Spike Thomas remembers the anger he felt during the 1981 Springbok tour. He worked at a car parts dealership in Wellington Central - and often worked with well-known rugby players - before the game went professional.

Thomas and his colleagues wanted the tour to go ahead - they chased out anti-tour customers from the shop.

He and his brother's support of the tour made them outliers in their family - there was the time during the tour when the whole family met a cousin at the airport and the pro-tour pair had to stand off to one side - as no one was talking to them.

While he had plans to go to the Wellington game in 1981, he says he was prevented by anti-tour doctors who kept him in hospital after an asthma attack.

But, today, he's looking forward to the titans facing off again - though under much-changed conditions.

It will be the hundredth time the All Blacks and the Springboks square off, and much unlike in '81, South Africa is led by a Black President - Cyril Ramaphosa and the Boks, by Black captain Siya Kolisi.

South Africa's Siya Kolisi lifts the Webb Ellis Trophy with President Cyril Ramaphosa at the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final.

South Africa's Siya Kolisi lifts the Webb Ellis Trophy with President Cyril Ramaphosa at the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final, Yokohama, Japan.

South Africa's Siya Kolisi lifts the Webb Ellis Trophy with President Cyril Ramaphosa at the 2019 Rugby World Cup Final, Yokohama, Japan.

The 1981 Springboks were often seen as a bastion of apartheid. But Thomas and the pro-tour side didn’t see how having them in the country could be interpreted as New Zealand supporting the regime they benefited from.

He says what was happening in South Africa didn't impinge on his consciousness.

"I didn't even give it a second thought. All we wanted was a game of rugby - that's all we wanted to watch - and how dare people get in our way."

Those people who got in the way did so for 56 days in July, August and September 1981. More than 150,000 of them took part in over 200 demonstrations in 28 centres; violence erupted, families were split, and tensions were high.

Halt All Racist Tours

The protests were advocated by Halt All Racist Tours (HART), a network that was set up in 1969 to oppose sporting contact with South Africa.  

HART is synonymous with the ‘81 tour. A permanent exhibition in the New Zealand Police Museum in Porirua, includes two plaques; one gifted by HART - recognising the "56 days of dedicated action in solidarity with the white minority government of South Africa; endless harassment and violence directed at opponents of apartheid." 

The other was presented to the New Zealand Police and signed by the Commissioner of Police “in appreciation of their efforts in upholding the law during the Springbok rugby tour." 

Museum director Rowan Carroll's own HART badge is also part of the exhibition; at 18 years old, she was "beaten to a pulp" by a pro-tour man at a party; he told her to remove the badge, and she refused. 

'STOP The '81 Tour' badge at New Zealand Police Museum

'STOP The '81 Tour' badge at New Zealand Police Museum

'STOP The '81 Tour' badge at New Zealand Police Museum

The exhibition tries to show the divide - there are emotive pictures of life in South Africa under apartheid, the protests in New Zealand, images of police with batons, police standing behind barbed wire, and images and videos showing clashes across the nation. 

Now, older and with starkly different views, Spike Thomas says there was a "blindness and pig-headedness of the pro-tour people." 

Since then, Thomas has been involved in political movements from attending protests to working on left-leaning campaigns. 

However, he still feels anger about the whole tour movement, even though he says he knows he was wrong. 

 He points to what he calls "smugness" of the anti-tour side. He went to leftist events in the decade after, and when people found he was once pro-tour - they turned on him.   

"We all have a right to change our minds, but by the same token, I know I was wrong, and I was ignorant...wilfully ignorant, yes. But ignorant." 

No regrets

Former players who battled the Springboks in the regional games in ‘81 have also been reflecting on their role in the tour. 

Alan Dobson played in Nelson against the touring South Africans.  

"It was a real honour to be able to play against a team like the Springboks when the opportunity came along. I was prepared to do anything and play against them," he says. 

He remembers hearing that glass was spread on the rugby fields across the nation -  and the players' measures to avoid protesters. 

"I can remember walking over Trafalgar Bridge amongst all the protesters who were all there screaming out they are going to get the team, 'where is the team, watch out for the bus', and here we were - right amongst them."  

While he still maintains sports and politics do not mix, he says the cultural makeup of the Springboks today shows how far they have come since 1981. 

He also says there was "some merit" in the protest movement - but believes it was displaced. 

"There are other venues where they could have vented their anger or vented their disapproval rather than attacking sportspeople."

But in saying that - he would do the same again. 

Another player, Bruce Hemara, played for Manawatu for the 1981 tour and was a reserve for the New Zealand Māori game.

He knew about the apartheid policy, but his whole family backed him playing. 

There was coverage in New Zealand media about the regime. Still, to Hemara "that was South Africa's problem; the perspective I had was I wanted to play rugby against what we thought was the next best rugby country in the world. A lot of my friends and family were of the same thinking." 

Looking back, he says it was perhaps naive thinking in those terms.

Now - he says sports and politics are not so easily separated, pointing to former NFL player Colin Kaepernick’s impact, as a recent example. 

But in saying that, Hemara also doesn't harbour regrets in playing.

"I wouldn't have changed my mind back then. If it was a tour now with the same circumstances and what I know now, I would probably see it differently and make a different decision".

He thinks it did at least prompt some reflection on New Zealand's racial issues - as it did on South Africa's. 

"I think part of that was looking at ourselves as much as looking at other countries." 

Focusing on our own racism   

Prue Kapua, now the President of the Māori Women’s Welfare League or Te Rōpū Wāhine Māori Toko I te Ora (MWWL), saw this too. 

In 1981, she was a student at Auckland University and participated in protests in Wellington and Auckland - and was also an avid rugby fan.  

The MWWL has been opposing New Zealand's involvement in rugby with South Africa for decades ahead of this tour. 

Kapua says part of the MWWL's opposition in 1981 was because it drew links between the racism, inequality, and discrimination seen in South Africa to what Māori communities experienced in New Zealand. 

However, overall, she felt the opposition to the 1981 tour failed to look at New Zealand's racism adequately. 

 While people were united against apartheid, "on our domestic front, we have a whole lot of stuff that we cannot be unified about - and that we see as entirely different from what we were all protesting about then." 

She recalls open advertisements for accommodation in the 1980s saying "Maoris need not apply" - and not much done about it.

"Those things were still happening then, and we didn't see the irony in that perhaps."

Today, Kapua says the argument that politics and sports don't mix needs to be buried. 

"I think sport has a huge role in bringing about political awareness and political change and people who try to break or suggest that that shouldn't occur or can't occur - I think that time has well passed." 

While 40 years ago she protested the games, now she is back watching and will be cheering along tonight.  

Embrace change 

Lawson Naidoo will also be watching from Cape Town. He was part of the anti-apartheid struggle and went on to work as a Special Advisor to the Speaker of Parliament while Nelson Mandela was President. He remembers seeing footage of the protests in New Zealand 40 years ago.  

"It was important for people in South Africa to see that although the Springboks were on tour, there was opposition to that tour within New Zealand, and that the international community -or certain parts of it were standing in solidarity with the struggle of the people in South Africa against racism." 

Naidoo says the team's makeup playing this weekend shows how far the game has come since 1981.  

"That we have a team with many world-beating Black players is a testament to the strength of rugby in our country. Under the inspirational leadership of Siya Kolisi and Rassie Erasmus, they have proven that South Africans of all races can come together and forge success if we look beyond race and embrace each other as equals."

Spike Thomas - the former pro-tour Wellingtonian, now advocates on social causes. 

While he says he was not on the right side of history, he learnt from it and now tries to have challenging conversations with others - hoping they too can embrace a changing, diversifying world.

"Some people never change their views, but if you don't get in conversation with them, nothing will change."

Written by
Stacey Knott

Design by
Vinay Ranchhod

Getty Images, Photosport, Porirua Police Museum