Tweeting apartheid sport

What if the social media conditions of 2021 existed in 1981? A group of New Zealand writers tweeted the damned 1981 Springbok rugby tour as if it was happening now.

Protesters in Auckland, 12 September 1981, during the third, and final, test between the visiting Springboks and the All Blacks. Note the 1960 photograph, by Laurie Bloomfield, of Cato Manor in Durban on the protester's shield, third from left. (Image by John Miller, with permission)

When I was a child my parents had a collection of old VHS tapes wedged behind the TV. They were dusty, their labels faded and peeling. There was probably a wedding video among them, and some dubbed episodes of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, but the truth is I can only remember the contents of one of them. Luckily for me, it was one of the most powerful films ever made in New Zealand: Patu!

Directed by legendary filmmaker Merata Mita, Patu! documents the story of the people who protested apartheid South Africa’s 1981 rugby tour of New Zealand. It follows groups like Halt All Racist Tours (HART) as they campaigned to have the tour canceled; it documents bands like Herbs and speakers such as Andrew Molotsane as they addressed crowds of anti-tour demonstrators on university campuses. And then, once the Springboks arrived and the rugby matches were underway, it shows ranks of police and protesters as they engaged in a conflict that has been described as reaching “the brink of civil war.”

As a child, I was hooked. I can still remember loading the tape into the VCR, watching the static resolve itself into an image. Sometimes I watched Patu! by myself, on other occasions with my sister. But most of the time in our small house, Mum or Dad would be nearby. For a while, there would be no reaction from them. The sound of chanting wasn’t a problem; not even the heckles of businessman Bob Jones drew much of a reaction. But then came the riot police yelling “Move! Move! Move!” as they advanced towards the demonstrators. Then the crunch of batons.

That would be it: Mum or Dad would hurry into the living room and the tape would be stopped, put back in its jacket, and tucked away among yellowing paperbacks. At the time I never knew why they reacted like this, although the reaction was part of the experience of watching it. Later I learned more about their and other family members’ involvement in the Springbok tour protests. Speaking to my grandma in 2018, she explained how the sound of helicopters still made her nervous. They reminded her of 1981, the tension and potential for violence.

Patu! is well known in New Zealand, but still not as well-known as it should be. The story of its construction is almost as striking as the work itself, with the footage recorded on cast-off strips of film then assembled by Mita despite ongoing police harassment, including attempted court orders to seize the reels. You just need to see the film to realize why they wanted to do this: images of police violence out in the open. Repeatedly. Mostly directed towards protesters, on one occasion towards the camera operator herself. And all of it happening in familiar places for New Zealanders: the beachside town of Gisborne; outside parliament in Wellington; the suburban streets of Auckland. As a child I was particularly fond of seeing the plane dropping flour bombs on Eden Park, but always stopped the tape before the final footage of the crying and unconscious clowns.

Earlier this year I was talking to a reporter when she mentioned that 2021 marked the Springbok tour’s 40th anniversary—and by extension, the anniversary of the filming of Patu! I ended up watching the film again, and as I did a question came to mind, one that I’ve subsequently been asked by several people: what would have happened if Merata Mita’s footage was seen the day it happened, rather than two years later when it reached cinemas? What if Mita and her team—along with every other protester—had a phone with a camera and steady Wi-Fi? What if the social media conditions of 2021 had existed in 1981? Would the police have faced greater legal scrutiny? Would the public have had a more accurate understanding of events? Moreover, would the tour have been stopped? Tweet the Tour was my attempt to find out.

The premise behind the project was simple: I would livetweet the events of the 1981 Springbok tour 40 years after the fact, sticking to the hour or minute events occurred where possible (except for those that happened in the middle of the night, such as the regular noise assaults on the Springboks’ hotels). I included personal stories, photos, newspaper articles and audio clips. I looked for opinions relating to everything from apartheid to international politics, Māori sovereignty to family tensions. Most of all, I searched for details that went unreported at the time, often relating to the intensity of the violence.

Through this process, I quickly learnt something. It turns out that when your ‘live-tweeting’ is four decades behind schedule, you can’t influence events. No matter how much you want to. There is no way to recreate the relationships that exist between protesters, social media, traditional media and public opinion forty years after the fact. On some levels I knew this already. But as I tweeted away, I increasingly came to realize that some part of me had hoped that if I made Tweet the Tour good enough, if I put in enough work, the story would somehow end differently.

This was especially true during the events of July 25, 1981. The date is one of the most well-known of the tour, often seen as the pinnacle of the protesters’ success. According to the Springboks’ schedule, they were meant to be playing the provincial Waikato rugby team (often referred to as the Mooloos) in Hamilton, a town not far south of Auckland. The Springboks showed up to Rugby Park early, their bus splattered with paint and eggs on the way. They warmed up in the changing rooms. They put on their uniforms. And then they sat back down. Because outside, several hundred protesters had pulled down a fence, charged through the crowd and huddled together, terrified and determined, in the middle of the field. After a stand-off of more than an hour—as well as the threat of an incoming plane and an explosion at Christchurch airport—the match was canceled.

That was the scene the news ran with at 6pm: protesters forcing the cancellation of the game. But when you’ve got the benefit of hindsight—40 years of it—the events in Hamilton start to look different. What seemed like a victory was something more ominous, a hint at what lay ahead. As victorious protesters were escorted out of the park, significant numbers of them were attacked. Accounts vary, but most of them share a common theme of elation turned to terror. The protesters were punched and kicked and cut with shards of metal; ambulances were attacked; camera crews assaulted and their film destroyed. I spoke to one group of protesters who escaped a beating at the hands of a pro-tour mob by wielding a newly sharpened motor mower blade that they’d left in the boot of their car. The attacks weren’t restricted to Hamilton, either, they were across the country, with known anti-tour organizers receiving death threats on the phone and bottles tossed through windows.

Police and protesters in Wellington, New Zealand. (Image by John Miller, with permission).

Tweet the Tour covered these events. It even issued a nationwide warning. But of course, none of this had any impact. When I checked the newspaper headlines for July 26 1981, they carried limited mentions of violence. They talked of restrained rugby supporters who had been denied their match and the deep levels of shame felt by police officers who had been unable to move the protesters from the ground. Inspector Phil Keber of the Red Squad (a police riot unit) stated that the failure left him “humiliated. That night, more than anything, I wanted the tour to go on.”

So it did. As the weeks of rugby rolled by, this sense of being at the mercy of the past grew stronger. I interviewed protesters who’d been screamed at by family friends, read about the assassination of International Defence and Aid Fund lawyers. There were moments of encouragement when I realised how committed so many people were to fighting apartheid, and occasional despair at learning about how many New Zealanders secretly—or not so secretly—supported it. I became aware of what Tweet the Tour really was: something more akin to theater than news reporting; historic non-fiction told at the speed of life. But somehow this made things more intense. My heart started to race as I composed tweets; on the day of the Test matches I would sometimes find myself on the edge of adrenaline-filled tears. And always, at the back of my mind, was Auckland.

Auckland. September 12, 1981. The third and final Test of the tour. The climax of Patu! Probably the most significant game of rugby ever played. The ground was fortified before the match, transformed from suburban rugby paddock to armored outpost of apartheid. Aligned against it were 6,000 protesters divided into three squads: Tutu, Biko and Patu. In their ranks stood members of HART, the Polynesian Panthers, the Waitangi Action Committee, Artists Against Apartheid, the King Cobras and a host of other groups. All of them aiming—at least on paper—to get into the ground and stop the match.

To examine photographer John Miller’s images of the day is intimidating. With their hockey masks and helmets, the protesters look like a cross between medieval knights and Hollywood serial killers. The police are even more threatening: a hard plastic mass of visors and batons. There were countless conflicts around the ground, charges and counter-charges, batonings, rocks and fence posts thrown, flour bombs dropped from planes, mock erupting volcanoes, tuna bombs, flares, hot air balloons and car tippings. More than 300 people needed medical treatment, with many significantly—and permanently—injured. I could see now why Mum and Dad turned the video off, why they eventually hid it elsewhere so we couldn’t watch it anymore. I’m still not sure how Merata Mita managed to watch the footage over and over again as she edited it into the masterpiece it would finally become.

When Tweet the Tour finished, I had to stay offline for a few days so I could remember it was 2021. The tour was over. It had been for 40 years. But even as I re-emerged, I didn’t have to look far to see the thread running from September 13, 1981 (the day the Springboks flew out of New Zealand) to events around me. The news at the time carried stories of protests by Extinction Rebellion (XR). I’d heard of XR before, and had seen photos of their “Tell the Truth” yacht in Oxford Circus back in 2019. But it wasn’t the yacht I noticed this time: it was the protesters. And the police. Soon I had found my way further back, to the demonstrations surrounding the trial of Derek Chauvin and the Black Lives Matter solidarity protest that had filled Auckland’s Aotea Square after the murder of George Floyd in 2020.

It wasn’t just the imagery that was similar to what I’d encountered with Tweet the Tour, it was the language. I listened in as individuals tried to turn conversations about systematic racism into issues of “law and order” and “individual liberty”—just as the Society for the Protection of Individual Rights (SPIR) had tried to do in New Zealand in 1981. In June 2020, 67% of Americans showed at least some support for Black Lives Matter, but again and again, there were attempts to re-categorize the movement as a small group of hardcore radicals corrupting a naive public. It was the exact same tactic used throughout the tour, including by Prime Minister Robert Muldoon when he released a previously confidential report from his spy agency that purported to show communist manipulation of groups like Mobilization to Stop the Tour (MOST). To be clear, New Zealand’s media outlets at the time didn’t always subscribe to these interpretations—opinions differed across publications. But as I scrolled through my Twitter feed 40 years later, there was a definite sense of déjá vu.

Only, this time something was different. There were other voices speaking: experienced, disciplined voices like Black Lives Matter that could compete online—often successfully— to shape wider public conversations. As I continued my research, I came to learn that the success of these groups came not just from an ability to create headlines and hashtags, but also, as Associate Professor Deva Woodly described in The New Yorker, an understanding of social media’s limits. Their strength lay in knowing when conversations needed to move offline to become deeper, stronger, more purposeful. In the final scene of Patu!, Merata Mita ends not with celebrations, or the newspaper headlines of the day, but another march. People are seen walking together, talking, smiling and linking arms. The marchers are filmed with a compressed perspective, creating a smooth, unified look, so it’s not quite clear where one person starts and another ends. They keep going and going until the end.

Further Reading