Question: What do Boris Johnson, the 1981 Springboks tour, the 1985 nuclear weapons debate, and the Emperor of Japan have in common? Answer: Jeya Wilson. Matt Hayes calls Jeya Wilson, the second woman of colour to be elected president of the Oxford Union and a New Zealander, to hear about her extraordinary life and career.
She seems to have been everywhere at precisely the right time. She has achieved things that should give her a place in the pantheon of New Zealand’s most inspirational figures. And you probably haven’t heard of her.
Her name is Jeya Wilson. A Sri Lankan New Zealander, in 1986 she became the sixth female president of the Oxford Union in 160 years. Her predecessors include British prime ministers William Gladstone, Herbert Asquith, and Edward Heath. Her immediate successor was Boris Johnson. So how did a schoolteacher’s daughter who studied at Victoria University become the second woman of colour, after Benazir Bhutto, to rise to that esteemed role?
Wilson, today resident in Geneva, was born in Sri Lanka in 1951, to a family of Christian Tamils – a minority within a minority. When she was eight years old, her family moved to Birmingham for two years, at a time when “blackie” was still the moniker favoured by fellow schoolchildren and teachers alike. On one occasion, a little blond girl referred to her as “dirty”.
“Those words stayed with me,” she says now. “But for me it was just something there in the background, and I never let it get the better of me.”
It wasn’t until 1968 – when she travelled as an exchange student to upstate New York – that she first witnessed the political implications of “race relations”.
“I was there during a watershed year – both in my life, and internationally.”
Every month brought a new upheaval. From January onwards, news of the Tet Offensive sparked massive protests against the Vietnam War. In April, just as the civil rights movement was reaching its climax, Martin Luther King was murdered. In May, a quarter of France’s population went on strike, and came very close to toppling the chauvinist government of Charles de Gaulle. In June, Robert Kennedy was assassinated in a hotel kitchen. In August, the Prague Spring was crushed by 200,000 troops of the Warsaw Pact. And in November, Nixon was elected.
Wilson was still in the United States when the Americans landed on the moon – and when Woodstock took place a few weeks later.
“I became a hippie at heart forever,” she says. “Everything was in flux; so much was happening. The year I was there had a huge impact on me personally. It cemented my political activism.”
Nor did she avoid the political fault-lines herself. “I had an Italian-American boyfriend at the time. When he introduced me to his friend, the friend actually spat on the floor and said, ‘You didn’t tell me she was black.’ And my boyfriend’s father said, ‘Don’t even think of marrying her. I don’t want grandkids that look like zebras.’”
After that formative year in the US, Wilson rejoined her family, now living in Apia. She attended Samoa College, where she was taught English by the headmaster Albert Wendt, now one of Samoa’s best-loved poets.
In 1972, she moved to Wellington to study a BA in Political Science. After graduating, she worked for the Department of Trade and Industry and then Consumer NZ. Together with then-partner Peter Utting, she became heavily involved in Hart (Halt All Racist Tours) and the anti-apartheid movement. In 1976, Muldoon’s government had allowed the All Blacks to tour South Africa. In response, more than 20 African nations boycotted the 1976 Montreal Olympics to protest New Zealand’s attendance. It was one of the lowest points in modern NZ history, and something that she and many others determined to prevent happening again.
After an OE in Europe, her commitment to anti-apartheid activism led her to apply for a visa to South Africa.
Babes in Verwoerds
It was almost inconceivable that she and Peter – stalwarts of the anti-apartheid movement, and a mixed-race couple at that – would be allowed into the country. But possibly due to a clerical oversight, they were presented with their visas. “My poor father … I called him from London – he was expecting me back – and I said, ‘I won’t be coming back for a while, I’m going to South Africa.’ There was this dead silence, before he asked: ‘why?’”
It was 1981, and the Springboks tour of New Zealand was about to begin. Wilson and Peter slept in a campervan to avoid the segregated hotels and trains, but this wasn’t quite enough to slide under the radar. During a stay at a whites-only camping ground in Kruger National Park, she tried to use one of the bathrooms.
“I waited until nobody was there, then went in. Suddenly, I heard all this noise; a busload of people had parked outside. So I walk out, and the chattering stops. There’s pin-drop silence. All these white women are staring at me . . . I spent a very long time washing my hands, remembering the time I was told that I’m ‘dirty.’ I’m not usually a person who cries, but I burst into tears, and I remember screaming at Peter: ‘you don’t know what it’s like.’”
After the infamous pitch invasion at Rugby Park in Hamilton, the two of them were coveted by the South African media. They finally agreed to an interview on the condition that it be published after they leave the country. Days later, this headline appeared in the Sunday Tribune:
ANTI-TOUR NEW ZEALANDERS SNEAK INTO SOUTH AFRICA AND GET INSIDE LOOK AT OUR APARTHEID SOCIETY. IT’S SICK.
Eventually they arrived back in Wellington where they wrote a chronicle of their travels: Babes in Verwoerds: Two New Zealanders in South Africa. Wilson also returned to Victoria where one of her Honours dissertations was “Women in Parliament”. At that point, there were only eight female MPs – and she became one of the first people to interview Helen Clark during the latter’s first term as MP.
By this time, her sights were set on Oxford.
The Oxford Union: Weinberger, Lange, and Boris
In 1983, Wilson relocated to St Antony’s College, Oxford, on a Commonwealth Scholarship, and began a PhD on sanctions and South Africa. In her very first week, she found herself gravitating towards the Oxford Union. She had fallen in love with debating years earlier, and had already won the Australasian Debating Championships.
Together with EP Thompson, the leader of the European Nuclear Disarmament movement, she debated United States Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. The motion was “that there is no moral difference between the foreign policies of the USA and the USSR.” With Benazir Bhutto sitting behind her, she looked Weinberger in the eye and delivered a scathing indictment of US pretensions.
“There is a dangerous heresy,” she said, “which leads us to believe that our survival, our very lives, depend on one or the other of the superpowers . . . But who are they? Two ossified gerontocracies who hold us in mortal fear under the protection of their nuclear umbrellas . . . while we get dragged into their proxy wars being fought across the globe. Honourable members, let us show these two charlatans that we can do bloody well without them.”
Cue wild applause and a sheepish-looking secretary of defense.
One of her tasks was to invite high-profile speakers to address the Union. Around this time, New Zealand was making headlines for its refusal to let potentially nuclear-armed American warships into its waters. Somebody joked that she should invite David Lange, the firebrand Prime Minister of New Zealand. She took the joke seriously.
“I’d known David Lange before I left [New Zealand],” she says. “We’d met in the anti-apartheid movement.” So she wrote to him, and he agreed to come. In a televised debate at the Oxford Union, he would defend New Zealand’s anti-nuclear policy on a world stage.
“Lange was very keen to debate … The thing is, people are afraid to send a high-powered speaker, and Lange, to his eternal credit, took that risk. It doesn’t look good if you lose … It’s to his credit that he had the confidence and the willingness to do it.”
She was the only other New Zealander on Lange’s four-person debating team. “The two of us had a private dinner the night before, in London. And we discussed how we would handle it.” Lange was preternaturally calm – yet he seemed fully aware that the debate would be a defining moment in New Zealand’s history.
On the night itself, she was the opening speaker. The debating chamber “was absolutely packed. The atmosphere was electric.” In a pink dress, with a flower in her hair, she cut a striking figure against the black-tied crowd of young men. She addressed her opening statement to Jerry Falwell, the American heading the opposing team:
“Over the past few weeks, our small nation has shown the qualities that made your great nation, Mr Falwell, great: a democratic will, determination, and moral fortitude. Yet when the tables are turned, a country of seventy million sheep and three and a quarter million humans stand accused of naivete, selfishness, and moral turpitude.”
Later, David Lange took to the despatch box himself and delivered the famous line about uranium on his opponent’s breath. That opponent happened to be Mark Gorenflo, a Rhodes scholar from the US Naval Academy who had served on nuclear submarines. “Mark wouldn’t talk to me for a long time afterwards,” Wilson laughs. “He sort of held me personally responsible … For a while he was recognised wherever he went.”
By popular vote, the Kiwis ended up winning the motion “that nuclear weapons are morally indefensible.”
“One couldn’t have asked more from Lange than that performance. It was masterful … his voice, his whole presence … He could stand there and look around that chamber, and have them eating out of the palm of his hand.”
The following year – in 1986 – Wilson became president of the Oxford Union. It was a huge achievement for someone who lacked political connections, hadn’t gone to Eton, and wasn’t a white man. In many ways, her successor Boris Johnson perfectly embodied the “type” that so often won the presidency.
She has more than a few tales about the new British prime minister. On one occasion, he managed to sneak into the college ball she’d organised by pretending to be her ball partner. “I had a rough idea of who was coming, and Boris certainly wasn’t on that list. My first question was, ‘how did you get in?’”
Boris had made it past two sets of bouncers through charm and trickery alone. “It was sheer genius … He put on his black tie, he dressed up, and he came. Then at the door, stammering in that Churchillian voice, ‘Oh! Sorry, my ticket … actually I – I don’t know where it is. I must, um … I’m Jeya Wilson’s ball partner, so I’ve got to be there.’ Of course they let him in.”
“Anyway, I didn’t have a single dance with him because he disappeared. He was too busy getting votes. The person who I did dance with at that ball is now Emperor Naruhito [of Japan], who was a student at the time.”
Not many Kiwis can rattle off such an abundance of anecdotes – too many to describe here – in such quick succession. In 1989, Wilson moved to South Africa, where apartheid was now in its twilight. Nelson Mandela was released from prison months later, and the joke was that she’d managed to get him out herself.
Untrue, of course. But there’s something fitting about the fact that the little girl called “darkie” and “dirty” ended up working alongside South Africa’s first post-apartheid government. She eventually became, with Michael Lapsley, one of New Zealand’s first honorary consuls in the country. Later, in 2008, she volunteered in New York for the Obama campaign. And exactly 40 years after personally tasting the bitter cud of racism in the United States, she watched Obama become the first black president in American history.
Certain milestones, like the presidencies of Mandela and Obama, are worth cherishing because of the way they force the issue – the way they push our culture to change for the better. Jeya Wilson’s achievement, in its own way, is one of those milestones.
The Spinoff Daily gets you all the days' best reading in one handy package, fresh to your inbox Monday-Friday at 5pm.