COMMENTARY: By Trevor Richards
Apologies have been in the news recently.
Last month, French President Emmanuel Macron told “French” Polynesia (Ma’ohi Nui) that French nuclear testing in the Pacific had not been clean. He pledged truth and transparency in the future.
Earlier this month, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern issued an apology to the Pasifika community for the race-based Dawn Raids of the 1970s.
I was reminded of the need for another apology as I watched New Zealanders competing at the Tokyo Olympics. These Games were a source of enthusiastic enjoyment and pride for many of us. What a contrast to the 1976 Montreal Olympics.
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Some New Zealand spectators at those Games were so ashamed of the country of their birth, that they pretended to be Australians.
In 1976, the All Blacks were in South Africa. They had left for their tour within days of the South African police killing hundreds of black students protesting in the streets of Soweto against apartheid. Apparently no reason there not to tour.
Around 30 countries from an enraged African continent boycotted the Olympics in protest against New Zealand’s presence. It was the first major Olympic boycott of the modern era, and our country had caused it — well, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) actually, hugely assisted by Prime Minister Muldoon.
New Zealand rugby’s answer to most criticism over this period had been to monotonously
claim that sport and politics didn’t mix. At Montreal, the extent to which they did was
New Zealanders had just discovered what a selfish sporting body, devoid of any moral compass, could do to the international reputation of a country.
This was not the beginning of New Zealand rugby’s fall from grace. Nor was it to be the end. For more than 60 years, the NZRFU was involved in what many came to recognise as an ugly and intimate pas de deux with South African racism.
From 1928-1960, rugby authorities acquiesced to South Africa’s insistence that it not include Māori players in any All Black team touring South Africa. Racist South Africa was the puppeteer pulling the strings. New Zealand rugby was a compliant puppet.
From the beginning, many Māori saw it that way.
In May 2010, New Zealand Rugby issued a short statement in which it said “sorry” to those Māori players “who were not considered for selection for teams to tour South Africa or to
play South Africa”. “Sorry” had been very slow in coming. Eighty-two years for star Māori fullback George Nepia.
But does this apology, if that is what it was, even begin to cover other major aspects of what it is rugby needs to address? South Africa was an international outcast. Over a period of more than 60 years, the NZRFU had offered Pretoria high levels of support, often at times when it was most needed.
In 1960, an international outcry followed the killing of 69 unarmed black protesters at Sharpeville. Within weeks, the All Blacks were flying off for a three-month tour. In June 1976, amid even worse police violence, the All Blacks were off once again to South Africa.
After the 1976 Olympic boycott and all the turmoil and violence which accompanied the 1981 Springbok tour, the NZRFU still felt able to press ahead with plans to tour South Africa again in 1985.
To growing numbers of citizens, rugby’s insensitivity, arrogance and stupidity seemed limitless.
Unsurprisingly, the hand of friendship offered by New Zealand rugby to South Africa became a lightning rod for increasingly large protests. By 1981, communities and families had become bitterly split. News crews from around the world flooding into New Zealand reported on ugly battles for the soul of a nation.
It was the closest we had come to civil war in the 20th century.
It is 100 years since South Africa first toured New Zealand. How timely it would be if we could start the second century of this relationship with an apology and wipe the slate clean.
In 2006, the NZRFU adopted the brand name New Zealand Rugby. Within rugby, has there been more than just a name change? Is there now a recognition that responsibility for past behaviours needs to be accepted?
These behaviours include years of insult to Māori, the unqualified support extended to a racist, pariah state, the resulting hurt and suffering that support caused black South Africans, the pain, shame, and opprobrium inflicted on New Zealand’s international reputation and the deep and bitter divisions created at home.
If not now for such an apology, how long do we have to wait? The need for it is not going to go away.
Trevor Richards was national chair of the Halt All Racist Tours movement (HART) from 1969-1980 and international secretary from 1980-1985. This article is published with the author’s permission.