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I was an apolitical student at Otago University when the 1981 Springbok tour was announced — looking forward to the All Blacks getting some revenge after consecutive series losses in South Africa, writes Michael Laws.
Anti-tour sentiment on campus and in Dunedin was overt and organised but most rugby followers regarded such dissent as misguided and misinformed. Nevertheless we considered that protesters had the right to protest so long as we had the right to watch the games. A live-and-let-live mentality pervaded.
That all changed when the Waikato game was abandoned in Hamilton. In an instant, hundreds of pro-tour students gathered in the university’s common room and, somehow, I became their elected president. We formed the pro-tour group SCRUM which meant well, nothing really. But it was preferable to RUCK or MAUL.
The next couple of months became sheer devilment — a hugely entertaining diversion in which our group matched Hart and SATT (Students Against The Tour) on campus but also took the political fight to the wider Otago community.
Although there was a philosophical view that sport should not be used for political ends, most of us considered anti-tour protesters to be hypocritical liberals. We pointed out the systemic racism and human rights abuses in other nations with whom we shared sporting contact, but white racism was somehow worse.
NZUSA sent a flying squad down to Otago to assist local activists after SCRUM successfully overturned all anti-tour policy on campus. To make matters worse, OUSA had even ended up catering for the hyper-active Red and Blue Squads when they policed the Otago-Springboks game.
But one of our number was a cleaner, had a skeleton key to the Hart/SATT offices, and discovered NZUSA plans to literally ‘‘spy’’ on myself and other SCRUM members. When we released those papers to the media, there was national coverage and an embarrassed OUSA passed a motion censuring their national body.
For all the intensity and emotion of the time, I think protagonists on both sides engaged each other with pretty good humour. We respected each other and even drank together at the Captain Cook. Indeed our SCRUM vice-president ended up dating a Hart publicity officer. Love will find a way!
My old sparring mate, Critic editor Chris Trotter, made the observation that the Springbok tour atomised campus activism for a generation. I think that’s right: the white hot intensity of those days burned like a meteor and then disappeared as quickly.
I look at South Africa today and know that few anti-tour protesters believe that poor country is any better than it was in 1981. Therein perhaps lies the truest tragedy.
- Michael Laws