To South Africans and Australians alike, rugby is not just a sport, but a cultural symbol. In the 1960s and early 1970s, it was also a unifying force between apartheid South Africa and its “white neighbor by the sea”—Australia. At the time, Australia had in place many racist policies that discriminated against Aboriginal peoples and the Australian public was only beginning to gain an awareness of both the domestic and international issues of human rights at stake. It was this growing awareness that pushed many in Australia to try to cut both economic and cultural ties with South Africa.
Sports provided an opportunity. Pro-apartheid white South Africans valued highly the chance to field their sports teams in competition with others in the British Commonwealth of Nations. The 1971 Australian tour by the South African Springbok rugby team offered a prime opportunity to build anti-apartheid expression because rugby was South Africa’s most popular sport and Australia was one of its few competitors.
The South African Prime Minister had told the Springboks that they represented not only their team, but also the apartheid South Africa way of life. Many Australians were keen to demonstrate that they disagreed with this way of life. Disrupting the six week tour would greatly anger white South Africans and provide a morale boost to anti-apartheid activists in South Africa.
Planning for the anti-Springbok campaign began in 1969 immediately after the tour was announced. Although an important goal for protesters was to disrupt and bring an end to the Springbok tour that ran from June to August in 1971, they knew this goal would be very difficult to accomplish. Firstly, when the tour began, it was supported by a vast majority of Australians, and was fully supported and aided by the Australian government. Protesters hoped to stop the tour both through convincing the public of the moral reasons against it and also through physically disrupting play.
However, stopping a rugby game is difficult because it is played in an enclosed arena and players are used to loud noises surrounding them. Shouting by protesters would not affect them much and police could easily keep protesters out of the arena. Because of this, anti-apartheid campaigners had a second goal: to prevent the South African cricket tour that was meant to follow the rugby tour.
Cricket fields are not enclosed, and so more difficult to police. Cricket players are also not used to a lot of noise, so it would be easier to break their concentration. This made cricket tours easier to physically disrupt. Also, cricket, like rugby, was a very important sport to both South Africans and Australians.
Campaign organizers began to rally protesters before the arrival of the South Africans through holding public meetings to raise awareness, handing out informational leaflets, and letter-writing to media and government sources. An anti-Springbok protester’s handbook was passed out that specifically instructed protesters to engage only in non-violent actions. Organizers also gained the support and partnership of church groups and unionists. A series of vigils was held prior to the tour, and unions began making plans to boycott certain activities that would aid the Springboks in any way. The Australia Council of Trade Unions, ACTU, announced that, among other things, it would impose a ban on servicing to airplanes carrying Springboks. Union members would also refrain from supplying liquor to hotels that accommodated the team and the factory that made police batons would not produce any for the duration of the tour. As one union leader put it, if capitalists could choose where to invest their money, unions could certainly express their feelings through choosing where to invest their labor.
Immediately upon arrival in Australia, the Springboks were subject to the actions of protesters. Demonstrators sat-in at the motels accommodating the team, restaurants where they ate, and essentially followed the team motorcade wherever it went. Most of the demonstrations, however, were concentrated on the rugby matches. There were many student participants in the protests, but also many members of the clergy and the greater community. Protesters blew whistles, held up placards, and ran onto the field if possible. Some also saluted and yelled “Sieg Heil,” in reference to the similarities between South Africa’s apartheid and the Nazi regime.
The most difficult obstacle that protesters had to contend with was the oppressive police presence. In Queensland, the government declared a state of emergency, thus allowing police officers to take more extreme measures in trying to maintain control. In all provinces, however, reports of police brutality were common.
Over 700 demonstrators were arrested during the course of the tour, and were even charged with the ‘crime of protesting’. There was some violence on the part of protesters, but most maintained a non-violent approach. In the end, though, the extreme and brutal measures taken by the government and by police backfired: word-of-mouth and media coverage of the repression caused a shift in public opinion. More and more people began to support the anti-apartheid activists.
Another drastic change in public opinion occurred when seven Australian rugby players decided to go on strike and join the anti-Springbok protest.
Until that point, many Australians disagreed with the protests because they felt that sports should be separate from politics. That the country’s top rugby players felt otherwise was very important in influencing public opinion. Awareness of apartheid grew among Australians, as well as an awareness of their domestic racial issues relating to Aboriginal people.
Although August came and the Springbok tour reached its end, the campaign still enjoyed many successes. Protesters managed to make the tour very difficult to run, and significantly disrupted many games. The tour was also not very profitable because attendance dropped sharply.
Furthermore, the campaign succeeded in achieving its second goal: preventing the upcoming South African cricket tour. The anti-Springbok campaign prompted both the Australian and South African leaders of their national cricket associations to speak out against policies that discriminated based on race. The huge importance of these announcements cannot be understated. Firstly, the leader of the Australian cricket organization could have easily explained his cancellation of the upcoming tour by stating that it would have cost too much and been too difficult to run it with the interference of the protesters. That in of itself would have been a victory for protesters because it would have meant that their disruptions were successful. But, instead, the leader decided to base his explanation on the ethical reason for canceling the tour. As an important figure in Australia, his denouncement of apartheid carried a lot of weight. In addition, that the leader of the cricket association in South Africa would speak out against his own regime meant a lot to campaigners.
Along with preventing the upcoming cricket tour, the campaign raised awareness among the Australian public about the South African apartheid regime. Before the tour, only 7 percent of Australians opposed maintaining sporting ties with South Africa. At the end of the tour, more than one third opposed maintaining sporting ties. This opposition grew quickly and by the end of the year, the new government announced in its platform that it would implement a policy that would not allow sporting visas to be allocated to teams that discriminated based on race.
Despite the fact that the anti-apartheid protesters did not end the Springbok tour, the campaign is an important part of Australia’s history. It boosted the morale of anti-apartheid activists in South Africa, and raised awareness of the issue among the Australian public. It also brought attention to Australia’s own discriminatory policies against Aboriginal people and sparked activism and new policies aimed at creating equality domestically as well as abroad.
- Australian Rugby. “Springbok Tour Protests Remembered,” Australian rugby. Rugby.com.au. 2001.
- Clark, Jennifer. “’The Wind of Change’ in Australia: Aborigines and the International Politics of Race, 1960-1972. The International History Review. 20:1. 1998. Pp.89-117
- Smith, Amanda. “Springboks 1971,” Radio National’s The sports factor. 2001.
- The Age. “Mild in the Streets”, theage.com.au. 2005
- Varney, Wendy. “Tackling Apartheid: Reflections on the 1971 Anti-Tour Campaign,” Gandhi Marg: the Quarterly Journal of the Gandhi Peace Foundation. 23:3. October-December 2001
- University of Wollongong, “Focus on Springbok tour on eve of anniversary”. University of Wollongong Media Releases. 2001.
The Global Nonviolent Action Database
This case study comes from The Global Nonviolent Action Database, a project of Swarthmore College, including the Peace and Conflict Studies Program, the Peace Collection, and the Lang Center for Civic and Social Responsibility.
See other case studies in The Global Nonviolent Action Database from Australia and around the world.
- The 1971 Springboks: ‘Coming between these blokes and their sport was the most dangerous thing I’ve done’, The Guardian, Larry Writer, 9.10.2016
- The long shadow of racism in Australian sporting history, NITV- SBS, Kris Flanders, 12/4/2018
- People’s History Podcast – Episode 3 – Protesting the 1971 Springbok Tour of Australia
- 1971 Anti-Apartheid (Springbok) Protests, QLD, Australia – Contents: 10 film streams and 5 audio streams from Radical Times Archive
- Video – Anti-Apartheid Protests Create State of Emergency in Queensland: Springbok Tour – Queensland State Archives
- Political Football, ABC podcast about the Queensland protests
- Apartheid - South Africa
- Civil resistance
- Direct action - Non violent NVDA
- Movements_Campaigns - Anti apartheid
- Movements_Campaigns – Racism_Racial justice
- South Africa
- Springboks (Rugby Team)