Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Springbok demo at the Tower Mill Motel, Wickham Terrace

Those of you who have followed these pages would know that I am an ex-rugby player (more enthusiastic than proficient) and still a follower of "the game they play in heaven". In 1971 I was actually playing rugby league in Maryborough, a small town north of Brisbane where I was working at the time. However, I did transport myself to Brisbane in order to see the Australian rugby union team (the Wallabies) play the South African side (the Springboks) on 31 July of that year. The occasion was more memorable than the game.
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(Photo: © 2013 the foto fanatic)

The photograph above shows the Tower Mill Motel on Brisbane's Wickham Terrace - it was the hotel where the touring Springbok team was staying. In 1971 South Africa was still governed by a white minority government which had initiated the hated apartheid regime - a method of separating and subjugating the non-white races. South Africa was subject to economic sanctions and sporting boycotts from the rest of the world anxious to put an end to apartheid.

Despite that climate of unrest this rugby tour took place, and it was bedevilled from beginning to end by protests and protestors. One of the more serious clashes between protestors and police occurred right here in Brisbane outside the Tower Mill Motel, where 500 police lined up to "protect" the South Africans from the demonstrators who only numbered about 400 consisting mainly of unionists and students, including many females. The police lined up on the Tower Mill Motel side of Wickham Terrace, facing the demonstrators who had gathered across the road on the side of the actual Tower Mill. The following photographs provide some perspective of the scene.
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(Photo: via mypolice.qld.gov.au)

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 (Photo: QLS Criminal History Tour booklet 2012)

I wasn't there, but some accounts say that there were plain-clothed police amongst the crowd who started it all. In any case, the police charged the demonstrators and hurled them down the hill behind the mill. Many of the protestors were arrested, many were injured.

Statements from those present indicate that many of the police had removed their ID badges so that they could not be called to account. Queensland's new (at the time) premier, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, had declared a State of Emergency - thus providing police with greater powers of arrest and detention. Peter Beattie, later to be premier of the state himself, was one who was beaten and arrested - he later said that he was verballed by the police who fabricated charges against him. Later information indicated that Bjelke-Petersen gave the police carte-blanche to deal with demonstrators and that he even told a police representative that their claim for higher wages that was in arbitration would go through if the police followed his instructions.

The result of the events of that evening was that when the match took place at the Exhibition Ground, a small crowd of only about 10,000 (including me) was all that turned up to see the football. What demonstrators that were present were kept well away from the players and spectators. It was an eerie walk down Gregory Terrace to the football pitch with police lined up virtually shoulder to shoulder.

The match? Well, it was easily won by the visitors. The unrest and protests had little effect on the clinical display of the Springbok side and they disposed of the Wallabies by 14-6. The Australian players, on the other hand, looked nervous and ill-at-ease and were never a threat to the South Africans.

At the time I did not agree with sporting boycotts. I felt that young South Africans should be able to mix with athletes from other countries to gain an understanding of how races could come together. I was proven wrong though - most South Africans felt that sporting boycotts were one of the principal reasons for the breakdown of apartheid and the move towards democratic government.

However, I always thought that people had a right to protest against apartheid as long as they were lawful gatherings and there was no violence. Police here in Queensland had a "no demo" policy under Joh's instructions, so this and other demonstrations that could have been peaceful were violently broken up by the coppers. I knew of plenty of young people who left Queensland at that time as a result of this poisonous political atmosphere.  

Here is a current photograph of Wickham Terrace, taken from the Tower Mill Motel and looking towards the Tower Mill and the area where the protestors gathered. It is a much more peaceful scene now.
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(Photo: © 2013 the foto fanatic)

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  1. Bjelke Petersen's govt was in power when I was in Yr 11 and I will never forget my Modern History teacher likening his govt to Hitler's fascists...oh boy I guess she could have got into a lot of trouble for that! But as the years went on I realized her comparison was very reasonable...a state of emergency in 1971 for heaven's sake plus bans on marching etc. I'll get off my soapbox now lol

  2. Thank you, thank you! My new spouse and I had left Australia the day after we married in Dec 1970, not because of Joh but because _nationally_ we had a nasty government that had been pro the destruction of Vietnam and its citizens.

    You were naive thinking that people had a right to protest against apartheid, as long as they were lawful gatherings and there was no violence. But I do acknowledge that the police in Queensland were MORE fascistic and that demonstrations were more violently broken up than in the southern states.

    Yes plenty of young people were devastated and clearly voted with their feet. As spouse and I did.

  3. I did not realize it was as late as 1987 when the SA Bill of Rights was drawn up. I was involved in the 1971 “March on the Tower Mill” in Brisbane Queensland when the Springboks were visiting, as part of a concerted anti-Apartheid campaign. That was 16 years prior! http://www.thesouthafrican.com/news/from-dublin-to-south-africa-the-unlikely-beginnings-of-the-bill-of-rights.htm#comment-33504

    1. Right you are Pamela. And it is best to note that members of CAMP
      INK, then the "Campaign Against Moral Persecution",Queensland branch - now known as LGBT/PRIDE Australia wide - also marched.
      We met truncheons & mounted police. Stefanie Bennett


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