The Springbok Tour of 81, as the cliche goes, divided a nation. Participants in the events were not just confined to the rugby field. Ross Meurant had a unique vantage point, being on the front lines of the police. This review looks at the experiences that he detailed, his views on the tour movement as part of the wider political culture in the country at the time and at sporting boycotts generally.
I came upon this book in a Masterton OpShop a few years ago, which on reflection seems an appropriate place. The tour was most popular in the provinces, and when the Red Squad Story was published in 1982 it was a bestseller. There are probably dozens of copies floating around in similar shops, especially in the more conservative towns. Opinion on sporting relations with apartheid era South Africa often broke down on rural/urban lines, with similar correlations for the right/left spectrum. Many sought to prevent rugby becoming politicised, however it was inevitable that couldn’t happen in the case of the tour. Sport and politics are always intermingled, just as any relations between countries cannot be separated from politics.
Meurant does not present himself politically in this book, though given his later career as a National Party politician it is fair to assume he had conservative views. His politics in the book are those of preservation of the institutions of the state. He refers darkly to many protestors as communists and radicals, attempting to violently overthrow the capitalist system using the tour as a Trojan horse. As a police officer, Meurant was sworn to uphold the rule of law, and he largely writes about protestors as law breakers, particularly the protestors who police clashed with.
This is unsurprising, given the Meurant’s unit was probably the unit most heavily involved in violent confrontations during the tour, as they were serving as both the South African escort and acting as the main riot squad on game days. Meurant describes much of the tour being spent either fighting hand to hand, or training to do so, as such he pays scant regard to the non violent protestors who he acknowledges were the majority. The violence is discussed in curiously sporting terms, when describing how angry protestors were dispersed it is reminiscent of how rugby people describe the clearing out of a ruck, a euphemism in and of itself. Protestors were not hit with batons, they were subjected to ‘rapid action’ techniques. From page 46, “Rapid action is an up-tempo prodding of the baton to the mid-section” combined with a steady forward march, as well as chops to the collar bone and head if the protestors fight back.
On the subject of apartheid, which sparked the protest movement in the first place, Meurant had little to say. He states that nobody in his squad was in any way committed to apartheid, rather they were policing in order to maintain democracy. This theme comes up far more than any discussion of conditions in South Africa. Meurant takes the position that the New Zealand public had elected the government, which had decided the tour should proceed, and as such he was part of the defence of democracy. Democracy in South Africa itself was not considered important, after all, according to Meurant, it was none of our business.
While I believe the world should be conscious of oppression in countries outside their own, I have some sympathy with Meurant’s view in relation to sporting boycotts. Apartheid was unarguably a terrible system that systematically discriminated against the vast majority of those who weren’t white, but I doubt sporting bans had much of an effect in ending it. Internal tensions inherent in such a discriminatory system would have had a much more profound effect, as such the international community can hardly take the credit. The millions of South Africans who agitated for change and the ANC played by far the greatest role in ending apartheid.
There is also the matter of what defines a political regime that cannot be met on the sports field. Should North Korea be allowed to play football, even though their regime is horribly oppressive? How about Bahrain, who the All Whites qualified for the World Cup by beating? Bahrain recently crushed an Arab Spring style uprising. John Minto, one of the leading protestors in 1981, was recently vilified for protesting against the Israeli regime by targeting an Israeli tennis player in Auckland. Given that many would argue that the Israel behaves in a similar manner to Apartheid era South Africa, why is one sporting boycott legitimate whereas another is not? As Meurant rightly points out, systematic racism was hardly a uniquely South African phenomenon. The protestors were rightly sickened by apartheid, though as many Maori involved in the movement pointed out, we lived (and live, some would say) in a very glassy house.
Internal police culture dominates much of the Red Squad Story, with Meurant taking care to defend his fellow squad members to the hilt. He does not accept any blame, either personally or against his squad collectively, for violence meted out against protestors during clashes. Every Red Squad action is meticulously catalogued in the book, each time with a justification of said action. I’m sure many protestors would see the events differently, as is shown by the film Patu.
However, many high up in the police hierarchy are attacked in Meurant’s book, in particular commanding officers who he believes lacked leadership qualities in ordering police action. He blamed the top brass for not allowing police to respond violently to protestors in Hamilton, and a game was cancelled as a result. The Red Squad subsequently began to develop their own strategies and tactics independently, which depending on your point of view would have been encouraging or extremely frightening. Meurant saw the former, I for one am more inclined to see highly trained police officers using escalating force as worrying.
This book is a truly fascinating book, and I would encourage anyone who sees it to have a read. Regardless of what your politics were during the tour, even if like me you weren’t yet born, it is reflective of one of the major viewpoints that was prominently aired throughout the events. The Red Squad Story is not the whole story of the Springbok Tour by any stretch, it unashamedly only speaks for one side. However, with that kept in mind, it is important to remember that this was a genuinely held view for many New Zealanders, and as such part of our collective history.