Blowing the whistle on the past, Russell Marshall

Human Rights and Sporting Contacts: New Zealand Attitudes to Race Relations in South Africa 1921-1994
Malcolm Templeton
Auckland University Press, $39.95,
ISBN 1 86940 170 0

Dancing on our Bones: New Zealand, South Africa, Rugby and Racism
Trevor Richards
Bridget Williams Books, $39.95,
ISBN 1 877242 00 4

The 1981 Springbok Rugby tour of New Zealand was one of the most significant political and social events in our history. The country was deeply divided. On the one hand, there were those who took a largely domestic view and saw unrestricted access to rugby competition as fundamental to being a New Zealander. On the other, many people recognised that by continuing to play sport against white representatives of the world’s most notorious racist regime, New Zealand was effectively supporting apartheid. At the time, the pro-tour supporters won the battle. The tour went ahead with all but two of the planned games taking place, and the All Blacks won the series. By the time the tour finished, however, it was clear that they had lost the war itself. There were to be no further official rugby connections between the two countries until apartheid ended a decade later.

The issue of sporting contacts with South Africa was probably more difficult for New Zealand than for any other country. For generations, rugby has been our most sacred sporting institution, All Blacks our icons, South Africa our most respected opponent. Most New Zealanders did not question the ethics of what we were doing when New Zealand played South Africa.

A number of factors combined to make the 1981 Springbok tour a watershed event in the politics of sport and in our evolving view of ourselves. By then, we were at last thinking more seriously about our own race relations; women in particular were questioning traditional male values and priorities; television and overseas travel were giving us a broader world view; the narrowness of the NZRFU world-view was becoming increasingly clear.

Two good books have appeared over the last few months tracing the evolution of the slow entry of New Zealand into the real world of international politics and towards the kind of behaviour expected of a nation which claims to believe in human rights.


Malcolm Templeton, a former senior diplomat (and our Permanent Representative at the United Nations in the late 1970s), has made extensive use of Foreign Affairs archive material, supplemented by his own recollections and a number of interviews with key players. He offers what he calls “a tapestry of events as viewed by a former foreign service officer” – the saga of New Zealand’s South Africa policy as played out diplomatically, by governments and those who sought with varying success to advise them. Innately cautious, and with limited diplomatic resources (and not one post on the African continent before the late 1980s), ministry officials nevertheless came to the sharp end of the issue earlier and more often than pretty well everyone else. It was they who had to receive the opprobrium of other nations, especially at the United Nations and in Commonwealth capitals. Foreign Affairs staff generally handled well the difficult task of defending largely indefensible positions, of putting tolerable constructions on political shortsightedness, of mending as many rails as they could on damaged fences, and, when able to do so, of giving strong professional support to more enlightened policies. Not that they were universally alert to the importance of the issue. One former head of the Middle East and Africa division complained to me after he retired that government preoccupation with Africa in the late 1980s had had the effect of distorting our foreign policy.

Problems with playing South Africa at rugby appeared early. In 1921 a South African press article critical of the inclusion of a game against a New Zealand Maori team and of spectators “cheering on a band of coloured men to defeat members of their own race” prompted Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck) to suggest that no further invitations be issued by the NZRFU to any South African team. The exclusion of Maori players, notably George Nepia, from the 1928 All Black touring team drew more protests. Twenty years later, Major- General Sir Howard Kippenberger, President of the RSA, said that he had had Maori soldiers under his command for two years, and that he was therefore “not going to acquiesce to any damned Afrikaner” over the inclusion of Maori players in the 1949 All Blacks. In a foretaste of the polarisation to come, Kippenberger’s comments received a hostile reaction, especially from returned servicemen.

By the time of the 1960 tour, the non-inclusion of Maori players led to a widespread “No Maoris. No Tour” protest. The protest did not succeed at the time, but the next team to South Africa included Maori and Samoan players. However, by the time the 1965 Springboks arrived here, the opposition had begun to focus on the whole issue of sporting relations with an apartheid regime. Opposition to the 1970 tour to South Africa became more concerted.

Having given a pre-election promise not to interfere, Norman Kirk as Prime Minister was faced at the end of 1972 with some harsh realities. A planned Springbok tour in 1973 would require substantial and expensive police and army involvement, and would severely jeopardise the Commonwealth Games, planned for Christchurch in early 1974. In April 1973, he wrote to the Rugby Union “requiring” them to withdraw the invitation. Kirk died in August 1974. The National Caucus had elected Rob Muldoon as its leader shortly before Kirk’s death, and he quickly made an issue of sporting contacts with South Africa. It was clear that a National Government would not oppose such contacts; indeed they would be encouraged. On this issue (and an excessively generous pension promise) Muldoon made deep inroads into blue collar Labour votes, especially in the provinces, and the government changed at the end of 1975.

As Templeton recounts, the next nine years produced problem after problem for the New Zealand Government. A badly handled visit by African sports chief Abraham Ordia; the walkout by Africans from the 1976 Olympic Games; the loss of the Commonwealth Finance Ministers Meeting; the failure to win the expected seat on the United Nations Security Council; a soured relationship with Australia and increasingly with other Commonwealth states. Much effort went into producing words which were acceptable offshore while causing little offence with rugby fanatics at home –with the result that the Government was seen at times to be speaking with a forked tongue. Such enlightened movement as there was often went against the instincts of ministers. The much heralded Commonwealth Gleneagles Agreement was interpreted liberally by the Government, and occasionally simply ignored. By 1981, with the country deeply divided, the Springbok tour began after a muted late televised request by the Prime Minister for the Rugby Union to “think well” before they decided whether the tour should go ahead. The police became heavily involved, mostly in enforcing the right of rugby supporters to watch matches against the visiting team.

Then suddenly, it was effectively all over. The rugby authorities were slow learners and the incoming Labour Government in 1984 was less persuasive with the NZRFU than it might have been, but the tide of support on sporting contacts of any kind with South Africa had turned. The new government opened a diplomatic post in Zimbabwe, made some changes to votes at the United Nations, and started talking to the black leadership
in South Africa. However, enduring progress on such matters takes place only when a conservative government in office will accept and adopt it. This only became certain after real changes started inside South Africa in 1990.

Malcolm Templeton’s book shows well how New Zealand officials generally had to work, with skill and not a little guile, to nudge governments towards more internationally acceptable views on “one of the most sensitive international issues to have faced New Zealand governments over the past half century.” Looking back from 1999, it is often not a good or proud story, and is sometimes embarrassing. In terms of the public government activity and the work behind it, Templeton has given the definitive account of the evolution of our relationship with and attitudes towards South Africa in the 20th century.


Trevor Richards’ book is an excellent complement, an explanation of 1981 and the events which shaped it. He covers much of the same ground as Templeton, but as a participant observer, with the different insights and anecdotes which come from that perspective.

HART (Halt All Racist Tours) was set up largely by the New Zealand University Students’ Association in July 1969 with Trevor Richards as its first chairman. This book is largely the story of the role of the anti-apartheid movement in shifting New Zealand opinion and policy over 20 years. Its members were sustained by “confidence, optimism and belief” with perhaps some initial naivety. Their adversaries, whose actions supported apartheid, “were engaged in a battle against history, logic and morality, and they would be defeated.”

Richards traces the evolution of the New Zealand anti-apartheid movement from its small beginnings to its huge political impact ten years later and onwards. Originally relatively few in number and occasionally internally divided over tactics, by 1981 HART led a mass movement. During the 1981 Tour, Wellington opponents regularly numbered 1000 mid-week, 2000 plus on Saturdays and probably 10,000 for the Test match. It had been a long haul, particularly in the years after the success of 1973. Led from 1975 by an often unpleasant prime minister, there were many who descended to nasty abuse and threats. There were some pretty ugly minds among the friends of those supporting South African rugby.

Richards and HART made extensive and skilful use of overseas contacts, particularly in Africa and at the United Nations and its Special Committee Against Apartheid. Information and correction was fed in and often used to assist in giving New Zealand a difficult time. Those who sent it were accused of lies and treason (on one occasion under parliamentary privilege). Lies were never established, and HART leaders saw themselves as representative of New Zealand’s best aspirations, rather than as traitors.

Prime Minister Muldoon was the foremost, but not the only, obstacle the campaigners encountered. As Richards makes clear, the attitudes, actions and inaction of Lance Cross, chairman of the New Zealand Olympic and Commonwealth Games Association and delegate to the IOC ultimately worked to the detriment of Olympic sports. Ces Blazey ultimately found his dual role as chairman of the New Zealand Amateur Athletics Association and of the NZRFU incompatible, and resigned from the former position. The wily Danie Craven was often able to fool New Zealand media with his demeanour of injured innocence. After the 1981 tour he came to New Zealand with gold cufflinks for the NZRFU councillors and gold and diamond pendant necklaces for their wives. Perhaps he should have brought gifts for members of the Government as well.

On the other side there were also some strong allies, though some of them had to exercise a measure of discretion. Commonwealth Secretary-General Sonny Ramphal later told Trevor Richards that he felt that the anti-apartheid movement was salvaging New Zealand’s reputation, “a reputation I attached importance to, and valued, as opposed to the terrible policies of its prime minister.”

One could understand if a much vilified former leader of the anti-apartheid movement succumbed to the temptation to settle some old scores. Perhaps it is easier when you have been vindicated by history. Nevertheless, Trevor Richards deserves credit for managing to write this book without scoring his points too heavily. Dancing on our Bones is very well written and full of thoughtful reflection. Towards the end of his book he makes this comment:

The anti-apartheid campaigns from 1973 to 1981 were such defining moments in New Zealand because ultimately they were more about us than they were about South Africa. Throughout the debate over sporting contacts with South Africa we were seeking to resolve a number of things about ourselves. The confluence of New Zealand, rugby and racism throughout most of twentieth-century New Zealand has been a defining issue for us both as individuals and as a nation.

Russell Marshall is a former Minister of Foreign Affairs.

Tagged with: , , ,
Posted in Non-fiction, Politics & Law, Review, Sport
Search the archive
Search by category