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


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

The protests against the Springboks reverberated around the world – delivering a savage psychological blow to South Africa’s white regime while giving a resounding boost to the oppressed majority.

Last weekend marks the 40th anniversary of the first rugby test of the tour between the All Blacks and the Springboks in Christchurch but well before that game was played the political significance of the tour had eclipsed any results on the field.

Three weeks before the first test the second game of the tour was to be played in Hamilton and white South Africans in their droves got out of bed in the middle of the night to watch the first ever live telecast of a rugby game in South Africa.

It was to be a special moment in South Africa but not as expected. Instead of the Springboks Vs Waikato rugby game, rugby fans saw 300 protestors linking arms in the middle of Rugby Park Hamilton – declaring they would not leave till the tour had been called off.

The anger that swept through white South Africa was nearly as palpable, if not as physical, as the anger expressed on Hamilton’s streets in the ensuing hours.

On South Africa’s Robben Island, Nelson Mandela was in his 18th year in jail. He said when the prisoners learnt an anti-apartheid protest had stopped the game, they were jubilant. They grabbed the bars of their cell doors and rattled them around the prison; he said it was like the sun came out.

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand the tour protests also had a profound impact although this took longer to play out. It was the closest we had come to civil war since the nineteenth century land wars but more importantly the tour shone a harsh spotlight on racism in this country. Māori activists asked how could we be concerned about racism six thousand miles away and ignore it in our own backyard? Fair question.

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In the aftermath of the tour racism took centre stage with an intense public debate which helped set Aotearoa New Zealand on a new path.

A decade earlier Māori activist groups like Ngā Tamatoa had challenged the Pākehā majority about patronising attitudes and lazy racism which meant Māori were in effect second class citizens.

Politicians are slow followers of public opinion but four years after the tour and the wide discussion and debate it helped spur, the Waitangi Tribunal was given the responsibility to investigate historic breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi (previously the tribunal had only been mandated to look at possible future breaches) and so began the Tribunal’s investigations into our history of racism and oppression and the injustices of colonisation which continue to resonate for Māori in the present.

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

In our most recent budget the Minister of Health Andrew Little announced the formation of a national Māori health authority which will have the power to contract health services for Māori where the state system has served them poorly. “By Māori, for Māori” is seen as a way to enhance our democracy with a turn away from the “tyranny of the majority” under which Māori have fared poorly.

It’s not all plain sailing though and recent debate about Māori rights to representation on local councils has met hostile, albeit minority, opposition.

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

The irony in these positive developments is that the overall situation for most Māori is getting worse with Māori disproportionately affected by poverty and inequality which continues to grow relentlessly with the pandemic.

The civil disruption from the tour and the debate which followed benefitted both New Zealand and South Africa in ways that we didn’t see at the time. We are a better country for it.

For the anti-apartheid movement celebrating the fight against apartheid in South Africa in the 20th century, there is unfinished business with major international human rights groups now calling out Israel as an apartheid state based on its policies towards Palestinians.

In January this year for example, the largest and most respected human rights group in Israel, B’Tselem, labelled the Israeli government “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea”.

The fight for Palestinian human rights is the anti-apartheid struggle of this generation.


  1. How about “By Māori, for Māori and paid for by Maori too”

    or does self determination have it’s limits before it needs the money of the blue eyed devil?

    • Apparently they paid with the loss of lives and lands. They went to 2 world wars for this country to be treated equally but it never happened. Lucky white veterans were given Maori lands to settle while Maori got their lands taken off them. How about one law for all and return confiscated lands.

  2. New Zealand has with in it the untapped reserves of the intellectual property of Aotearoa beginning with the Maori dictionary and written language.

    Quite simply a for real treaty partnership would elevate the Maori language to equal status so that’s about $300 billion rising on average 2% a year so sustainable.

    All the songs and stories are right there for the taking in Matariki, National Kapa Haka comp with which to convert those into albums, screen plays, theatre and motion pictures.

    Y’know when I look over scorched earth policy I see the phenix.

  3. Well said Comrade John Minto. Now some will not get that, or like that term–but if you have a Police baton dented crash helmet like me, you will likely get my reverence for John. He is a national Taonga.

  4. @Sam.
    “Quite simply a for real treaty partnership would elevate the Maori language to equal status so that’s about $300 billion rising on average 2% a year so sustainable.”
    A teacher told me yesterday that ALL songs being sung in their primary school are in Te Reo. There are NONE in any other language. At HB hospital there is new signage that has all the departments listed on overhead signboards with the Te Reo name listed first in Bold Type and the next line in English is in normal type. It will be a long time before we are all competent Maori language speakers so in the meantime most of the visitors will be cheesed off trying to see the smaller writing. Welcome to f’n woke BS in NZ.

    • It grates on you that Maori can achieve such wealth.

      To try and ankle tap such an important development at this stage is gutless, cheap, and no mana.

      People call me many things, rightwing ninja, illiterate, dumb, woke, what ever convinces no hope cunts that they have even a little bit of imagining the possible.

      All you are about is whinge, Moan, wha wha wha. You’re like a baby. You have no idea what to do.

  5. And our Maori soldiers were never put in the land ballots only Pakeha soldiers including my Irish/Scottish Grandfather and his family. And Maori also got paid a lower pension and benefit making them even more aggrieved after fighting for King and country only to be shat on. And we have these dick heads who pretend white privilege is made up when it has been in existence ever since and to this day.

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