My first year in the workforce was 1981 at a local accounting firm, Lady Diana Spencer had got married to Prince Charles, and in July, August and September over 56 days the South African Springbok rugby team would tour the country.
The previous year I had studied history at high school and a major part of the curriculum was South Africa’s apartheid regime. We had to learn the various apartheid acts of-by-heart, such as forbidding mixed race marriages etc.
We had learnt about Prime Minister Robert Muldoon’s preference for no political interference in sport ‒ “even if there were threats of violence and civil strife”.
Opposition to the 1981 Springbok tour was based on the South Africa’s apartheid regime. It divided friends, family and workmates – others were like Muldoon and thought sport and politics should remain separate, and others saw sport as a legitimate means of protest. (While I was of the opinion at the time there were many protesters holding strong views on apartheid and used our national game to highlight this, many others, I thought, just wanted to be civilly disobedient.)
It was Hawke’s Bay’s turn to host the Springboks in August 1981 when they would take on the New Zealand Māori team at McLean Park, Napier. This was exactly 60 years from the first time these two teams had met in 1921 at McLean Park.
After the civil unrest that followed the teams around New Zealand in July and August 1981, police reinforcements arrived in Napier.
The team would stay in the Masonic Hotel on the Marine Parade and detailed preparations were made for their arrival and safety afterwards. As Napier’s premium hotel it was the natural choice for such sports teams to stay.
The Springboks had stayed at the Masonic Hotel in 1956 when they played Hawke’s Bay, and then manager Stan Nicol had heard rumours of their unruly behaviour in other hotels.
When the team arrived Stan called out to the South African coach, Dr Danie Craven, who was going up the hotel steps from the team bus: “Hey, just a moment, I am Stan Nicol.”
Dr Craven introduced himself, to which Stan replied: “I know who you are, and I just want to tell you before you go into my hotel, there is going to be none of the carry on like I heard in previous hotels.”
Craven replied: “I’ll make sure that they behave themselves as I am Dr Craven.” Stan replied: “I told you, I know who you are, and I want you to know who I am, I am the manager of this hotel, and when you are in my hotel you will do as I wish.” The South Africans, needless to say, behaved themselves.
It, however, was a different world from 1956 when the Springboks came to Napier in August 1981.
A heavy police presence surrounded the Masonic Hotel day and night, and only media and police were allowed to stay in the hotel. Preparations for the team staying included all rubbish bins in the hotel and surrounds being checked for bombs with police using scanners, all mini bars were emptied and no ice (in case it was poisoned) was allowed in the rooms.
Employees coming into the hotel were greeted by protesters (not pleasantly always) and by police who searched their bags.
Staff were given the option by management of the Masonic Hotel not to serve any of the Springboks if they held views on apartheid and no action would be taken if they decided not to. One waitress decided to serve only the police, not the players.
Seated at the police table, not with the other players, was Errol Tobias, the first black player to play for South Africa (Ireland, May 30, 1981).
Similar to the French rugby team that had recently stayed in 1979 at the Masonic Hotel, she reported behavioural problems that occurred from some Springboks players.
After the August 26, 1981 New Zealand Māori versus Springboks game had finished, which resulted in a 12-all draw, around 400 protesters did their best to block the Springboks’ return to the Masonic Hotel.
They regrouped from their positions around McLean Park at Clive Square, and marched up Emerson St, before breaking into a trot heading towards the Masonic Hotel. Squads of police then confronted the group, 40 of whom slipped in Herschell St to try and get to the Masonic Hotel that way.
Spotting this, the police put a barricade by using a freight truck.
At 4.30pm, an organiser with a loud hailer said: “Hold it here. Remember all these people went to the game.” They were referring to the traffic now spilling out from the McLean Park onto the Marine Parade. Traffic was then held up when 50 protesters blocked the road for 10 minutes outside the Masonic Hotel.
In order to avoid confrontations with rugby supporters, the protesters quickly dispersed after being told to go by the organisers.
Some protesters, according to hotel staff working there, did return and kept vigil overnight and throughout the day using loud hailers to try and tell the Springboks exactly what they thought.
Overall the protests at Napier were not as bad as throughout New Zealand, with little serious violence and no arrests made.
Police could not guarantee the safety of the South African team in their Wellington Hotel before the second New Zealand test, so they spent one more night at the Masonic Hotel.
Despite the civil unrest caused and Prime Minister Robert Muldoon’s refusal to stop the Springbok tour, his National Party just won the first past the post November 28, 1981 general election, although, like the 1978 general election, Labour had more of the popular vote.
Some political commentators had predicted the tour would be a major political issue.
• The Masonic Hotel: The Heart of Napier is a newly released book by Michael Fowler and available for $49.95 from the Art Deco Masonic Hotel or The Art Deco Trust shop in Tennyson St.
• Michael Fowler (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a contract researcher and commercial business writer of Hawke’s Bay history. Follow him on facebook.com/michaelfowlerhistory