Springbok Tour in Nelson 1981


In 1981 the South African rugby team, the Springboks, toured New Zealand. The protests against this tour reached a level unparalleled in New Zealand history. This reflected the fact that both the Māori protest movement and anti-apartheid movement had developed significantly¹. The 1981 tour was the last time the All Blacks and South African rugby teams would play while South Africa was still under an apartheid system. A 1985 tour to South Africa was cancelled after a legal challenge, though a group of rebel players went to South Africa the following year.  

Opinion on the Springbok Tour NZ July 1981

Opinion on the Springbok Tour NZ July 1981  From Malcolm McKinnon (ed.), New Zealand historical atlas, David Bateman, Auckland, 1997. 

When the Springboks arrived in Nelson on Thursday August 20, 1981 – they were met with strong protest and a city divided over the question of apartheid. There were clashes between pro-tour supporters, anti-tour protestors, and the police. There had already been demonstrations in Christchurch and the Timaru game had been cancelled.

Nelson's mayor Peter Malone's decision to provide an official welcome to the team led to a packed meeting in the Council Chamber - protestors cried  “shame” and “racist”, to which the Mayor responded  saying "he was “sick and tired” of attempts to link him to apartheid – and that his decision to welcome the team was in a tradition of extending courtesy to visitors. Calls came for Councillors to state where they stood on the Tour - Councillors Craig Potton, Elma Turner and Dorothy Matthews quickly stood up to condemn the tour – others backed the Mayor’s stand.²

Springbok tour protestors

Springbok Tour protestors Nelson Church Steps August 1981. Nelson Mail Collection: 6424_FR16 Nelson Provincial Museum

The official welcome at the Rutherford Hotel went off without incident, and was attended by Mayor Malone, Deputy Mayor Pat Tindle, Councillor Malcolm Saunders, and Nelson MP Mel Courtney.

On the morning of the Saturday game roads leading to Trafalgar Park were cleared, barricades were set up and police massed at the Maitai Bridge to control access leading to the park. At the Rutherford Hotel where the Springbok team was staying, about 100 protestors  gathered to form a picket line and got into an altercation with police where several were arrested.

The main gathering of protestors ended up at the church steps, where anti-tour banners had appeared over the Nelson Cathedral tower.  After that protest they moved down Trafalgar Street as far as Halifax Street where the police diverted the marchers down to Paruparu Road where they continued to chant loudly across the river to Trafalgar Park where supporters of the game were gathered for the match.

The Springboks racked up 83 points during the 80 minutes – with first-five eighth Naas Botha accounting for 31 of them. Nelson Bays coach Mervyn Jaffray was not present to see his team get taken apart, as he elected to stay home on account of his moral opposition to the tour – instead receiving occasional score updates from his wife as he got to work planting in their vegetable garden.

Police said about 30 people were arrested in total throughout the protest, mainly from Christchurch and Wellington. 

The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa was buoyed by events in New Zealand. Nelson Mandela recalled that when he was in his prison cell on Robben Island and heard that the game in Hamilton had been cancelled, it was as ‘if the sun had come out’.³

September 2021

Sources used in this story

  1. Keane, Basil 'Ngā rōpū tautohetohe – Māori protest movements - Rugby and South Africa', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand (accessed 7 September 2021)
  2. Newman, T. (2021, August 21) Springbok Tour 'a watershed moment' for Nelsonians on both sides of the divide. Nelson Mail on Stuff:
  3. 'All Blacks versus Springboks' (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 4-Feb-2020

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  • Thank you for writing this article. This brings back a lot of memories. Some sad. From my recollection. In Nelson there were no pitch invasions or other disruption of the match. The protesters got as far as the Trafalgar Street Bridge then split into three groups: the Paruparu road group (described above), another in Millers Acre & the group that roamed the streets in the Wood near the park. At the end of the game the protesters had dispersed when the rugby crowd of about 5,000 made their way home after that drubbing of 83-0. I don't remember the "city being divided over Apartheid" there appeared to me to be a lot of Nelsonians who were neither for or against the tour but sat in the middle - didn't have an opinion either way. The papers said at the time that at the airport when the Springboks arrived that there were a handful of protesters, but they were outnumbered by tour supporters and Nelson people who had just gone out to 'have a look'. What concerned people, especially my mother, was the explosive device found in the bar of the Rutherford Hotel and the other explosive devices found in the foyer of the Post Office. The other thing that I remember was what was called a 'tuna scarer' being used and nail clusters being thrown under the tour bus. It was a frightening time.

    Posted by Springbok Tour in Nelson 1981, 19/09/2023 11:35pm (3 months ago)

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Further sources - Springbok Tour in Nelson 1981



  • 'Opinion around New Zealand on the 1981 Springbok tour' (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 4-Feb-2020
  • 'Police cry wolf claims Hart head' ( 1981, August 25) Nelson Evening Mail, p.2
  • 'Poetry read to marchers' (1981, August 24) Nelson Evening Mail, p.10
  • 'Blown his cover' (1981, August 21) Nelson Evening Mail, p.1
  • 'Angry scenes' (1981, August 21) Nelson Evening Mail, p.1


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