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The Sunday EssayDecember 12, 2021

The Sunday Essay: The 1976 Montreal boycott

Sunday Essay Julia Murray feature image

Trevor Richards, one of the founders of Hart (Halt all racist tours), recalls how an All Black rugby tour of South Africa disrupted international sport and brought shame to New Zealand.

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Original illustrations by Julia Murray

I. Drama at 35,000 feet. 

It was early afternoon, September 8, 1977. I was on a British Airways flight somewhere over the Indian Ocean, en route from my favourite African country, Tanzania, to the Seychelles. 

The previous four months had been hectic. From May until August, I had worked in New York assisting the United Nations in drawing up an International Declaration Against Apartheid in Sports. Then it was on to Lagos, Nigeria, for the UN’s World Conference Against Apartheid. This was followed by discussions with government officials in Tanzania. Now, it was home time. 

I was feeling good, relaxing, enjoying an ice-cold rum and coke – and then it happened. The first sensation was a burning pain on the top of my head. The book on my knee fell to the floor. Someone was grabbing me by my hair and yanking me out of my seat. The man was in his 50s, florid faced and smelling strongly of whisky. He started shouting “Traitor! This man is a traitor!” I was introduced to fellow passengers as “someone not fit to be called a New Zealander”. A steward quickly appeared and ordered the man back to his seat.

Looking perplexed, she asked me what it was all about. “He’s a fellow New Zealander who has different political views from me,” I responded. I could have said, “he believes that I was one of those responsible for the boycott at last year’s Montreal Olympics”, but thought it best to keep my response simple, and believable. 

Earlier this year there was much reminiscing marking the 40th anniversary of the 1981 Springboks tour. Almost forgotten is 1976 and its much bigger global story – the walkout, by more than 30 countries, from the Montreal Olympic Games. How great were the passions generated by the events of 1976? Not even after 1981 was I accosted at 35,000 feet.

In 1976 the first major boycott of the modern Olympic era wasn’t the result of a stoush between the Soviet Union and the United States. Those boycotts came later, at Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984. The Montreal boycott had an unlikely source – a small South Pacific nation with a prime minister who, personality-wise, was an early prototype of Donald Trump. Robert Muldoon did not want to make New Zealand Great Again, but he was nostalgic for a time when the values of the empire were recognised and respected.

His outspoken support for sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa brought New Zealand into an ultimately unwinnable conflict with the emerging postcolonial world order. 1976 was a time when the New Zealand government took on the world, Hart took on the New Zealandgovernment, and the country faced a major foreign policy crisis.

II. The Halt all racist tours movement (Hart): international good citizens or despicable traitors? 

Hart had always been good internationalists. For many of us, it was part of the legacy of growing up in the 1960s. In a world where the internet was still to be invented, where emails and social media had yet to put in an appearance – even fax machines did not become popular until the 1980s – Hart built a web of inter alliances with governments, international agencies, sporting bodies and national anti-apartheid movements. These networks were to become a critical part of the movement’s activities aimed at ending New Zealand’s sporting relations with apartheid South Africa.

No campaign in history received more global support than that waged against apartheid. Hart was able to tap into an existing set of powerful networks. Intergovernmental agencies such as the United Nations, the Organisation of African Unity and the Commonwealth Secretariat already had strong policy in this area.

The UN was a major international focus of our activities from the beginning. Hart was formed in July 1969. In Auckland, our first street demonstration was held to mark United Nations Day (October 24). Africa was also a focus. For our 1970 Sharpeville Day activities, we sought messages from every African head of state. Just before Sharpeville Day a very supportive cable arrived from Siaka Stevens, president of Sierra Leone, a West African member of the Commonwealth. Another cable was also received from the president of the Organisation of African Unity. For most of the country – the government, the NZRFU, the newspapers – it was all a big yawn. I cannot recall being more thrilled to receive any pieces of mail, before or since. 

Internationally, however, Hart faced difficulties. To gain relevance and influence, we needed to establish our credentials. The best way to do this was face to face, but New Zealand’s geographic location, more or less at the bottom of the world, made this difficult. European and US anti-apartheid activists had ease of access to many of the major influential governmental and non-governmental movers and shakers. Influence develops from such access. 

The core of Hart’s international network was established over two international trips in the period between 1972 and 1974. The first, in March 1972, was an invitation to New York to attend meetings organised by the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid.

This trip was the beginning of a long, hands-on relationship with the UN. Between 1972 and 1985, attendance at UN meetings became a regular feature of Hart’s international activities. The meetings themselves were often unremarkable and tedious. Their benefit lay in what was able to be achieved outside of the meetings. Contacts were made. Relationships were formed. Networks were built. 

These meetings were also important in other respects. They afforded Hart the opportunity to travel to places of current relevance at little extra cost. In 1972 I had returned from the New York meeting via London, where a Hart branch was established. In 1975, a UN meeting in Paris had enabled me to travel there via New York, Toronto and Montreal, and home via Rome, Dublin, London, Lagos, Dar es Salaam and Lusaka. 

While it was always likely that Hart would be drawn into the UN international anti-apartheid circuit, establishing close, high-level personal contacts with African governments was seen as much harder to achieve. The breakthrough came in Tanzania in 1973/74. The purpose of the visit was to investigate how New Zealand might best support the southern African liberation movements operating in South Africa, Southern Rhodesia (Zimbabwe), South West Africa (Namibia), Mozambique and Angola. In 1973, Labour prime minister Norman Kirk had cancelled the 1973 Springbok tour of New Zealand, and Hart had thought that the battle to end our sporting relations with South Africa had largely been won. Time to move on to other issues.

In Sydney, on our way to Tanzania and Zambia, we met Australian-based Zimbabwe activist Sekai Holland, whom we had got to know during her 1971 New Zealand speaking tour. Over four hours at Sydney airport she presented us with her “crucial list” of more than a dozen people with whom we had to meet. It was the most useful briefing I have ever received – on any subject, at any time. Sekai’s “must see” list included relatives, personal friends and family contacts. On it were present and future leaders of the region and, although not known at the time, owing to the fact that he was only eight months old, a future Australian rugby captain (George Gregan’s mum, Jenny, was one of Sekai’s closest friends). 

Among those with whom Sekai was on very good terms was Tanzania’s foreign minister, John Malecela. She promised to send him a cable advising of our visit. On our arrival in Dar es Salaam, we were met at the airport by an officer from the protocol division of the ministry of foreign affairs. Meetings followed, the most significant of which was with Tony Nyakyi, the head of Tanzania’s foreign ministry. A critical African relationship had been established.

The New Zealand to which we returned was hosting the Commonwealth Games. Numerous Commonwealth sporting officials were present, including leading Nigerian sports administrator Abraham Ordia, president of the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa (SCSA). Established in 1966, the SCSA was a specialised agency of the OAU established to coordinate matters relating to African sport with particular emphasis on the campaign against apartheid in sport.

I met Ordia in the foyer of the Clarendon Hotel in Christchurch, then one of Christchurch’s better, more sedate hotels. It was probably among the most enthusiastic welcomes the hotel had seen. As I went to shake his hand, two arms wrapped themselves around me, and I was lifted from the ground and swung around. “Thank you,” he said, “for Hart’s campaign against the 1973 tour.” It was the beginning of a lengthy personal and political friendship. Maintaining and developing these relationships were critical. To this end, whenever I was attending UN meetings I always tried to make sure that I flew home via Lagos and Dar es Salaam.

Muldoon never appreciated the depth of the relationships that Hart had established with African governments and their political leaders. At their core was trust, respect and a joint commitment to the ongoing fight against apartheid. It was a part of the world of which Muldoon had no understanding. For the prime minister, Africa was irrelevant: a continent populated by Tarzan and Jane, jungle, mud huts and petty dictators. The growing international importance of issues relating to race was not something that was on his radar. His only interest in race was finding ways in which it could be exploited for his political benefit.

Following the election of the Muldoon government in November 1975, Hart’s international activities changed significantly. The new imperative was to advise interested international governments and agencies of political developments inside New Zealand. From the outset, Muldoon’s government spoke with two voices. Speaking to New Zealanders, the government’s voice was rabidly supportive of sporting relations with South Africa. To the international community, a more restrained voice emphasised New Zealand’s opposition to apartheid. The government thought that it could say one thing at home, and something completely differently overseas, and get away with it. 

Central to our response was the Hart international backgrounder. Distributed on an irregular basis to our international networks, these backgrounders consisted of copies of newspaper clippings and transcripts of New Zealand radio and television news stories, accompanied by a commentary analysing recent developments in New Zealand. Copies of our backgrounders were always released to local media. These reports assumed critical importance. Tony Nyakyi told me, when I was interviewing him in 1998 for my book Dancing on Our Bones, that Hart had been “absolutely critical”. 

“You sensitised people in New Zealand and you informed us outside. It made all the difference.”

The international backgrounders were to become as controversial, and to earn Hart as much notoriety and opprobrium, as anything that happened in 1981. A furious prime minister, unable to get away with speaking with two voices, would accuse us of “acts bordering on treason”. 

III. Playing fast and loose with reality: New Zealand stands with its back to the future, confident that the past is the way forward. 

It was Labour prime minister Kirk’s decision to stop the scheduled 1973 South African rugby tour of New Zealand that sowed the seed for the 1976 turmoil. That cancellation had been strongly condemned by many around the country. Muldoon sensed that opposition to the tour’s cancellation could be a political winner. In the lead-up to the November 1975 general election, he enthusiastically supported the resumption of New Zealand’s sporting contacts with apartheid South Africa. Kirk had made his 1973 decision based on what was in the best interests of New Zealand. Muldoon’s unqualified support for the 1976 All Blacks tour of South Africa was made on the basis of both his own prejudices and what he perceived to be his own best political interests.

Muldoon was fond of saying that New Zealand was in good company in breaking the apartheid sports boycott. This was not true. Even in Europe, and in the”‘old, white Commonwealth countries” – the UK, Canada and Australia – sport was not divorced from foreign policy considerations. While in 1976 a number of international sporting federations still accepted South Africa as a member and permitted members to participate in sporting exchanges with Pretoria, government support for these contacts was unheard of. That is, until the election of the National Party in New Zealand in 1975. 

In late January 1976, South African softballers arrived in New Zealand for an international tournament. It was the first time in five years that a South African team had set foot on New Zealand soil. African nations were appalled.

In early March, Ordia wrote to the New Zealand Herald sports writer TP McLean with the first unambiguous indication that serious trouble lay ahead. “If New Zealand persists in its support for racist South Africa … we will not take part in any competitions including the Olympics and the Commonwealth Games if New Zealand is also taking part in the same competitions.” The statement hit New Zealand like a thunderbolt.

Hart’s attitude towards any African boycott was clear: we were not going to argue against it. We believed that any decision to boycott New Zealand would be of benefit to the anti-apartheid cause. It was important, however, that the reason for the boycott be understood. New Zealand was being targeted because (1) we were the only country whose government enthusiastically and aggressively supported sporting relations with South Africa, and (2), because we were giving South Africa the All Blacks, the sporting team it most wanted. Ahead of the SCSA’s meeting in Nairobi in late April, where it was to finalise its policy regarding New Zealand and the Olympics, I wrote a lengthy letter to Ordia discussing these matters.

At the conclusion of the SCSA meeting, a confident Ordia announced that should the 1976 All Black rugby tour of South Africa proceed, “we have unanimously decided to call on all African countries to boycott sports events in which New Zealand takes part in at the Olympic Games”. The boycott was on. 

At a UN meeting in Havana, Cuba in late May, the prospect of the looming Olympic boycott was discussed. Ordia, in his address at the meeting, was moderate. The prospect of an African boycott was not linked to whether the rugby tour proceeded, but to the policy position of the New Zealand government vis-a-vis the tour. In the letter to TP McLean in March, Ordia had noted something similar, but its significance had not been understood. Africa wanted the tour abandoned, but what was of most significance to Africa was the attitude of the New Zealand government towards apartheid sport. 

Following Havana, Ordia was flown to New Zealand to participate in TV2’s current affairs programme, Friday Conference. The weekly scandal rag Truth, in its advance billing of Ordia’s arrival – “Blackmail Boss Coming from Cuba” – set the tone for what was to follow. The prime minister announced that neither he nor any other government MP would be appearing on the programme. As far as he was concerned, Ordia could “stew in his own juice”. Sports minister Allan Highet called Ordia “a little Caesar”. The National government was unrestrained in its attacks.

The television programme itself – Ordia, the interviewer and a studio audience of 200 – was, according to one newspaper columnist, “a Roman circus: a cauldron of prejudice, hatred, racism, irrelevancy, bitterness, stupidity and bad manners”. The next day Muldoon said he believed Ordia’s importance in Africa was overrated in New Zealand; he was not a member of government or a diplomat, “just some sort of sports administrator”. Ordia cut short his disaster visit. He was not going to stay to be insulted.

In mid-June 1976, just as the All Blacks were making final preparations to embark on their three-month tour of the republic, South African police shot dead hundreds of protesting black students in Johannesburg. In New Zealand, opposition to the tour swelled. For the New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) and the government, this presented no problem. Dead school children had nothing to do with rugby. The tour was proceeding.

An angry Hart issued a statement lamenting that “the rugby tour is going to do nothing but convince those at the trigger end of yesterday’s guns that in times of insecurity and worldwide condemnation, they can still count on New Zealand support”.

At the official farewell for the All Blacks, the under-secretary for sport and recreation, Ken Comber, repeated the government’s support for the tour. On the same day that Comber was farewelling the All Blacks, foreign minister Brian Talboys was writing to all Commonwealth governments stating the government’s opposition to apartheid. In Christchurch, The Press editorialised: If the government believes that it has a strong case to put abroad, it has extraordinarily bad judgement when it allows a spokesman to say exactly the opposite at home.” 

On June 22, the All Blacks left for South Africa.

At the end of June, ahead of the critical OAU heads government meeting, Talboys sent a message to African leaders spelling out the government’s position on sporting contact with South Africa. There was of course no mention of Comber’s farewell speech to the All Blacks, or of an interview given recently by Muldoon to a South African newspaper journalist in which he said that if he was still prime minister he would welcome the Springboks in 1981.

Over the next four weeks, as international anger, censure and threats of boycotts mounted, the country’s fate was in the hands of the prime minister and New Zealand’s IOC delegate, Lance Cross, someone who was just as enthusiastic about involving the country in apartheid sport as the prime minister. Cross had continually told New Zealand that the Africans were bluffing over the boycott. 

Africa’s hatred of apartheid was intense. By 1976, the apartheid issue was the well-established litmus test by which Africa judged who was with it and who was against. In 1976, the Nationalist Party had been in power in South Africa for 28 years. During that period, internal repression had intensified. The liberation struggle had produced more martyrs and heroes than it had victories. The feeling within Africa was one of frustration and impotence. But there had been one bright star: victories against Pretoria on the sports field. This momentum needed to be maintained. After the Soweto uprising, Africa was looking for – demanding – much more concerted, international action.

IV. Montreal Walkout: the final countdown 

Thursday, July 1: OAU foreign ministers meet in Mauritius. OAU spokesperson Peter Onu says the IOC “must choose between New Zealand and us”.

Tuesday, July 6: Bad news for foreign minister Talboys. The response to his Commonwealth initiative has been poor. The media reports that only two replies have been received. A copy of one of these, from Tanzanian foreign minister Kaduma, arrives in our letterbox. Nyakyi thought that we might like to see it. “Your organisation may discretely use our reply in some effective way should you so desire.” 

Minister Kaduma writes “South Africa may be one of the best countries where rugby football is played, as pointed out in your letter. It is also one of the best markets for selling arms. Both these ‘best qualities’ do not guide international opinion on apartheid.” 

The Chinese ambassador in Australia announces that the badminton tour of New Zealand is cancelled. China has responded to the SCSA’s call for Africa’s friends to boycott New Zealand.

Thursday, July 8: Following an earlier decision to send Hart’s London-based international research officer to Montreal, Har sends him his final “riding instructions”. The line he is told to emphasise is the government’s duplicity, its “two voices”. 

Friday, July 9: Cross begins a campaign “to inform his fellow IOC members of New Zealand’s attitude to apartheid and its resentment at being singled out by black African nations for a boycott”. 

Saturday, July 10: The dam breaks. Tanzania announces it will boycott the games. 

Monday, July 12: With New Zealand’s participation in the Games in the balance, the critical final week before the opening ceremony begins in confusion. The New Zealand Herald reports “Canadian newspapers have carried reports of there being ‘quite a push on’ among African nations to get New Zealand banned, but according to the news editor of one Canadian daily, the situation remained ‘foggy’.” 

Cross indicates that he will seek strong action from the IOC against Tanzania for withdrawing. 

Abraham Ordia arrives in Montreal on the attack. “The Muldoon government has turned the clock back.” New Zealand journalists are surprised by the political weight Ordia carries. 

Muldoon, when asked if he feels events in Montreal are tarnishing New Zealand’s image, replies, “Unquestionably, and unfortunately, it is being deliberately tarnished by certain New Zealanders … [who] have done a very good job of tarnishing the image of their own country.” 

Tuesday, July 13: OAU UN representative Mustafa Sam arrives in Montreal with the final text of the OAU resolution. Instead of endorsing the SCSA’s call for a selective boycott of New Zealand, the OAU calls on the IOC “to bar New Zealand from competing at Montreal” and on all member states “to reconsider their participation … if New Zealand participates”. 

Wednesday, July 14: Tension grows. “Anti-New Zealand moves inevitable,” says the New Zealand Herald.

Somalia announces its withdrawal from the Olympics. 

Thursday, July 15: New Zealand officials believe the longer it takes the IOC to resolve the other controversial issue of the games – Taiwan’s participation – the easier it will be for New Zealand to survive the forthcoming African challenge.

Congo announces its withdrawal from the Games. 

Friday, July 16: Cable arrives from Wickham: “Orblems. Letter follows.” We assume that “orblems” are “problems” and wait for the letter.

Dominating the IOC agenda is whether or not to allow Taiwan to compete in the Games. Now, with only one IOC session scheduled before the opening of the Games, Africa makes its move. Sixteen African states petition the IOC to bar New Zealand from the Montreal Olympics. If the IOC fails to heed their call, “the national Olympic Committees of Africa reserve the right to reconsider participation in the Games”.

Having just told Taiwan it can’t compete, the IOC is not in a mood to bow to further “political demands”. Cross’s “explanation” of the New Zealand government’s position receives sustained applause. IOC president Lord Killanin rules that “from where I am sitting the decision is unanimous”.

Lance Cross expresses his deep concern about “distorted facts” being distributed around the world about New Zealand. As is later to be revealed, it is Cross himself who on multiple occasions has played fast and loose with the facts. For example, he tells Denmark’s IOC delegate that he does not consider the election of the National government to have brought about a change in New Zealand’s sports policy. 

Within minutes of the IOC’s decision, the Nigerian team’s chef de mission, Major General Olufemi Olutoye announces that Nigeria is withdrawing from the Games. Wickham, standing at the back of the packed press conference, is amazed by Olutoye’s grasp of the situation.

Saturday July 17: The prime minister says on television that the All Blacks have gone to South Africa with the government’s blessing and goodwill. 

Sunday July 18: Along with probably half the country, I stumble out of bed to watch the Games’ opening ceremony – the first live Olympic telecast beamed worldwide by satellite. As Greece leads the athletes of the world into the stadium, we still do not know which nations will be participating, and which will not. The tension lasts until the last two teams – Zaire and Zambia – do, or in this case, do not, enter the stadium. Africa has closed ranks. Twenty-six countries listed to compete in the Games – most of them in the African and Arab blocs – are absent from the opening ceremony in protest against New Zealand’s participation. By the end of the day two more countries that marched in the opening ceremony have withdrawn. 

Was a boycott inevitable? The “orblems” to which Wickham referred related to divisions over the boycott within the African continent. These were born of the complexities of international geo-politics, differences within and between regions, between French and English speaking Africa and the inevitable political disagreements based on personality clashes. The decision to boycott was made by most African states at the last minute. Nyakyi believed that this worked in its favour. With time, he believes, some states may have “discovered” reasons for not supporting it. 

Sir Lionel Luckoo, manager of the departing Guyana team from Montreal, told New Zealand television: “What we wanted was some declaration from the New Zealand government that they would not approve of teams going to South Africa.” Tony Nyakyi says “a clever leader could have divided Africa. If … [Muldoon] had said ‘I am opposed to sporting contacts with South Africa, and I am calling on sporting bodies … etc’ it would have caused us a lot of trouble.”

This was the first mass boycott of the Olympic Games, and it was New Zealand that caused it. The UK Sunday Times had thundered that New Zealand “was guilty to a man”. In one Commonwealth country New Zealanders were described as “a dubious species of humanity”. The Egyptian charge d’affaires in Wellington warned New Zealand that it faced action against it by non-aligned nations at international forums, and might be classified in the same category as Southern Rhodesia and South Africa. 

Not everyone in New Zealand of course saw New Zealand as the problem. The prime minister, Lance Cross and sports journalists, most with little interest in or knowledge of the political dimensions of the issue, continued to blame the anti-apartheid movement for the boycott. In an attempt to divert attention away from both his government’s and his own personal culpability, the prime minister’s attacks on the anti-apartheid movement became more strident. Previously he had said that we were misleading African countries by telling lies about the government’s policies. In a snap debate in parliament a few days after the walkout, Muldoon increased the seriousness of his allegations. The activities of certain “dissident” New Zealanders, such as Hart and Care, he said, bordered on treason. (In 1976 treason was the only crime in New Zealand punishable by death.) Sports and recreation minister Allan Highet said that it was the opinion of everyone on the government side of the House that Hare and Care were traitors to the country. 

It was not New Zealand media’s finest hour. It is said that in any war, the first casualty is truth. As passions at Montreal reached elevated levels, media objectivity disappeared. Headlines in New Zealand newspapers told the story: “Phew – You’ll Do Us Lance”; “HART Spread Lies – Coach”. So supercharged was the atmosphere that Dave Wickham, in Montreal, had to work hard to avoid a punch-up with one senior New Zealand journalist. 

For New Zealand, Montreal was not the end of the matter. Muldoon remained essentially unchanged, continuing in his role as world number one cheerleader for apartheid sport. Boycotts continued: Nigeria walked out of the 1978 Edmonton Commonwealth Games because of New Zealand’s presence. Gratuitous insults on African leaders continued. In 1981 New Zealand support for apartheid sport saw it stripped as the venue for a major Commonwealth meeting. Africa campaigned successfully against New Zealand’s 1982 bid for a seat on the UN Security Council. Then in June 1984, a drunk Muldoon called a snap election and was defeated at the polls. Only then was it possible to deal effectively with the legacy of 1976. 

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