Rugby, racism and the battle for the soul of Aotearoa New Zealand | John Minto

The 1981 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand will always have a special place in any narrative about the international struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

The protests against the springboks reverberated around the world – they dealt a brutal psychological blow to the white regime of South Africa and gave a powerful boost to the oppressed majority.

This weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the first rugby test of the Springboks Tour of New Zealand in Christchurch, but long before that game was played, the political significance of the visit had dwarfed any results on the field.

Hamilton was due to play the second game of the tour three weeks before the first test, and white South Africans got out of bed in the middle of the night to watch the very first live broadcast of a rugby game in the country.

It was supposed to be a special moment in South Africa, but not as expected. Instead of the Springboks v Waikato game, fans saw 300 protesters close their arms in the middle of Hamilton’s Rugby Park declaring they would not leave until the tour was canceled.

The anger that swept through white South Africa was almost as tangible, if not as physical, as the anger that was expressed on Hamilton’s streets for the hours that followed.

Nelson Mandela spent his 18th year in prison on Robben Island, South Africa. He said when the prisoners learned that an anti-apartheid protest had stopped the game, they were cheering. They grabbed the bars of their cell doors and shook them around the prison; He said it was like the sun was rising.

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, too, the tour protests had a deep impact, although it lasted longer. It has been the civil war since the Land Wars in the 19th Māori activists asked how we can worry about racism 10,000 km away and ignore it in our own backyard. Fair question.

After the tour, racism took center stage with an intense public debate that helped set Aotearoa New Zealand on a new path.

A decade earlier, Māori activist groups such as Ngā Tamatoa (the young warriors) challenged the majority of Pākehā (Europeans) over patronizing attitudes and lazy racism, which meant that Māori were practically second class citizens.

Politicians are slow supporters of public opinion, but four years after the tour and the widespread discussion and debate it sparked, the Waitangi Tribunal was given the responsibility to investigate historical breaches of the Waitangi Treaty – previously the tribunal was only mandated have been to look into possible future violations. And so began her exploration of our history of racism and oppression and the injustices of colonization, which reverberate for the Māori to this day.

Since then, numerous positive developments have given the Māori a stronger political voice.

In our latest budget, Minister of Health Andrew Little announced the formation of a national Māori health agency that will be empowered to provide health services to indigenous New Zealanders when the state system has served them poorly. “By Māori, for Māori” is seen as a way to strengthen our democracy with a departure from the “tyranny of the majority” under which they have done poorly.

Things are not going well, however, and the recent debate over the Māori right to be represented on local councils has met with hostile, albeit in a minority, opposition.

But the direction continues to move forward and work is underway to incorporate the history of the colonization of these South Pacific islands into the school curriculum.

The irony of these positive developments is that the overall situation is deteriorating for most Māori as New Zealand’s indigenous people are disproportionately affected by the poverty and inequality that are inexorably growing with the pandemic.

The civil unrest of the tour and the debate that followed benefited both New Zealand and South Africa in ways we did not see at the time. We are a better country for that.

John Minto was the national organizer of Halt All Racist Tours (HART) in 1981 and is currently the national chairman of the Palestine Solidarity Network Aotearoa.

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