A Springbok abroad
'We could see the anger in people's eyes ...'
July 31, 2014

Firdose Moonda talks to Rob Louw about the difficulties of being a South African touring New Zealand at the height of Apartheid

Protests against the Springboks' tour reached as far as the USA where demonstrators paraded outside the White House © Getty Images

The very thing more than 150,000 people in 200 demonstrations across 28 centres in New Zealand spent 56 days protesting about was taking place in Rob Louw's hotel room. The South African No.8, who is white, was sharing with Errol Tobias, the mixed-race fly-half. Had they tried to do the same in their own country, they would have been arrested. No wonder so many Kiwis were so het up.

Apartheid South Africa was run on principles of separation and included laws such as the Group Areas Act, which dictated where people of different race groups could live and made intermingling illegal. It existed to ensure political and economic power was kept in the hands of a white minority and denied, to different degrees, to everyone else, most notably the black majority. It was also swiftly being regarded in the same way as a high tackle: something best avoided. As a result, South Africa were systematically shut out of the global community in various spheres including sport.

South Africa were banned from major international events such Olympic Games and football World Cups but tried to keep themselves involved through bilateral arrangements such as the rugby against New Zealand. In 1969, University of Auckland students had enough and formed an organisation called HART - Halt All Racist Tours - aimed at cutting off contact with South Africa. By 1973, in the wake of a grandstand being razed to the ground in Papakura, New Zealand's prime minister Normal Kirk had seen "no alternative," but to order the postponement of an upcoming Springbok tour.

That should have sounded a warning to South African rugby that its rivalry with New Zealand was in danger of being derailed but over the next few years they received mixed messages. In 1976, the All Blacks toured South Africa despite the uprisings in the Soweto township outside Johannesburg, in which at least 176 protesting school children were killed. The following year New Zealand was one of the countries who signed the Gleneagles Agreement whose aim was "discourage," sport against South Africa but not prohibit it.

Police confront protesters before the abandoned match, Waikato, July 25, 1981
Police confront protesters before the abandoned Waikato match © Unknown

Whether they wanted to continue playing the Springboks or not was not clear until 1981. New Zealand's prime minister Robert Muldoon and his right-leaning National Party government did not agree with isolating South Africa and it was under his leadership that a tour was organised. From the South African side, the invitation was received more gratefully than it was surprisingly. International rugby was scarce for South Africa so all opportunities to play were welcomed, not scrutinised.

"Being competitive rugby players, we just wanted to play but it was even better than we going to play against the best in the world," Louw told ESPNScrum. "We had a really special team as well and we expected a lot of ourselves. It was a dream for us to travel there and play against them."

Louw and his team-mates may have heard of Gleneagles and known that their board was trying to organise fixtures against the South American Jaguars for example, because other opponents were difficult to secure but their thoughts did not dwell on that. When a chance presented itself play, play they did.

They were also aware of their own government's racial policies but not all of them agreed with them, although they dared not make that public at the time. Louw, for example, labels himself a "liberal South African," who wanted to see an end to discrimination. Those ideas were expressed in small acts of defiance such as one in 1979 when a South African Barbarian team became the first multiracial rugby side under that name to tour the United Kingdom. The squad was made up of an equal number of white, coloured and black players. Louw was part of that squad and remembered it being a "pretty laid back, fun experience."

With that in mind, he packed for New Zealand expecting nothing more than a "tough tour," on field and looking forward to the experience of being in a new place off it. The Springboks had lost just one of the 11 games they played prior to the trip between April 1980 and June 1981 while New Zealand had been defeated twice in six matches over the same period. With a squad that included the talents of Danie Gerber, Naas Botha and Louw, South Africa were expected to present a stern challenge to the hosts.

But as soon as they arrived when they could see they would be ones up against it. "We could see the anger in people's eyes," Louw said. "There was a lot of aggression and people were really worked up."

One All Black, Stu Wilson was involved in the game while his wife Robyn was part of the demonstrations

The Springboks realised they were in the eye of a storm and there would be no getting out. Everywhere they turned there were groups of people who made it clear they did not want them there. Some of those people threatened violence - such as the protestors who came close to blows in the first match on the tour in Gisborne, three days after the South Africans arrived in New Zealand on July 19 - and some of them did more than just hint at it. The second game in Hamilton had to be cancelled because of a pitch invasion and in the third fixture in Wellington, police had to use batons to break up demonstrations.

Louw and his team-mates wondered when they would be targeted, especially when they saw the lengths to which authorities had to go to keep them safe. "Before we got on the bus they would check it for bombs. It was that serious," Louw said. The New Zealand riot police reportedly spent US$15 million on security and had a specific units with the team for as much time as possible.

Although the demonstrations affected the team's movements - they could not roam around as freely as they may have liked - it seemed to have minimal impact on their ability. They won the six matches before losing the first Test but then came back to win the second and level the series even after spending the night before the match sleeping in the stadium for safety reasons. "We were just really up for it and we wanted to show what abilities we had," Louw said. "And then we got to the point where we could win a big rubber in New Zealand."

South Africa's 29-24 victory in Wellington set the Test series up for a delicious decider which was filled with both on and off field drama. The scores were level at 22-all until injury time when Alan Hewson scored the decisive penalty for the All Blacks. But the match was also marred by flour and smoke bombs and huge clashes between pro and anti-tour parties.

South Africa's Gerrie Germishuys hacks the ball on against Auckland, Auckland v South Africa, Eden Park, New Zealand, September 5, 1981
South Africa's Gerrie Germishuys hacks the ball on against Auckland ...it was on the field that there was some rugby normality among the furore off it © Getty Images

"That match will always stay mind because of how close we were," Louw said. "But it also made us aware of how angry the world was with us and how much we needed to change. It was a positive step for South African rugby because of how we played but it was also a big negative because of what we saw. It was a wake-up call for us and for people in New Zealand. They were also forced to confront how they felt about what was going on in South Africa."

As much as New Zealanders were making a statement against what they saw as the morality of hosting a team from an Apartheid regime, they were also sparring with each other. The demonstrators opposed the tour but the paying ticket-holders did not. Some players opposed the tour like Graham Mourie who made himself unavailable for selection but others did not. Some even fought those battles a little too close to home. One All Black, Stu Wilson was involved in the game while his wife Robyn was part of the demonstrations.

"That was really something … he was playing inside the ground and she was protesting outside," Louw said. "It split New Zealanders in a lot of ways. But for guys like me and Errol, it was a good experience to go through together because we could see what other people thought of what South Africa was doing."

Louw himself supported the idea of touring even under the Apartheid regime because "I wouldn't have liked to sit around for 20 years and not play any rugby," but now says he understands why the tour is regarded as a taboo subject in some circles. "A lot of things pre 1994 are thought of like that," he said.

The South African Rugby Union has made an attempt to compile a comprehensive history of the sport in its museum in Cape Town. That includes the 1981 tour. A spokesperson said: "The full history of South African rugby, from the first game played on SA soil, to the history of the Springboks and the story of black rugby, is on display in our museum, the Springbok Experience. This include material of the controversial 1981 tour to NZ."

As for Louw and Tobias? "We're still best buddies," Louw said. "I'm his son's godfather." These days in South Africa that is perfectly legal.

High security before the start of the Springboks tour © Unknown
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