At just 28 John Minto was the face and voice of everyday Kiwis who didn’t want the Springboks to tour New Zealand. Jim Kayes caught up with the veteran protestor 40 years on from a tour that divided a country.
John Minto tried out for the Napier Boys High School 3rd XV but didn’t get in.
“I was tall, but I was skinny. I had no bulk and no speed,” Minto says. Undeterred, he later coached rugby for three years while he taught physics at Auckland’s Massey High School.
“I enjoyed rugby. I played it at school and I coached sixth grade for three years when I started teaching.”
This seems incongruous with a man who, aged just 28, became the face of a nationwide movement intent on stopping the Springbok rugby tour to New Zealand in 1981.
Sitting at a small table in the Auckland Irish Society hall at Fowlds Park, where the marches against the third test of that tour at Eden Park began, Minto is a warm and engaging presence.
“I don’t hate rugby,” he says, “I just lost interest in it after ‘81. It’s not a visceral thing, I just lost interest in the game.”
Which is not surprising given Minto’s association with rugby during that tumultuous year could hardly be described as harmonious.
He was the driving force behind HART, the Halt All Racist Tours protest movement, and a key figure in the group of about 300 who invaded Hamilton’s Rugby Park on July 25, forcing the game between Waikato and South Africa to be called off.
It was, he reflects 40 years later, the only time he was bothered by the magnitude of the protest movement that was sweeping the country.
“We wanted to stop the game. We didn’t really think we could but we were determined to give it a crack. Three days earlier we cased the joint looking for ways to get in, but we had no exit strategy.”
So when they streamed onto the field, the protesters were almost as surprised as everyone else - some more so than others.
“I felt a huge responsibility because there were people out there, on the field, who hadn’t expected to be there.
“There was a bloke who had walked out of Hamilton library and joined the march. He had his library books with him.”
Minto was told by police that if they left, no one would be arrested and safe passage from the area would be guaranteed.
“So I went through the group asking if anyone wanted to leave. No one did, that’s when I was able to relax a bit because I knew then that no one was there who didn’t want to be there.”
As the rugby crowd chanted for the game to be played, the protestors chanted that the world was watching.
“And we hoped they were.”
They found out later that Nelson Mandela and his fellow political prisoners on Robben Island, off the coast of Cape Town in South Africa, learned that the game had been abandoned from the guards who had sat down to watch it.
“Mandela said the prisoners all rattled the bars of their cells to celebrate, all through the prison.”
Minto was found guilty of inciting disorder for a speech he had given before the match at Hamilton’s Garden Place, and of littering.
Tacks were scattered across the field, not by Minto, he says, but by others and without his knowledge.
Half a bucket of tacks were presented in court as evidence. He was given five months periodic detention for the first charge and fined for the littering.
It was not the last time this seemingly mild mannered man, who grew up in a staunch Catholic household, would find himself on the wrong side of the law.
Minto was born in Dunedin but schooled in Napier and it was at Massey University, where he studied physics, that he became politicised.
The racist regime in South Africa was abhorrent to Minto and he was determined to help draw attention to it, and force change.
Over Labour Weekend in 1979, at a campground in Porirua, about 150 HART supporters met to discuss what to do about the 1981 tour.
“We were focused mostly on education,” Minto says, almost whimsically. But that quickly changed when the Springboks arrived - and even more so when the game in Hamilton was called off.
“It was game-on then. It electrified the whole country, and the people in South Africa to a far greater extent than we knew at the time.
“It escalated into mayhem twice a week but people knew what they were getting into.”
What they were getting into was bloody street battles with baton weidling, helmet clad lines of police officers as New Zealand witnessed scenes of violence and civil disobedience on a scale never seen before, or since.
It reached a crescendo ahead of the third and final test at Eden Park with the Springboks forced to sleep at the ground on the eve of the match and incredible security around the ground with huge rubbish bins, containers and barbed wire used to try and keep protestors away.
Marx Jones flew a Cessna plane low over the ground during the match and flour bombs were dropped from it, one hitting All Blacks prop Gary Knight.
They were incredible scenes after two months of increasingly violent protests in which police and protestors, friends and family members, stood on either side of a political divide.
Two games were cancelled but it was the division, violence and flagrant civil disobedience that shocked the nation.
“It was an ugly time,” Minto admits. “We expected to get harassed a bit, but we didn’t expect to be beaten to a pulp.”
The violence, though, often went both ways.
Minto was at the front of it all as HART’s spokesman and with that came a level of hatred from those who supported the tour that leaves him a bit shocked even today.
These days, though, things are very different. “Once Mandela got out of prison and people realised he wasn’t a terrorist, the attitude toward me changed. I think I’ve copped flak twice in the last 10 years.”
But Minto accepts he was “the most hated man in New Zealand in the 1980s”.
He was, he says, a reluctant leader. “I was a good secretary, I was good at organising things, but I wasn’t really a natural spokesman.”
Looking back though, 40 years on, he is immensely proud of what happened in 1981 and the part that he had in it, though he stresses it was “a movement” and that many others played important roles too.
“In my quiet moments I am amazed at what we did. I had a responsibility to lead and to articulate what we were protesting against, but I am so proud of the tens of thousands of New Zealanders who also said ‘this isn’t us, this (legislated racism) isn’t what we are about’.
“We were young and arrogant but we knew we were on the right side of history. Our view was very simple. We thought the rights of black South Africans were more important than the rights of people to play rugby.
“We didn’t stop the tour, but we did enough to ensure the Springboks didn’t have another major tour again till Apartheid had ended.
“So the effect of the tour was to tighten the international boycott against South Africa.”
And now, when the Springboks come to New Zealand this year to play their 100th test against the All Blacks, they will be captained by a black man, Siya Kolisi.
Minto smiles at the thought.