By Peter Nicholl
Almost 40 years ago, on 25 July, 1981, hundreds of people stormed the field at Rugby Park, Hamilton, took up positions in the middle of the field and locked arms. Their aim was to disrupt the rugby match between the visiting South African team and Waikato.
Thousands more protestors were outside the ground. The ground itself was full of spectators waiting to watch the rugby match.
The protestors achieved their immediate aim. The match between the Springboks and Waikato was called off. But the rest of the Springboks 1981 tour went ahead, though there were also protests at all of the other matches.
But the Hamilton protests were an important step in forcing the significant changes that came later in South African sport and New Zealand’s attitude to racism.
That day was one of the most dramatic and violent days in the Waikato’s recent history. Much of the violence occurred after the match was called off.
The police helped the protestors to get safely out of Rugby Park. But angry spectators pursued them through the streets and even into shops and houses for several hours. Hamilton briefly looked and felt like a war-zone.
The exhibition revisits this dramatic day through the work of several local photographers and through videos and TV footage. There are also statements from people who participated in the protests or observed them. The material used in the exhibition is very powerful.
The exhibition shows that this day was much more than just a protest about a rugby match. It was a protest about racism in all walks of life and a statement about New Zealand’s place in the world. The placards held by the protestors had simple and clear messages, such as ‘Shame’ and “The World is Watching’.
The exhibition brings out the drama and tension of that day very vividly. I was living in Wellington at the time and so only experienced the events via television. Even so, the exhibition had me reliving the day strongly and emotionally. For anyone who was there, either as a protestor, a spectator or an onlooker, the impact of the exhibition is likely to be even more powerful.
The exhibition runs until 26 September, 2021. The Waikato Museum is located at 1 Grantham Street, Hamilton (accessible from Victoria St) and it is open every day while the exhibition is on from 10 am to 5 pm.