Saturday, 11 August 2012

A Very Large Blot On Our Landscape

I am reading Nelson Mandela's book, Long Walk To Freedom. Many of you may have already read it. It has been out for a few years now. For those who haven't, Nelson Mandela wrote an autobiography which details what it was like to grow up and live through racist South Africa and the apartheid regime, and about his part in trying to bring about change. In the book I am up to the year 1962. Nelson has just arrived at Robben Island.

While I read and think about these issues though, this book brings up other memories and images about related things that happened here, in Aotearoa/New Zealand. I'd like to share some of that with you.

The issue of Apartheid in South Africa was a huge political issue in New Zealand. It became especially important to us here, (apart from the obvious humanitarian concerns), because of our strong rugby-playing links with South Africa. Back then, rugby was THE game here in New Zealand, and the ongoing joke was always that rugby was in fact the NZ Religion, and of course you don't mix Religion and Politics. Neither do you mix Politics into Rugby, that was the view of many rugby supporters and the various NZ governments too. Rugby was sacrosanct, rugby was above all that.

There was no professional sport in New Zealand back then. Even the wonderful rugby was played by 'amateurs' who worked full time jobs. It was clearly necessary to have nice rugby-friendly employers who would let their male employees off work for the months that the players might be away playing test matches overseas in Australia, or Britain, or South Africa. It was a big thing back then to be chosen to be an All Black and represent our country in other parts of the world.

But all through the sixties, seventies and into the eighties, the South African Springboks rugby team was always made up of only South African 'whites'. When they were challenged about this I remember they defended themselves by stating that the teams were chosen on merit and the 'Black' indigenous South Africans were not good enough to make the team. These statements may have had some truth in them because, after all, if people never get the opportunity to play, how do they became good enough to make the team.

Problems arose when our mixed race All Blacks team went to South Africa. The Maori members of the team had to be made "honorary whites" so that they could use the same facilities and stay in the same hotels as the Pakeha/NZ European players rather than being made to use the sub-standard facilities provided for South Africa's indigenous African people.

I remember this issue being hotly debated in our Social Studies classroom in my third form year (1971) in high school. That year a spokeswoman from HART (Halt All Racist Tours) came to speak to the whole school about the appalling conditions in South Africa for the indigenous people, with pictures of their living conditions etc, and why we should support HART's protests against rugby tours to and from South Africa.

There was a kind of impromptu feel to the thing really; my class arriving for our double period in the science lab had been told, leave your bags and go to the hall, so we had done just that. When we returned we were faced with an agitated science teacher, (he had been standing at the back of the hall), who happened to be a 'white' South African. He said, "I am not allowed to speak politics to you but that was not the whole truth, it's not balanced, it is not just as she says". That moment has become one of those annoying little things that sticks in my mind for years, coming back to me out of the blue, such as when I am reading this book by Nelson Mandela, for example. I have often wondered what my science teacher would have said back then. Would he have tried to justify The Apartheid Regime and if so, how? How could anyone defend such an immoral and indefensible position?

By 1973, feelings about the Apartheid issue and rugby were running so high that the then Labour Prime Minister, Norman Kirk, worried about the potential violence and the divisiveness, cancelled a planned Springbok tour to this country.

The 1977 Commonwealth Gleneagles agreement which finally banned all sporting contact with South Africa intensified the divisions here, with stubborn diehards who still attempted to make a 'politics should be kept out of sport' stand, looking more and more out of touch with the reality that the rest of us lived in.

1977 was also the year Steve Biko died in a Pretoria prison cell. He had been detained and interrogated four times between August of 1975 and September of 1977 under the Apartheid era anti-terrorism legislation. On the 7th of September, "Biko sustained a head injury during interrogation, after which he acted strangely and was uncooperative. The doctors who examined him (naked, lying on a mat, and manacled to a metal grille) initially disregarded overt signs of neurological injury." But by the 11th of September Biko had slipped into a continual semi-conscious state and the police physician recommended that he be transferred to hospital. Instead Biko was transported 1,200km to Pretoria, a 12 hour journey which he made while lying naked in the back of a Land Rover. A few hours later, on the 12th of September, alone and still naked, and lying on the floor of his cell in the Pretoria Central Prison, Biko died from brain damage. The brutality of the circumstances surrounding Biko's death caused a worldwide outcry. Biko became a Martyr and Symbol of Black Resistance to the Oppressive Apartheid Regime. Anybody who hadn't noticed the dysfunction by now was truly an Ostrich.

We seemed to have a lot of Ostriches in New Zealand back then.

Despite all of that, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union, (NZRFU, a flock of Ostriches if ever you saw them), under the apparent benevolent gaze of the Prime Minister Robert Muldoon, (yet another Ostrich), and his right-wing National government, went right ahead with planning a Springbok Rugby Tour for 1981. Jock Phillips later wrote that Rob Muldoon was apparently of the 'old guard' who thought that New Zealand should stand staunchly side by side with [white] South Africa because both countries had fought side by side as allies in the 2nd World War.

Which is an interesting thought when you remember that those who were running the Apartheid regime had actually voted against fighting with the Allies in the 2nd World War. In fact they thought that Hitler and his fascist Nazi party's Aryan views were completely the right idea.

1981 was the year that Diana married Charles, Prince of Wales. I watched that wedding on a Christchurch Women's Hospital telly with my one-day-old daughter in my arms.

But from May until September, (the winter months of 1981), the New Zealand nightly news and our newspapers were filled with images of police and protesters fighting on the streets, images of our police dressed in riot gear and carrying long batons, images of battered and bleeding protesters. Despite the fact that the Springboks had actually brought along a 'token' Black this time, (too little too late), the first game to be played in Gisborne in May had to be cancelled when protesters (some had bought tickets, others stormed the fences), mobbed onto the field and the pilot of a light plane circling overhead threatened to fly it into the main stadium killing the spectators. (The twin tower thing in New York wasn't an original idea, just bigger).

This surely wasn't New Zealand, not the way we knew it.

All of this was televised live in New Zealand and in South Africa. To this day I have no idea what the South Africans made of it.

Of course the law had to be upheld, insisted the government. It was the youngest, fittest policemen, some hardly out of basic training who were put onto the frontline. Large numbers of police were flown from city to city wherever the latest game was being held. In the end the government upholding the rights of rugby supporters to watch rugby whatever the cost and therefore supplying our policeman as security and enforcers cost us tax payers more than fifteen million NZ dollars.

My father was a policeman. Because he was a middle aged man he wasn't out there on the streets in front of protesters. Instead the older policemen worked long hours into the night filling in the gaps of the policing that the younger cops would normally have been doing. We hardly saw my dad that winter. When the Springboks played down here in Christchurch my father was right there at Lancaster Park but he didn't see the game. A long blue line of police encircled the field but their eyes were not on the game. The whole time they watched the spectators, they were watching for signs of trouble, in case protesters had bought tickets and tried to rush onto the field. My father said the tension there was so heavy you could have cut the air with a knife.

My soul was with the protesters. If it wasn't for my tiny child I would have been out there on the streets too. I still have a residual guilt about not being there.

This tour should never have been allowed to happen, my father said.


  1. I tried to reply earlier today when I read it over the cellphone but couldn't...I was saying that I'm proud of the New Zealanders for standing up for their beliefs and what was right in the face of the government and police repression. As for Biko and how the apartheid regime could have done such a thing, if you really, really want to do some (stomach-turning) research, I suggest you check out racist sites like Stormfront or (especially) Chimpout. I wouldn't really do it though if I wanted to stay calm.

    Incidentally, an excellently written article.

    1. This post is a rescued Multiply one (again, there will be a few more I am sure) because I'm just going through them one by one to see what I want to save and what I want to keep. It was an odd thing therefore to just pick up this one (from the queue, so to speak) and post it here, then later in the evening turning on the TV to catch a movie (RAGE) about this same tour, this same protest playing on our Channel One. Such an awful period, it split the country in two, families were divided and the cops (no matter what their personal views might have been) became the meat in the sandwich, the tool of the government, the government's weapon against the people. The New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) brought this tour here with the full blessing of our dictator in chief (otherwise known as a prime minister), Piggy Muldoon, and in the end we all paid. With our hearts, with our bodies, with our taxes. Even then we were still better off I think, than the people in South Africa who were the persecuted under the apartheid regime.

      There was a time when I used to like rugby but I gave it up.

  2. I hardly know what to say. Through your eyes and your writing the struggle seems far more alive to me than it ever has. I never knew about the rugby connection; Americans learn so little of what goes on in the rest of the world. We knew about apartheid of course, I knew anyway, because I was "political" and followed such things to the extent I was able to. The US was given a pre-digested version. I'm so glad you saved this.

  3. Thank you Bennett. One of the very interesting things about this globalised blogging that we do, I think, is our opportunity to look at what is happening in our world from the perspectives of people in other countries. Both you and Bill certainly provide marvellous examples of the real worth of blogging, I'm very proud and humbled to be able to add some small details to the work.