As I’m currently working on other projects and thesis research, this review can be considered filler material while I get my recording equipment repaired. That being said, I’ve been meaning to review Geoff Chapple’s classic account of the ’81 Springbok tour for some time, and now seems a good chance to stop putting it off.
Chapple himself was a participant of the anti-apartheid movement in ’81; active in Hamilton (on field), Gisborne, and Auckland. In the aftermath of the tour, an archival project undertaken by members of MOST (Mobilization to Stop the Tour) to record the movement began which gained momentum and sponsors over time. In its final form, that archival project was published in 1984 as 1981: The Tour. As a history of a movement, the book is undeniably exceptional in its detail. It fills in every gap left out in most accounts of the tour, covering the actions associated with every game as well as the actions between, and internal dynamics of the sprawling anti-tour movement. To my knowledge, no other published work has covered the tour to such an extent. It is unlikely a book of such breadth would even be possible today, given the slow decay of documents and natural drift (as well as death) of the movements participants. Further, where the book soars is in Chapple’s emotional punch. Putting aside his own politics, he gets across the mood of a national movement from action-to-action masterfully. The impact of each event from the announcement of the tour right through to the Springboks leaving with a divided and exhausted nation behind them, covered in intricate detail.
Politically, Chapple’s writing is driven by an earnestly held left-liberal nationalism. This presents some interesting theoretical points worth exploring. Centrally he posits that the tour opened up an already developing cleave between two competing nationalisms: one rural, parochial, reactionary; the other young, urban, liberal. Each as unwilling as the other to budge, with the tour as a kind of final staging ground for an unspoken ideological conflict. What fascinates here is the attempt to outline what I think are two real and distinct ideological tendencies used to justify New Zealand nationalism. While I don’t think adopting this kind of kulturkampf is particularly useful to leftists, it is a useful tool for understanding the particulars of liberal and conservative ideology here. The book is further perhaps the best at detailing how racial divisions opened up (or, perhaps more accurately, were forcibly dragged to the fore) within New Zealand itself as a result of the tour. Not only is The Tour among the deepest investigations of the debates within the tour movement, but also goes into the efforts of the pro-apartheid movement which had lurked at the edges for over a decade by 1981. This is something almost never touched on, with a shallow “they were racist, duh” or uncomfortable silence the usual response to probing the political outlook of the pro-tour side. Another of the more interesting moments is how the tour is treated in its immediate aftermath in relation to the long-term effects it will have on New Zealand. While even the New Zealand History website notes the retrospective denoting of ‘the moment the nation lost its innocence’ to the tour today, that moment is applied to the 1951 Watersiders lockout in the book. Chapple, in his particular method of jumping from participant-to-participant to tell the on the ground story of each action, writes of people experiencing the worst moments of the tour thinking ‘we’re beyond this, this isn’t 1951, this isn’t New Zealand’. I find this, almost as much as anything else, the most instructive moment in the book with respect to national self-image. It is the best example I can think of each new terrible rupture in the national civic body becoming the new moment of break from ‘bad, old New Zealand’.
In short, 1981: The Tour is easily the best resource for anyone looking to find a truly in-depth history of the Springbok tour. For the left, I highly recommend the book on multiple levels despite my own distance from Chapple’s politics. Beyond the impressive historical detail, the book is an exceedingly useful tool in dispelling myths of New Zealand as ‘the good country’ and understanding the standpoints of liberal nationalism. It furthermore acts almost as a case study of the internally fraught nature of big-tent coalitions, especially when faced with some level of concerted state and vigilante violence. Matched only by Tom Newnham’s By Batons and Barbed Wire and the 1983 documentary Patu!, 1981: The Tour is the text most worthy of engagement on those two bloody months in late 1981.