Only rarely can a country as small as New Zealand stamp an indelible mark on the international stage. There must be special circumstances if its actions and words are not to disappear amid the global hubbub. South Africa offered that chance thanks to a regard for rugby every bit as strong as in this country.
The opportunity arrived during the 1981 Springboks tour of New Zealand. Nelson Mandela related that when he and other prisoners on Robben Island heard protesters had forced the abandonment of South Africa's game against Waikato, it was "like the sun came out". The vigour of the opposition to the tour in a country that had previously turned a blind eye to apartheid was not only a boost to Mr Mandela and his supporters. It was salutary for many white South Africans.
That impact should have been acknowledged in New Zealand's delegation to the funeral of Mr Mandela. The Prime Minister has chosen a mixture of current political leaders and those who dealt with Mr Mandela during his presidency. Each is understandable in his own way. As John Key noted, the inclusion of the Labour Party leader, David Cunliffe, demonstrated a parliamentary unity that Mr Mandela would have appreciated. The Maori Affairs Minister, Pita Sharples, represents this country's indigenous people, Don McKinnon was the Commonwealth Secretary-General, and Jim Bolger was the prime minister of the day.
The delegation, said the Prime Minister, was selected after advice from foreign affairs officials. He had raised the possibility of including John Minto, who led the protests in 1981, but decided finally that "the grouping we had was the right one". Mr Key's usually well-honed initial instincts were right and he should have stuck with them. For any other funeral, the delegation would have sufficed. But this is a special case not only because of the importance of Mr Mandela but for the role this country played in resisting apartheid.
The focus must be on Mr Mandela's legacy. It should not be about other individuals, so if not Mr Minto or one of the other anti-apartheid campaign leaders, someone could have been included in the delegation to make it truly representative. There were options. These included one of the All Blacks who chose not to play against the 1981 Springboks, even though this was the de facto world cup final of its time, or one of those players who elected not to go to South Africa in 1986 with the rebel Cavaliers. Another possibility was Chris Laidlaw, an All Black who also served as this country's first resident high commissioner in Harare, representing New Zealand's interests in Africa.
The delegation oversight is the more puzzling in that it is well known that Mr Mandela had a keen appreciation of sport's importance.
"Sport has the power to change the world ... it has the power to inspire. It has the power to unite people in a way that little else does," he said. "It is more powerful than government in breaking down racial barriers." Never was this more amply demonstrated than when he defied his advisers to don a Springbok jersey, the symbol of Afrikaner power, at the 1995 Rugby World Cup final. New Zealand, again, figured when the All Blacks were beaten narrowly by the Springboks. Of All Black World Cup defeats, this is probably the least disappointing for most New Zealanders. They recognise that bigger forces than rugby were at play.
With one act, Mr Mandela had created an image of the new South Africa, persuading a largely white sport to warm to him and convincing the black community to support a team that had only one black player. Now, bigger forces than politics are at play at Mr Mandela's funeral.
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