12 Jun 2021

Documents reveal political cost for New Zealand of hosting 1981 Springboks Tour

8:03 pm on 12 June 2021

Declassified documents released by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs show the political ramifications New Zealand faced for hosting the 1981 Springboks Tour.

Apartheid rally during the South Africa tour of New Zealand 1981.

There were protests where ever the Springboks went during their 1981 tour of New Zealand. Photo: Photosport

Nigeria led the backlash alongside other West African nations, appalled New Zealand would allow South Africa to tour New Zealand and play the All Blacks while South Africa was implementing its apartheid policy.

In a statement, sent directly to Commonwealth allies and the New Zealand government, Nigeria said New Zealand was breaching the Gleneagles Agreement, which was set up to discourage sporting competition with South Africa during apartheid.

The Nigerian government said if the tour went ahead it would seek strong sanctions against New Zealand, and would assure there were mass boycotts of all events in which New Zealand participated.

In an internal memo that has only now been released, then prime minister Rob Muldoon was fuming at Nigeria's government.

"I have told the Commonwealth Secretary-General that firstly, if this action proceeds I will recommend to my colleagues in the government party that New Zealand withdraw from the Gleneagles Agreement as other Commonwealth countries are prepared to distort its meaning to our disadvantage," he wrote.

"Secondly, I have in any case requested the Secretary-General to place the question of human rights on the agenda for the Melbourne heads of government meeting. There I propose to initiate an examination of New Zealand's record and place it alongside that of such countries as may see themselves as our accusers in this matter."

He said New Zealand's opposition to apartheid was clear, and went on to write: "We will not be labelled as an international pariah simply because we uphold the principle of freedom of association and freedom from interference for our sportsmen and sporting bodies."

Stu Wilson in action against the Springboks during the South Africa tour of New Zealand 1981.

Stu Wilson in action against the Springboks during the South Africa tour of New Zealand 1981. Photo: Photosport NZ

Regardless of sporting boycotts, the Springboks Tour had very real political consequences on a global stage.

In a briefing regarding fisheries, it is noted that Nigeria and West Africa in general were major importers of New Zealand's white fish, but that had stopped as a result of the tour.

"In each of the last two years, bulk shipments of barracouta have been made to Nigeria. Nigeria, and West Africa in general, have a large demand for fish and an increasing ability, in some cases, to pay for imports," the report said.

"Without these bulk shipments, intolerable pressure would have been placed on traditional outlets and a drop in price unavoidable. With the inability to make another sale to West Africa, this is now happening."

The report said the fisheries industry had to develop new markets as a result, and was exploring Egypt as a potential destination for the bulk of barracouta that needed a foreign buyer.

Russia and Eastern Europe were also listed as a possibility, but Egypt was the top priority.

Protestors interrupt the New Zealand v South Africa Rugby Match in 1981.

Protestors interrupt one of the Springboks games. Photo: Photosport

Meanwhile, the government's relationship with the New Zealand Rugby Union had also soured.

In a letter from the New Zealand Ambassador to Vienna to the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, they talk about the All Blacks upcoming tour to Romania.

"Normally, and especially as this is the All Blacks' first visit in Socialist East Europe (where life has its peculiarities and risks, not least those of a security nature) the Vienna Embassy would have felt it advisable, in the case of such a sizeable group of New Zealand citizens, to arrange in some way to have an officer from Vienna on the spot," the letter reads.

"In the ordinary way, too, I would have felt it appropriate to go to Bucharest for the All Black test there, in order, particularly, to give them and their hosts some form of hospitality as a measure of quid pro quo on New Zealand's behalf.

"Obviously this sort of traditional scenario will now need reviewing, depending on what is the final outcome of the current Springbok tour of New Zealand, and what broad attitude is thereafter taken by our Government to the NZRFU."

The newly released documents are available for viewing at Archives New Zealand in Wellington.

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