John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: Mandela made us wait a while

If tour protests had mattered in South Africa we would have seen him sooner

NZRU board member and ex-All Black Graham Mourie ought to have been taken on the trip to S Africa. Photo / Getty Images
NZRU board member and ex-All Black Graham Mourie ought to have been taken on the trip to S Africa. Photo / Getty Images

When Nelson Mandela walked to freedom I fondly expected we in this country would see him somewhat sooner than we did. Back when we were ripping ourselves apart over a rugby tour we thought we were making a difference. When so many were chanting, "the whole world's watching", I believed it.

In the years following his release from prison Mandela travelled widely. The world could not see enough of the remarkable man whose name had been synonymous with a bitter and necessarily violent struggle but had emerged from so long in captivity without a scar of resentment or the slightest desire for vengeance.

A year passed, then another, then two more. When eventually he came to this country it was for a Commonwealth Heads of Government conference, not a gesture to New Zealand particularly. The parliamentary press gallery held a dinner in his honour and he acknowledged 1981, but it seemed to me the moment had passed.

I don't hold any of this against him. Nothing that happened here deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as the ordeal of black South Africans.

I mention it now only because we are liable to exaggerate our own importance at a time like this.

What happened here mattered to us, nobody else. You would think it played a significant part in the fall of apartheid, rugby being so important to white South Africans, the rivalry with New Zealand so rich for both of us and sports boycotts such an accepted expression of moral disapproval these days.

You would think so, and as time passes memory is more prone to assume that what you would think happen did happen. But the anti-tour movement in New Zealand was a more subtle argument in this country than either side seems to remember now.

John Key says he can't remember what side he was on. Nobody believes him. He would have been 20 years old in 1981, already harbouring an intention to go into politics one day. He will know what side he was on.

If he prefers not to remember it is probably because he doesn't want to revive the argument.

Key has said he can remember that he didn't want the Springboks to come. The tragedy of 1981 was that a great many "pro-tour" people did not want the tour. The issue for them was whether a government had the right to stop it.

Even for diehard rugby supporters, the '81 tour was not quite as important as events made it seem. We had beaten the Springboks here in 1956 and 1965. What really rankled with rugby supporters was that the All Blacks had never managed to beat them over there. By 1981 another series here seemed hardly worth the protests, pain and opprobrium.

Many rugby supporters wanted the Rugby Union to make the sensible decision, the Rugby Union was practically begging the Government to make it. All it would have taken to stop the tour was a request from the Prime Minister.

Muldoon wouldn't do it. I thought he would. When he went on television to make a well-heralded appeal to the Union, just about everyone thought he would.

His appalling telecast that night should be replayed in every history lesson on the topic. The address painted white South Africans as "our kith and kin" and when it came to the final line, his message to the Rugby Union, he drew a breath and said, "Think well on your decision."

There was an almost audible national gasp. He wanted that tour.

It played out as he probably expected, turning into a fearful polarising test of law and order. But when it was over, everyone knew at heart there could never be another.

When it was over, sport was no longer sacrosanct. Today, if sanctions against Fiji occasionally intrude on sport, the sports bodies accept it. If any government wanted to stop cricket tours by Zimbabwe or Sri Lanka of anywhere, it could do so.

It has been great sport this week selecting the team we should have sent to Mandela's funeral. John Key's good instincts deserted him when diplomacy advised he should not take any of the old protesters.

Pity, though John Minto helpfully penned a piece for the Herald on Tuesday that underlined the diplomatic risk. Minto found it necessary amid the adulation to blame Mandela in large part for post-apartheid poverty and corruption.

A driven conscience respects no time, place, people or protocol. The less appropriate these may be, the greater the compulsion to protest. Trevor Richards or Tim Shadbolt would have been reliable, though.

The delegation should certainly have included All Blacks like Ken Gray and Graham Mourie who quietly chose not to play with apartheid. They at least never suffered from an inflated sense of importance.

- NZ Herald

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