The 1981 Springbok (South African) rugby tour was among the most divisive events in New Zealand’s history. In the 1960s and 70s, many New Zealanders had come to believe that playing sport with South Africa condoned its racist apartheid system. Others disagreed. Learn about the trauma of the tour, when feelings ran high, and pro- and anti-tour factions often clashed violently.
- ‘I have a moral objection to the apartheid system and, like most sportsmen, I want less political influence in sport.’
- Graham Mourie, All Black captain, 1982
1950s New Zealand – men on top
Entering the 1950s, New Zealand society seemed prosperous, peaceful, and integrated. The ‘us’ behind this image of unity were heterosexual, Pakeha blokes (male European New Zealanders) – the country’s dominant players. Other groups, however, found themselves marginalised.
Rugby was at the centre of male socialising, as was beer, which men consumed in large quantities in licensed hotels, pubs or clubs. Alcohol consumption was illegal in other public places.
In the rugby world, New Zealand’s greatest rivals were South Africa. The favoured winter sport of the British upper classes was by now firmly established in both the Empire’s former colonies.
The rivalry between the All Blacks and Springboks (the South African rugby team) reached fever pitch around the middle of the 20th century. With the exception of horse racing, no other sport enjoyed anywhere near the same public support.
Apartheid & sport
South Africa’s policy of apartheid – racial separateness – was officially adopted in 1948. Apartheid excluded non-white players, and therefore Maori, from touring there. In the 1950s, few New Zealanders questioned this.
Rugby came first, and rugby officials chose to respect the policies of whichever country was hosting. This meant that Maori were excluded whenever the All Blacks toured South Africa, but not when the Springboks toured New Zealand.
All Blacks versus South Africa
The All Blacks, without Maori players, toured South Africa in 1949, losing all four tests. In 1956, the Springboks toured New Zealand, and the All Blacks, with Maori players included, triumphed.
In the 1960s and 70s, public disapproval of apartheid grew. The issue exploded in 1981 when the Springboks toured New Zealand.
The Springbok tour was one of the most divisive events in New Zealand’s history. The country split into pro- and anti-tour factions, which often clashed violently at the matches.
The 1984 Labour Government was officially against apartheid, and discouraged sporting contact with South Africa. Under internal and external pressure, South Africa’s apartheid system began collapsing in 1990. The All Blacks resumed touring there in 1992.