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The birth of a movement that divided NZ – and changed us forever

Springboks Rugby Union tour of New Zealand. (Photo by Kenneth Stevens/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

The birth of a movement that divided NZ – and changed us forever

Fifty years ago today the anti-apartheid group Hart – Halt All Racist Tours – was formed. Founding chairperson Trevor Richards looks back to the 1960s New Zealand into which Hart was born, and how it launched a battle for the country’s soul.

It has been said that if you can remember the 1960s, you weren’t really there. No one is sure who it was that first said this. Robin Williams, Pete Townsend and Timothy Leary among others have all been credited, but it was probably none of them. It is a nice line, conjuring up some of the more colourful aspects – the drugs, sex and rock’n’roll culture – for which the 60s are renowned.

But the 60s were about so much more. For many Baby Boomers – this one included – drugs, sex and rock’n’roll were not the decade’s defining aspect. I had grown up in Papatoetoe, Kaikohe and Paihia. By the time I arrived at university in the second half of the 1960s, it was the bubbling, almost frenetic political environment that most excited me.

Issues were abundant and varied: Vietnam, South Africa, French nuclear testing, nuclear disarmament, women’s rights, abortion, US spy bases and Biafra. All over the western world, “protest” was a vital part of university youth culture. Whatever the verdict of history on such activity, it had a huge impact on both a generation of young students as well as on a generation of much older political leaders. By 1968, student protest on both sides of the Atlantic threatened post-war order. That it didn’t in New Zealand didn’t mean that we weren’t committed, determined or angry.

The New Zealand of 1969 and the country we know today are in many respects unrecognisable, one from the other. Yesterday was another country. In the years that followed World War II, New Zealand was a largely rural, male-dominated, conservative society. New Zealanders identified with Empire and the country’s pakeha citizens – well, most of them – believed that the country had the best race relations in the world. Both National and Labour favoured nuclear power. In 1956, even the New Zealand Communist Party supported that year’s Springbok tour. Only the Maori Women’s Welfare League – bless them – was opposed.

In 1969 we were the country of rugby, racing and beer, of short back and sides, and sheep. Then, we had three times as many sheep as the 27 million we have today.

Baby boomers – the post World War II generation of which I am a member – were the  lucky generation. We were the beneficiaries of post-war affluence and welfare, the first generation in the western world to have universal access to free secondary education, the first generation of New Zealanders to know neither poverty nor war. Work was easy to come by. Unemployment was negligible. In one of my years at university, I seem to recall that the number of those officially without work in the country was 32.

So what if a liberal arts degree was considered to be largely useless as a meal-ticket. I  studied history and political science because they helped me better understand the  world. Involvement in social and political issues was not seen as inimical to our future. There was no pressure to get a job. In the late 1960s, for us baby boomers, the world was our oyster. A number of my contemporaries opted for the more traditional values of our parents, but the sixties generation will be remembered for those who did not.

As the west had entered the 1960s, stultifying respectability reigned. Its leaders were,  with few exceptions, old men, mostly from conservative political parties. Throughout the west, political systems showed no sign of being responsive to change.

By 1969, two starkly different visions of New Zealand society had emerged. We regarded our parents’ generation as uptight, conservative, often humourless; they saw us as lazy, spoilt entitled brats, long-haired hippies, radicals and communists. Values born of frontier society, depression and war clashed with the new internationalist values of the post-war world. Many baby boomers understood but rejected the values of their parents’ generation. An intense battle of the generations was in full swing.

From the pre-war generation however, there was mostly only rejection; incomprehension replaced understanding. It never occurred to me for example, that those – and there were many – who accused us of being funded by Russia actually believed what they were saying. Long after 1981, I came to the conclusion that this view had been nurtured by the belief that no right thinking person could possibly send money to Hart It must therefore be the Russians.

The sporting contacts issue was the lightning rod for conflict. No issue better encapsulated the differences between the conflicting visions. The debate over New Zealand’s sporting engagement with South Africa was a critical debate through which New Zealanders were seeking to resolve a number of things about themselves and their country. Many in my parents’ generation simply did not understand us. Opposition to sporting contacts became more than merely an attack on the tours. They were perceived as an assault on a whole value system.

From the 1950s, many in New Zealand, including those involved in politics, sports and business, found much in apartheid South Africa to admire. The deputy prime minister, John Marshall of the National Party, had been struck by what he had seen on his 1967 visit to the Republic. On his return to New Zealand he wrote in a letter to the South African prime minister, John Vorster, that he was “impressed by the good relations which seemed to me to exist between the Bantu and the white people. I saw no evidence of tensions or resentment”. It had presumably escaped either his attention, or his concern, that Africans were being forcibly removed from their homes to the “Bantustans” – rural dumping grounds functioning as reservoirs of cheap black labour for white employers.

Some New Zealand sporting figures returning from South Africa admitted not so much to supporting apartheid as to being unable to find it. Petone rugby captain, Andy Leslie returned from South Africa in 1974 “surprised at the lack of apartheid in South Africa. We were told it was everywhere, but we saw virtually none of it.”

As its name indicates, the aim of the Halt All Racist Tours movement was to stop all sporting contacts between New Zealand and apartheid South Africa, but specifically in our sights were those from which the apartheid regime took most comfort and support – the rugby contacts.

In the 1960s and 70s, and even into the 80s, to suggest that a rugby tour should be cancelled, and if it wasn’t, then disrupted, was sacrilege and defilement rolled into one. Greg McGee wrote in Foreskin’s Lament, “For a whole generation, God was only twice as high as the posts.” For many, it is likely that the goal posts overshadowed God.

Enter the Baby Boomers. To many of us, the issue was about as basic as you could get. If self-proclaimed multi-racial New Zealand couldn’t make the right decision about whether or not we should play sport against racist teams from South Africa, what could we make the right decision about?

If the political system was determined to remain indifferent to a rapidly changing world, it was going to have to be changed. In New Zealand’s major centres, protest marches became regular events. Between 1967 and 1970 in Christchurch, The Press reported 339 demonstrations. Causes were everywhere to be found. Long-established positions were under attack everywhere.

When the realisation dawned that the different aspects of social change which Baby Boomers sought were not going to happen overnight, we dug ourselves into our respective trenches and fought the good fight. And we fought it with a single minded commitment. The rebellion, internationalism, confidence and optimism we had brought with us from the 60s remained mostly still intact.

Our political learning curve was steep. It took us some time to get to grips with the country and our fellow citizens. Where our elders had constructed certainties, we had been taught scepticism. We interrogated those certainties, and began writing a new history. We built a movement which crossed generational and class boundaries, divided families and shifted New Zealand into a different national and international consciousness.

By the time the fourth Labour government left office in 1990, New Zealand was a very different country to the one which had seen the birth of Hart. We recognised Māori as the tangata whenua and saw ourselves more as a South Pacific nation than as a territory of Empire. We were proudly anti-nuclear. On abortion New Zealand was pro-choice. Old laws discriminating against homosexuality had been repealed, and racist South African teams were no longer welcome.

The campaigns to win the sporting contacts battle had been both visible and dramatic. As early as 1971, Hart’s profile was such that a letter addressed simply to “Basher Richards, Christchurch” reached me after someone in the Post Office had added my address – “try 101 Rugby St”.

In 1965, the enthusiasm with which New Zealanders greeted the Springboks rugby team was not, on the surface at least, light years away from the unimaginably enthusiastic welcome the Springboks had received in 1956. When the 1965 Springboks arrived, Wellington’s Evening Post had gushed, “Rejoice fair maidens, the ’Boks are a handsome lot”. Yet only 16 years later, came the protests of 1981. Opposition to that tour was so great that ensuring it would proceed involved at the time the largest police operations in New Zealand’s history.

Protesters and police clash during the Springboks 1981 tour. (Photo by Kenneth Stevens/Fairfax Media via Getty Images).

None of these changes occurred overnight. It was a long and gradual process, but it had to start somewhere, and if one was to put a date on when this change started to gather real momentum, it would be the election of the third Labour government at the end of 1972.

In June 1973, the HMNZS Otago sailed to Mururoa to protest against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. In 1975 the Labour government set up the Waitangi Tribunal, providing a legal framework for the investigation and resolution of Māori treaty claims. But first, on 10 April 1973 came Norman Kirk’s decision to stop a racist South African rugby team from touring New Zealand. This was probably the first time that a New Zealand government had sought to change both the way New Zealand viewed itself and the way it wished to present itself to the world.

New Zealand diplomat Frank Corner was a witness to this changing political climate. In 1973, he headed New Zealand’s Foreign Ministry. In an interview with Corner in 1998, he told me that Kirk “could see that if he stopped the tour, he could lose the next election. But the tour did not fit in with his view of what New Zealand should do in the world, and what its standing would be should it proceed, and that was his paramount motivation.”

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Contrast this with Frank Corner’s exchange with a previous prime minister 12 years earlier. Corner recalls that before leaving for New York in 1961 to take up the position of New Zealand permanent representative at the United Nations, the only piece of advice Keith Holyoake had to give him was to refrain from using the word “abhorrent” in relation to apartheid. “My people don’t like it,” Holyoake had apparently said.

In 1969, the year of Hart’s formation, enthusiastic, untutored 60s idealism had faced off against values shaped by two world wars and the depression, by isolation and rugby. To us in Hart, the government and the New Zealand Rugby Football Union were yesterday’s men promoting yesterday’s values. For their part, what the government and the NZRFU failed to recognise was that we represented a growing force. I don’t think that even we realised just how much of a growing force.

In New Zealand, a generation reared on school milk and the Beatles, liberated by economic prosperity and inspired by internationalist concepts such as Marshall McLuhan’s global village, marched off with history on its side to the strains of ‘’We Shall Overcome”, confident in its ability to change the world.

We might not have changed the world, but 50 years later, our impact on New Zealand society and culture has been deep-rooted. If the clash of values 1981 represented was a battle for the soul of New Zealand, history’s anti-racist foot-soldiers did their cause proud.


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