealanders who opposed South African apartheid and discrimination against Maoris did not wish the tour to proceed; yet a small minority of civil rights activists favored allowing the tour in order to draw international attention to the widespread protests planned to take place at the matches. Supporters of the tour bemoaned what they believed was an unwarranted politicization of their national sport, which many saw as a reflection of traditional New Zealand values of courage, perseverance, and teamwork.

The vehemence of both protesters and supporters of the tour and the growing urgency of international protests of apartheid provoked tensions and acrimony among many New Zealanders. The issue divided friends and families, provoked heated arguments, and in some cases contributed to acts of violence. Even the Maori community was divided over the propriety of the tour. New Zealand prime minister Robert Muldoon, facing reelection and seeking to win the votes of conservative rugby fans in the countryside, supported the tour despite the widespread protests. Muldoon insisted that despite its participation in the Gleneagles Agreement, New Zealand was a free nation, and the Springboks were thus free to tour the country.

The first organized mass protests of what became known simply as “the Tour” took place in early May, 1981, and were in full swing by the time the Springboks arrived on July 19. The second preliminary match, against Waikato in Hamilton, was called off after protesters swarmed the playing field and pulled down a fence. The New Zealand government responded with promises to quash the protests by mobilizing the national army. The level of violence at the protests subsequently escalated as protesters clashed with police and increasingly resorted to violent retaliation and property damage. Protesters vandalized a television microwave station, burned a grandstand prior to the first Springbok-All Blacks match at Christchurch, and clashed with police and spectators at various venues. Riot police equipped with shields and long batons dispersed many of these protests, and the resulting bloody injuries to many protesters, including women, were photographed and published, exacerbating the emotional impact of the protests on the public. Muldoon responded to the violence by alleging that left-wing extremists had taken over the protests.

Meanwhile, the Springboks continued to compete against local rugby clubs and the All Blacks. The final test match between the two clubs at Auckland was disrupted when a small airplane dropped sacks of flour onto the playing field. The resulting chaos was captured on New Zealand television; the coverage featured footage of riot police beating unarmed protesters, including some dressed as clowns. This incident turned many previously undecided New Zealanders against the tour, which ended the following day when the Springboks departed New Zealand.


The 1981 Springbok tour was the last such tour to take place during the era of apartheid in South Africa. The protests associated with it illustrated the magnitude of international opposition to apartheid in South Africa, which would officially abandon this policy in the early 1990’s. The tour also brought to the surface racial and cultural issues that had festered in New Zealand society for decades, establishing a link between opposition to apartheid in South Africa and protests against the treatment of the Maori in New Zealand. As such, it is often considered one of the most politically and culturally divisive events in the history of New Zealand.

The acrimony surrounding the tour and the subsequent suspension of competition between the All Blacks and their archrivals the Springboks resulted in a decline in the popularity of rugby in New Zealand during the 1980’s, a situation that was reversed following an All Blacks victory in the 1987 Rugby World Cup. Following the end of apartheid in the early 1990’s, the All Blacks resumed regular tours of South Africa with biracial teams, and regular competition between the two national teams resumed. Springbok tour (1981)
Apartheid;resistance and protest

Further Reading

  • Black, David, and John Nauright. Rugby and the South African Nation: Sport, Culture, Politics, and Power in Old and New South Africa. Manchester, England: Manchester University Press, 1998. Discusses the role of the sport in the politics of South Africa in the twentieth century, devoting an entire chapter to the 1981 Springbok tour.
  • Crawford, Scott A. G. M. “Rugby in Contemporary New Zealand.” Journal of Sport and Social Issues 12, no. 2 (1988): 106-121. Scholarly analysis of both the events leading up to the tour and its impact on sport and culture in New Zealand.
  • Shears, Richard. Storm out of Africa: The 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand. Auckland, New Zealand: MacMillan, 1981. Provides a detailed, contemporaneous overview of the 1981 Springbok tour from an Australian perspective, discussing in detail the international reaction to the tour and the accompanying protests.
  • Templeton, Malcolm. Human Rights and Sporting Contacts: New Zealand’s Attitudes to Race Relations in South Africa, 1921-1994. Auckland, New Zealand: Auckland University Press, 1998. Traces the development of the antiracist sentiments in New Zealand that inspired protests against South African apartheid and domestic racial discrimination, culminating in the 1981 Springbok tour protests.

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