60 Stop the 81 Tour

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.

‘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

For 56 days in July, August and September 1981, New Zealanders were divided against each other in the largest civil disturbance seen since the 1951 waterfront dispute. More than 150,000 people took part in over 200 demonstrations in 28 centres, and 1500 were charged with offences stemming from these protests.

To some observers it might seem inconceivable that the cause of this unrest was the visit to New Zealand of the South African rugby team (the Springboks). Although not a major sport on a global scale, rugby has established itself not only as New Zealand’s number one sport but as a vital component in this country’s national identity. In many ways the playing of rugby took a back seat in 1981, and the sport suffered in the following years as players and supporters came to terms with the fallout from the tour.

The anti-Springbok tour protesters argued that sport was not separate from politics, especially when New Zealand was up against a South African team selected on racial grounds. They felt that playing rugby against South Africa condoned apartheid. Some also saw the tour as an opportunity to address racism in New Zealand.

Pro-tour supporters claimed that politics had nothing to do with sport and that the two areas should remain separate.

Some commentators have described this event as the moment when New Zealand lost its innocence as a country and as being a watershed in our view of ourselves as a country and people.

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.

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.

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.


Badge, ‘STOP The ’81 Tour’ 1981, HART (Halt All Racist Tours) (1969–1992), New Zealand. Gift of Annette Anderson, 2009. Te Papa