With the All Blacks Vs Springboks World Rugby Cup final just a few days away its worthwhile remembering the torrid history of rugby clashes between ourselves and the “Boks” and how the nastiest bits of history have ways of reinventing themselves in different places at different times.
Through most of the 20th century Black South Africans were in a desperate struggle against South Africa’s apartheid system whereby white South Africans – about 18% of the population – ran the country while black South Africans were denied civil, political and even the most basic of human rights.
Their role according to South Africa’s white leadership was simply to act as a source of cheap labour for white industries. There was a biblical dimension as well with white South Africa’s Dutch Reformed Church declaring blacks were meant by God to be “hewers of wood and drawers of water” – manual labourers in other words. To justify denying them the vote blacks were not deemed to be citizens of South Africa but rather were citizens of a tribal homeland or “Bantustan”. There were 13 Bantustans making up a small portion of the total land area of South Africa where the white government established puppet regimes which were disowned by the vast majority of blacks.
Resistance movements were formed through which Black, Coloured and Asian South Africans fought for equal rights with whites. The ANC (African National Congress) and the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) were the leading organisations although both were condemned as “terrorist” and “communist” by the white regime. The ANC and PAC organised campaigns of non-violent protest and civil disobedience which were important in uniting the black population in the struggle.
When these were met with violent and brutal state repression, both groups took up arms as part of their fight for freedom. The turning point was the Sharpeville massacre of 21 March 1960 when 69 blacks taking part in a protest outside the Sharpeville Police Station in South Africa were gunned down, most killed as they were fleeing the scene in panic.
Faced with a hugely powerful South African police and military, the liberation movements called for international support in the form of boycotts of white South Africa until blacks were given equal rights.
New Zealand’s most important links with South Africa were rugby clashes with the Springboks which both countries saw as the centrepiece of their sporting worlds.
Campaigning to sever those rugby links was a huge challenge. The New Zealand Rugby Union was adamant tours to and from South Africa would continue while successive governments, while making disapproving noises about apartheid, stood with white South Africa and refused to apply effective pressure either on South Africa or our rugby union.
It was left to “the people” to take action. And we did. Mass protests built up over two decades and culminated in the massive demonstrations and disruption of the 1981 Springbok tour to New Zealand. It was a tour which led to bitter conflict and division and which proceeded only with enormous state resources with the police and army using “batons and barbed wire” to try to quell the protests.
The proudest moment for the movement was in forcing the cancellation of the Springboks Vs Waikato game in Hamilton when 300 protestors broke on to the field and prevented the game starting while the war hero pilot Pat McQuarrie flew his plane towards the ground in an aerial protest. By that stage Nelson Mandela had been in prison for 16 years. He said that when the prisoners on Robben Island heard a rugby game with the Springboks had been stopped by anti-apartheid protests the prisoners were jubilant. He said they grabbed the bars of their cell doors and rattled them around the prison. He said it was like the sun came out.
Today we are confronted with another situation of appalling human rights abuses which is also centred on apartheid policies. All major international human rights groups, such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, have declared Israel to be an apartheid state in its discrimination and oppression of Palestinians. The largest and most respected human rights group in Israel, B’Tselem, has described Israel as “a regime of Jewish supremacy from the Jordan River to the Mediterranean Sea”.
Like black South Africans Palestinians have taken up armed struggle for their freedom during 75 years living under Israeli military occupation. And unsurprisingly Palestinian civil society groups, like black South Africans, have called for international support through BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel. Palestinians also need outside pressure for democratic change.
And just as they did in failing to hold white South Africa to account, our political leaders are showing similar cowardly behaviour when they are asked to hold Israel to account for its apartheid policies, its flagrant breaches of international law and United Nations resolutions.
As I write this the news has come in that the death toll from Israel’s latest bombardment of Gaza has reached over 5,700 with at least 2,500 children killed. Repeated appeals have been made to our outgoing and incoming governments to call for a ceasefire in Gaza but Chris Hipkins and Christopher Luxon are unmoved. They are miserable cowards.
They have both condemned the attack in which Israeli civilians were killed but haven’t said a word about the wholesale slaughter of Palestinians civilians in Gaza. They haven’t condemned the war crimes of Israel including “collective punishment” of Gazans via the stranglehold on food, water, electricity and fuel. Our leaders wear their racism on their sleeves.
As was the case with South Africa, the heavy lifting is being done by the people of New Zealand with our third national day of rallies and marches around the country this weekend. We are demanding our lily-livered leaders call for a ceasefire. So far they have called for a “humanitarian pause” – in other words a tea break till Israel renews its slaughter of civilians.
Our media have also been appalling as I’ve written about before. The anti-Palestinian racism is hard-baked into our newsrooms with wall to wall coverage of Israeli leaders from Eurocentric news reporters who are breathlessly waiting for Israel’s ground offensive to begin. If the victims were European children as in Ukraine the reporting would be inverted.
We must condemn any killing of civilians as war crimes under the Fourth Geneva Convention and we must also condemn Israeli war crimes such as “collective punishment” of civilians in Gaza for the crimes of the few – also a war crime under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
So what should a decent, independent government do in response to the Gaza war?
We must call for an immediate ceasefire with a massive humanitarian effort to support the people of Gaza, including United Nation protection. We must also insist on an immediate and well-resourced investigation by the International Criminal Court into war crimes and crimes against humanity, including the crimes of genocide and apartheid.
Apartheid was ended in South Africa and it can be ended in Israel too. The one thing we do know is that there will never be peace for Israel or Palestinians until Palestinians are seen as equal human beings and enjoy equal rights. And that won’t happen until there is intense outside pressure alongside the struggle within historic Palestine.
We can enjoy this weekend’s World Rugby Cup final against the Springboks now and we should also look forward to enjoying contact and competition with a united country across historic Palestine where everyone, irrespective of ethnicity, culture or religion, has the same equal rights.
But that will only come through BDS (Boycotts, Divestment and Sanctions) against Israel.