Remembering the ‘Battle of Auckland’

Posted on September 13, 2011


There were two major rugby events in New Zealand on Sunday, September 11. In the capital, Wellington, the Springboks faced Wales in their first defence of the World Cup; 640 km to the north, in the economic centre of Auckland, anti-apartheid veterans marched to commemorate the 30th anniversary of “the Battle of Auckland”.

That battle, on September 12, 1981, was between thousands of mainly young protestors and a massed police force backed by the army. It signalled the end of tours to New Zealand by the pro-apartheid South African Rugby Board. Two of the 16 scheduled 1981 matches around that country were cancelled and others only managed to continue, often with major disruptions, through the extensive use of batons and barbed wire.

This was the title — By batons and barbed wire — that the late doyen of anti-apartheid struggles in that country, Tom Newnham gave to his book detailing one of the most tumultuous events in modern New Zealand history. He noted at the time: “Many of the elements of civil war arrived in New Zealand, courtesy of apartheid.”

It was no exaggeration. By 1980, when the conservative prime minister Robert Muldoon decided to invite a Springbok tour of New Zealand, the country was divided. Surveys revealed that a majority of citizens opposed a tour, while a substantial minority tended to be fiercely in favour. At the time, the country boasted the biggest per capita anti-apartheid movement (AAM) in the world, a movement that included in its ranks All Black rugby players such as Chris Laidlaw and Bob Burgess.

That rugby players were part of the AAM was not surprising. Unlike its counterparts in other parts of the world, the New Zealand AAM did not impose a blanket boycott on everything South African; it could not be accused of being “anti-sport”. So the New Zealanders established direct links with non-racial sporting bodies in South Africa. In this they were supported and encouraged by the two members of the ANC and PAC then in the country who had had no contrary instructions from their boycott-supporting parent bodies.

Also encouraging direct links at the time was Precious McKenzie, the black South Africa weightlifter driven into exile and who went on to become the greatest medal winner — representing first England and then New Zealand — in Olympic and Commonwealth Games history. He had moved to New Zealand after his gold medal victories in the 1973 Commonwealth Games in Christchurch.

For the AAM, the most important contact was with the non-racial SA Rugby Union, headed by Abdul Abbass. With the agreement of Saru, an invitation was extended by New Zealand to South Africa’s oldest — and non-racist — rugby organisation to send a team to tour New Zealand. The apartheid government refused to issue passports, an action that reinforced the AAM argument that apartheid amounted to politics in sport.

This action not only won over new supporters to the anti-apartheid cause in New Zealand, it created an impression in the Saru centres of the Eastern and Western Cape of New Zealand and, therefore, the All Blacks, being “comrades in the struggle”. Evidence of this now possibly vague folk memory can still be seen in the support given to All Black teams when they play, especially in Port Elizabeth and, to a lesser extent, in Cape Town.

Muldoon had clearly decided that he wanted a showdown with an AAM that had managed to persuade the former Labour Party prime minister, Norman Kirk, to cancel an earlier tour. He and the police were also aware that the AAM was a mass organisation, but they were almost certainly not aware of how well trained and organised the protestors were.

From the time a Springbok tour was threatened for 1973, a series of “protest camps” was held around the country. Here techniques of non-violent direct action were taught and practiced. These involved everything from how to deal with verbal abuse and heckling to staging difficult to dislodge sit-down protests and how best to vault fences.

Mainly young protestors were trained by trainers who had attended a course run by one of the best-known exponents of non-violent direct action, the US Quaker anti Vietnam war activist, George Lakey. They were lessons well learned, but it was only in 1981 that they came fully to the forefront and, on July 25 in Hamilton, these tactics left the police and rugby security flat-footed.

Before the teams ran onto the field, one of the boundary fences was flattened and nearly 400 demonstrators, led by a group of theological students bearing a large wooden cross, charged onto the centre of the pitch while other protestors tried to scale the goalposts. The rugby supporters were enraged, the police embarrassed, but the invasion was eventually cleared although the protestors — along with the arresting police — were pelted with bottles and stones.

But no sooner had the ground been cleared that word came that Pat McQuarrie, a World War II fighter pilot, anti-apartheid activist and rugby coach, was flying a stolen light plane and heading for Hamilton. McQuarrie lost his pilot’s licence after “buzzing” and flour bombing an apartheid softball team that visited New Zealand in 1976. Fearful of what McQuarrie might do, the police cancelled the game.

Rugby supporters were enraged and police riot squad chief, Phil Keber noted: “I was humiliated [and] I wanted the tour to go ahead to show that the police could and would do better.” The result was that the official forces of law and order were in no mood to deal peacefully with direct action, no matter how non-violent. In Wellington the following week, baton wielding police attacked an anti-apartheid march in Molesworth Street. Blood flowed and bones were broken. “It was a miracle nobody died,” said Newnham.

But this was a turning point for protests. Militant youths donned motorcycle crash helmets, kitted themselves out in body armour, for the most part made of cardboard tubing, and carried hardboard shields designed to deflect the force of water cannon. It was war on the streets, but the police, behind coils of barbed wire and with the army in support, completely surrounded the rugby grounds.

Mass invasions of the pitches were no longer possible although this did not stop helmeted and shield bearing groups such as the Maori Patu squad trying time and again to breach police lines. And the biggest ever demonstration and clash erupted on September 12 in the streets surrounding Auckland’s iconic stadium, Eden Park, venue for the third and final 1981 test and where the final of the 2011 World Cup will next month be played.

In 1981, the authorities were determined that, whatever happened outside the ground, nothing would disturb the rugby. Patrols ensured that even alternative tactics that some groups planned to launch from the slopes and the crater lip of the Mt Eden volcano that overlooks Eden Park could not get off the ground. But emotions were running high because the day was also the third anniversary of the murder of Steve Biko and the demonstrations began with a Biko memorial march.

It was then that another anti-apartheid pilot, a diminutive, 32-year-old trade unionist and builder, Marx Jones, decided to take action. He hired a Cessna light aircraft and together with a young friend, Grant Cole, loaded it with thousands anti-apartheid pamphlets, several parachute flares and 50 lightweight paper bags, each containing about 450 grammes of flour. “We knew the bags would burst and we didn’t want to hurt anybody,” he explained later.

Soon after the kick-off, Marx Jones took off, flew over Eden Park and, to cheers from the protestors, Grant Cole dropped pamphlets into the ground. This was followed by parachute flares. “We tried the soft approach first,” Jones remembered on being released from prison in 1982 after serving six months of a nine month sentence.

This “soft approach” didn’t work and the game continued. So Marx Jones began nearly 50 extremely low-level passes over the ground. “I went in diagonally so I wouldn’t tangle with the goalposts,” he remembered later. His “bombadier”, peppered the ground and the players with flour bombs, one of which felled All Black prop Gary Knight when it landed on his head, coating him with flour.

Still the game continued and, at the much delayed final whistle, the All Blacks had won by 25 to 22. But it was also a victory for the AAM: there was never another All Black-Springbok contest until after the release of Nelson Mandela and the new dispensation in South Africa.

Posted in: Human Rights