Police Officer in 1981 Springbok Tour protests
Police Officer in 1981 Springbok Tour protests

Peter Williams: Forty years on - were you pro or anti the 1981 Springbok Tour?

Opinion 22/07/2021

OPINION: Then, like now, I’d really like to keep politics out of sport, but now I know that’s impossible.

Today is July 22nd. I wonder if you remember this day forty years ago? Especially if you lived in Gisborne? Yes, it was this day 40 years ago that the first match of the infamous Springbok rugby tour was played. If you were around on this day in 1981 you will remember the time, a time of protest which became violence, a time of discussion which became arguments, a time when even the closest of family relationships were put to the test of their stability.

I was working for TVNZ sports back then, and when I think about it, there was extraordinary arrogance shown by many people inside that company about the way what was the only television company, and the only TV sports operation, in the country would react to the tour. There was even a move, led by lefties in the current affairs programmes like Brian Edwards and Ian Fraser, to not even show the games on TV. And that action was seriously considered.

I actually had to take a stand at a pretty agitated staff meeting in the cafeteria at the old Avalon TV centre and somehow raise the courage among a bunch of rabid lefties, that they worked for a state broadcasting organisation which by statute had a duty to cover events of high public interest in the country in a fair and impartial way, and that not showing matches would not only break the contract between TVNZ and the Rugby Union, it would be ignoring, for blatant political reasons, an event of immense public interest to the public of the country. 

For somebody who was only in his 20s, and had been on TV for only a couple of years, to be taking a stand against legends like Edwards and Fraser, was when I think about it now, pretty reckless. So from then on I became  the redneck pro-tour bloke who worked in sports and shouldn’t be taken too seriously. That was the way the country was in that very strange and sad year, well rather a strange and very sad  7 weeks from late July through till September 12th.

The question that is often asked even now, forty years on, is were you pro or anti tour. I was anti-apartheid, like virtually every New Zealanders but I was naive enough to be happy for the games to be played, even if I only went to one of them. To be honest, I was on the sidelines of the argument. I know now I was wrong. All I did know from a work perspective is that TVNZ had a duty to broadcast the actual games and then on the news to cover the protests in a factual and unbiased way. By today’s standards, I think they did that job admirably. It was a televisual feast on the news pretty much every night for the whole tour, but the reporters of the time were checked and sub-edited so heavily, my recollection is that reporting of the protests was factual and non-emotional, and essentially balanced.

The pictures told the story. I believed then, as I do now, in personal choice and non-violence. Then, like now, I’d really like to keep politics out of sport, but now I know that’s impossible. Even the IOC has succumbed I see and are allowing athletes to take a political stance at the Tokyo Games and the New Zealand women’s football team was in the thick of it by taking a knee in their first match last night. Is there racism in New Zealand sport today? Is there disadvantage in having brown skin in New Zealand sport in 2021? I wouldn’t have thought so? So what was the football team actually protesting about?  

So do you have recollections of the Springbok tour which started this day 40 years ago? Did you go on the protests? Or were you happy for the tour to go ahead? When you look at South Africa now, do you think, what were all those protests for? Yes apartheid was dismantled about a decade after the tour, and under Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki you’d like to think some progress towards a fair and fully just society was being made, but the last decade and a bit has just been so sad, so predictable and the blame for that is with the always corrupt Jacob Zuma and his cronies. Is there any hope for the country now?

The number of South Africans, black, white and coloured who have left when they could, suggests the place is barely better than it was 40 years ago.

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