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The Sunday EssayApril 9, 2023

The Sunday Essay: The cancelled Springbok tour of 1973

An illustration of a man with a handlebar moustache and wearing a turtleneck. Behind him are people holding signs to stop the tour, dressed in coats and beanies. The illustration is in pink and green and white with black lines

Fifty years ago a rugby tour of New Zealand was scheduled. After loud and often rowdy protest against it, the tour was called off. Trevor Richards remembers the cancelled Springbok Tour of 1973.

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Illustrations by Joe Carrington

On April 10, 1973, then prime minister Norman Kirk told a crowded press conference that he had written to the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) advising that the government saw “no alternative, pending selection on a genuine merit basis”, to a postponement of the proposed Springbok tour to New Zealand.

Given the history of our rugby relationship with apartheid South Africa, the decision was somewhat surprising. Less than two decades earlier, the 1956 Springbok rugby tour had gripped the nation. Even the New Zealand Communist Party supported it, but by the late 1960s, times were changing.

New Zealanders were being confronted with a stark challenge. Eric Gowing, the Anglican Bishop of Auckland, was blunt: “What you think about sporting contacts with South Africa depends on what you think about racism.”

Whether the 1973 Springboks tour should proceed became a major issue. Its cancellation was an early indication that New Zealand was beginning to shed the rigid, conservative, “rugby, racing and beer” assimilationist values of the post World War II era.

At the time, New Zealanders were well aware of protesters’ commitment to disrupt the tour should it proceed. Almost none were aware of the behind the scenes “dialogue” between the prime minister Kirk and the leadership of the Halt All Racist Tours movement (HART) leading up to the tour’s cancellation.

HART had been formed in 1969 to stop the 1970 All Black tour of South Africa. Looking back, we were Pollyanna at the barricades. Our 1970 strategy had been based on the assumption that those in positions of power – the government and the NZRFU – could be influenced by facts, logic and morality. What we discovered was that prejudice and self-interest were immune to such appeals. A new approach was needed.

By the end of March 1971, HART and CARE (the Citizens’ Association for Racial Equality) had announced policies of “non-violent disruption” of apartheid sport. Mr Niceguy was just too easy to ignore. There needed to be the promise of a frontal attack on such tours.

While policies of direct action are what HART and CARE were best known for, most of our time and money was spent on education. Hundreds of thousands of leaflets were distributed. We published a monthly tabloid newspaper. Meetings were held in draughty halls up and down the country. Between March 1971 and February 1973, five overseas speakers toured New Zealand.

An illustration in pink with black lines. A line of people hold a sign reading "Halt All Racist Tours" and a person walks ahead with a megaphone

The 1972 general election campaign did not fill anti-apartheid hearts with any great confidence. The ruling National Party declared its support for the tour. Although the opposition Labour Party did its best to avoid the issue, leader Norman Kirk promised not to stop the tour. On November 25, twelve years of National Party rule came to an end. Labour was elected with a whopping 23-seat majority. What would the new government do?

On January 3, 1973, the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa (SCSA), the body which coordinated and promoted Africa’s anti-apartheid sports policies, called on all Commonwealth countries in Africa to withdraw from participating in the 1974 Christchurch Commonwealth Games if the Springbok tour went ahead. It was New Zealand’s first direct taste of the strength of independent Africa’s opposition to apartheid.

On January 23, the new prime minister sent the NZRFU a letter, attaching a report on the implications of the tour for New Zealand’s international standing, for internal race relations and for law and order. The report concluded: “it is the considered police view that the tour would engender the greatest eruption of violence this country has ever known.” On the international front, the report said there was “a virtual certainty that the Commonwealth Games would … either have to be cancelled or be a failure.” Serious concerns were expressed about the tour’s potential impact on race relations.

Margaret Hayward, Kirk’s Private Secretary, wrote in Diary of the Kirk Years that “the prime minister is optimistic. He appeared to believe that if the rugby union was treated like a group of responsible men, they were more likely to act like reasonable men.” If he had a concern, it was about anti-apartheid groups.

At the end of January, his message to an anti-apartheid deputation had been to “cool it”. We could understand his logic. If he was going to stop the tour, he could not be seen to be giving in to pressure from HART and CARE. But the “if” was a very big one. Labour’s election promise not to cancel the tour sat front and centre in our minds.

In early February, following a meeting to consider the prime minister’s letter, the Rugby Union announced that “arrangements for the tour are proceeding”. When a radio journalist asked if this was the union’s last word on the tour, NZRFU chairman Jack Sullivan smothered the microphone “with a big fist”. New Zealand’s rugby authorities in 1973 were men who fondly remembered the 1956 tour. The NZRFU was never of its own volition going to stop the tour.

Stories in the daily metropolitan press started speculating that the tour might be stopped “in the public interest”. I didn’t believe it.

In the second week of February, HART issued a comprehensive statement outlining what it would do if the tour proceeded. “Let everyone know that … the whole of New Zealand will have to be guarded on a 24 hour a day, seven days a week basis.” Many papers accorded it front-page lead status.

The statement infuriated rugby supporters. The prime minister issued an angry statement: “Richards, you are not running the country.” The police announced that they were considering prosecuting me for the statement. Some leading figures within the movement considered that I had overstepped the mark. Sometimes, it could feel a bit lonely.

At a HART meeting in Ashburton a few days later, around 600 pro-tour supporters turned out in an effort to prevent me from speaking. The meeting went ahead, but only after a number of their placards had come crashing down on my head.

An illustration in green with black lines. People walk in a line protesting, holding up signs saying "no tours" and "H.A.R.T" with their fists raised

Privately, the PM was remaining optimistic. Hayward wrote in her diary: “Everyone else seems to be making moves, but Mr. K remains quietly confident. He just grins and tells us he’s moving with ‘dynamic caution’.”

In mid February the Rugby Union met with the prime minister. Kirk’s concerns were ignored. The NZRFU announced the tour was proceeding. Asked what the government’s next step would be, Kirk said “wait and see I guess”. Asked to be more specific about timing, he said “soon, in the soonest sense of soon”. By now, most political commentators were of the view that Kirk would cancel the tour. We could see no evidence for this.

At the end of February, the prime minister met with a deputation from the pro-tour lobby. Some time later, a full transcript of the meeting fell off the back of a truck and into HART’s hands. The prime minister had told the delegation that his decision on the tour must be based only on one fact and that was what is in the best interests of New Zealand. “There is no evidence that I can find,” he said, “that supports in any way the continuation of the tour.”

Frank Corner, secretary of foreign affairs and head of the prime minister’s department, was later to say “the tour did not fit in with Kirk’s view of what New Zealand should do in the world, and what it’s standing would be should the tour proceed.”

Around this time, I was contacted by Bob Scott, an Anglican minister and director of the Wellington Inner City Ministry. He had just met with Norman Kirk. The prime minister’s view, which Kirk wanted relayed to HART, was that the job of the anti-apartheid movement was to be calm and quiet. The government believed that our views were well-known, and the ball game was now being played on a different field – theirs. For the next six weeks, until the tour’s cancellation, Scott acted as go-between for the prime minister and HART.

At the same time, Southern Māori MP, Whetu Tirikatene-Sullivan contacted me with a similar message. The prime minister was clearly leaving nothing to chance in getting his message through to us. She assured me that Kirk would act. But the doubts and concerns we had were both real and multiplying. Over the next six weeks, as Scott played out his go-between role, the single question exercising the minds of all in HART’s national leadership was whether or not Scott’s assessment of the prime minister’s intentions could be trusted.

By the beginning of March, those opposed to the tour split into two broad groups. One faction, which aligned with the Labour Party, trusted the prime minister to deliver, and were opposed to HART and CARE being too critical of the government. Others believed that all social democrats were untrustworthy and urged more radical action.

In early March, Bob Scott attended a HART national council meeting. For about an hour, he argued that Kirk could be trusted, and we needed to stay calm. The meeting agreed to what Kirk wanted. We would keep a low profile until the end of the month, but we did so with considerable misgivings. What exactly did “soon, in the soonest sense of soon” mean? It sounded just too glib.

Sharpeville Day, March 21, 1973, saw leafleting, picketing, vigils, a rock concert, marches, rallies and commemorative services throughout the country. We publicised recent messages of support from diverse groups and individuals, including former UN secretary general U Thant and the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich and former MCC cricketer, David Sheppard. The most militant action taken was by members of the New Zealand Seamen’s Union, who stopped work for 24 hours to demonstrate their opposition to apartheid.

After Sharpeville Day, tensions escalated significantly. At the end of March, I was in Dunedin for an anti-apartheid meeting. Scott was also there. I reminded him that our agreement with Kirk was about to expire. Scott indicated that he, too, was concerned with how slow the prime minister was moving. He undertook to contact Kirk.

Towards the end of the first week in April, Scott contacted me. “Early early next week,” I was told. I was fed up. At the beginning of March we had agreed to what the prime minister had asked. We had sat on our hands for a month, and marked time. Now we were being told to wait until mid April. What would we be told then? That the tour was on and that I and others were to be prosecuted? By now, the common view in the HART leadership was that Scott was being taken in by the prime minister, and that we were being taken in by Scott.

It was not just an issue of what the HART leadership was thinking. What about our supporters? We at least knew more or less what was going on between ourselves and the prime minister. Most of our supporters did not. They were becoming increasingly restless. It was easy for some of them to regard the HART leadership as just a bunch of media freaks who had got cold feet.

An illustration in pink with black lines. A line of people hold a sign reading "Halt All Racist Tours" and a person walks ahead with a megaphone

If we could not control events we at least needed to be singing our own song instead of being in a chorus singing someone else’s tune. A meeting was planned in Wellington for Sunday, April 8. Most of the HART leadership was there. All of us believed, with different degrees of conviction, that the tour was on. In about three months, the Springboks would be here. We needed to start planning and organising for their arrival.

We never got to do that. There was a knock at the door. In walked Bob Scott, who had not been invited to the meeting. A silent sigh ran around the room. How many more days were we going to be told we had to wait? “It’s near its conclusion,” he said. “Just wait a few more days.”

“You keep saying that – a few more days, a few more days,” we replied. Some in the room were adamant one day was a day too long to wait. Others, outside of HART, were clearly thinking the same. That night, a rugby grandstand in Papakura was burnt to the ground.

I sat and listened. I wanted to believe Scott, but ever since he had started acting as go-between, it felt as if we were all players in an updated version of Waiting for Godot. If it came to a vote (which it wouldn’t – most decisions were arrived at through consensus), I would not go with the “just wait a few more days” line.

Towards the end of the meeting, Scott signalled to me as he left the room and I followed. “If I tell you something, will you go back inside and tell them?” he asked. Half a dozen qualified responses flashed through my head. This wasn’t a time for a philosophical discourse on the nature of loyalty, trust or honesty. “No,” I responded, and hoped I would be able to keep my word.

“I spoke with the prime minister yesterday,” he said. “The tour is off.” I must’ve looked unconvinced. “He has written to the Rugby Union requiring the tour be called off.” And then he repeated, “It’s off. The letter has gone to the NZRFU. They have it. Mr Kirk will make the announcement next week.” I believed him.

I went back into the meeting, which was by now grudgingly of the view that we would extend the contract with Kirk and “hold off” for another week. No one asked me what Scott had wanted to tell me but I was asked for my view on how we should proceed. I spoke briefly, positively endorsing the emerging consensus.

I got a ride down to the airport. As we twisted down Mount Victoria, I had great surges of excitement. It was off! The tour was off! The joy was pure, immense, uncomplicated. I felt like a kid at Christmas. The flight back to Christchurch was fairly empty. A flight attendant came and chatted for a few minutes. How was I? Did I think the tour would be called off? I gave the standard response, but inwardly, my smile was so large I feared it might take over my face.

Looking back at the 1970s, the cancellation of the 1973 Springbok tour was part of a brief, exhilarating, period in our politics. If I had to name my favourite year, it would probably be 1973. I was 27, and after 12 years of conservative government, change was on its way.

Trevor Richards was national chairperson of the Halt All Racist Tours movement (HART) from 1969-80, and international secretary from 1980-85.

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