Focus on Springbok tour on eve of anniversary

28 June 2001

For Dr Wendy Varney, a Fellow from the Science, Technology and Society Program at the University of Wollongong, some things in life have come full circle.

When the controversial Springbok rugby team toured Australia from June to August in 1971, she attended three Sydney matches and, along with thousands of others, attempted to disrupt play and bring attention to the situation of apartheid in South Africa.

The nonviolent resistance to the Springbok tour was one of Australia's most significant examples of nonviolent action. Now, on the eve of the 30th anniversary of this memorable rugby tour, Dr Varney, along with Associate Professor Brian Martin, also from the Science, Technology and Society Program, are researching nonviolent action and communication.

As she looks back on the tour, Dr Varney stresses that there is a valuable lesson to be learnt from the anti-tour campaign.

"Although we set out to stop the tour and failed to do that, the nonviolent resistance was a wonderful success in other ways. Australia stopped playing sport with the apartheid regime after that and I believe Australians also came to think more deeply and seriously about our responsibilities at home and abroad in respect to issues of race and justice."

Although the scenes shown on television often suggested chaos and mayhem and sometimes violence, Dr Varney insists that many of the actions were well planned, that the overwhelming majority of the demonstrators were nonviolent and that their campaign stands as testimony to the scope and power of nonviolent resistance against repression and injustices.

"People are more inclined to listen to a message if it is delivered nonviolently and this largely explains why, according to public opinion polls of the day, the number of Australians supporting the tour dropped away dramatically as it proceeded."

Another factor in such a turnaround was that resistance to the tour gave the chance for people to learn much more about what was happening in South Africa and how rugby was an important ideological prop of apartheid.
Not all rugby players took the line that playing with apartheid was the best option. Six Australian Wallaby representatives spoke out against the tour and made themselves unavailable for selection.

As with any nonviolent campaign, there were many factors and numerous actions. These included several unionists attempting to saw down the goal posts at the Sydney Cricket Ground preceding a Springbok match and a gigantic anti-apartheid effigy which was hung from the Harbour Bridge but cut down before many saw it. The letters pages of the papers were brimming with words of indignation about the tour.

"We did not just leave the matches and get back to our normal lives. We had almost forgotten what normal was," Dr Varney said.

"We were at the airport when the Springboks arrived and we were there protesting when they left and we also turned up outside public receptions.

"Through our current research, we are finding that preparation, tenacity and the ability to improvise are all important ingredients in nonviolent campaigns. All of these ingredients were evident in the anti-tour campaign," Dr Varney said.

Professor Martin and Dr Varney have a book Nonviolence Speaks: Communicating Against Repression currently in press with Hampton Press.

For further information contact: Dr Wendy Varney on (02) 9938 1784.