(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, December 18.)
It was hard not to feel a little cynical as the tributes flowed for Nelson Mandela last week.It seemed we were all friends now with the man once widely denounced in the West as a terrorist (and who, to the embarrassment of the American government, remained on a US terror watch list until 2008).
The world leaders who gathered in Soweto were ostensibly there to pay homage, but being politicians they were also keen to bathe in Mr Mandela’s reflected glory.Rarely has any international statesman acquired such sainted status. Only the Dalai Lama comes close, but then the Tibetan spiritual leader has the huge advantage of never actually having had to engage in the messy business of governing.
New Zealanders, meanwhile, were almost falling over each other in their eagerness to flaunt their anti-apartheid credentials.John Key had the good sense to keep his mouth firmly shut on that score. He could hardly do otherwise, having famously said in a televised election debate in 2008 that he couldn’t recall how he felt about the 1981 Springbok tour.
Mr Key aside, reticence was in short supply. If you didn’t have a story to tell about actually meeting Mr Mandela, the next best thing was to recall the heroic role you played in the 1981 anti-tour protests. The moral high ground has rarely been so crowded.There were times during the past week when it seemed no South African whites were willing to admit ever having been supporters of the racist minority regime than ran the country for nearly 50 years. Even formerly staunch members and supporters of the white government spoke of their fondness for Mandela.
What a pity they didn’t feel so favourably disposed toward him in the 27 years he was banged up on Robben Island.In New Zealand, it seemed people were equally unprepared to admit they had been pro-tour in 1981. But we know that at least half the population was.
The majority of New Zealanders, although uncomfortable with the idea of apartheid, didn’t feel strongly enough to do much about it. The love of rugby, and the desire to see the All Blacks prevail over their strongest rivals, trumped concerns about morality and justice.The truth was that New Zealanders identified more closely with South Africans than with any of our other rival rugby nations. New Zealand apologists for South Africa said you had to go there to understand why it was in everyone’s interests for the whites to run the show.
If you hadn’t been there, the argument ran, you had no right to judge. This always seemed a specious argument to me – rather like saying you had to personally experience Nazi Germany to know that Hitler was a monster.Prime minister Robert Muldoon, a shrewd judge of the national mood, cleverly played on the theme that New Zealand was not going to be pushed around by other countries, many of them corrupt and undemocratic, telling us who we could play sport with.
He deliberately provoked antagonism from black Africa and delighted in baiting Abraham Ordia, admittedly not the most endearing of men, of the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa. African countries – 26 of them, including strong sporting nations such as Kenya, Tanzania and Ethiopia – retaliated by boycotting the 1976 Montreal Olympics in protest at the All Blacks’ tour of South Africa earlier that year.Mr Muldoon managed the issue so adroitly that most New Zealanders believed we were in the right. It was us against a bunch of African tyrants and their leftist sympathisers in the West.
The tide eventually ran out for Mr Muldoon in the 1984 general election, when the rebellious baby-boomer generation that had marched against apartheid and the Vietnam War graduated from the streets into politics.I believe the 1981 protests were as much a defiant reaction against Muldoonist authoritarianism and the stifling conservatism of the time as they were about the injustice of apartheid. But the protesters were on the right side of history, as attested by the paucity of people now willing to admit they were pro-tour.
The principal defenders of the tour, of course, have passed on. Sir Robert Muldoon died in 1992. Ces Blazey, the Rugby Union chairman at the time – a man who commanded respect by his unfailing civility in the face of abuse and provocation – went in 1998. Ron Don, the rugby union firebrand whom the protesters loved to hate, lived till 2011.Of those still living who supported the tour, a cynical view is that they have suffered a convenient collective memory lapse. But a more charitable interpretation is that Mr Mandela succeeded in changing their minds.
What no one can take away from him is that he achieved a peaceful and bloodless transition from a brutally oppressive white regime to a democracy – albeit a flawed one – where whites and blacks mostly live in relative harmony.Many people would not have thought that possible. Things could have gone catastrophically wrong had Mr Mandela not been able, through his charisma and personal example, to restrain the natural desire for retribution.
Unfortunately it seems that’s as far as his achievements went. His successors in office have largely betrayed whatever vision and idealism he may have embodied. South Africa today is governed by a corrupt, incompetent black elite where previously it was ruled by an oppressive but generally efficient white one.I have a feeling Mr Mandela knew this. Television footage of him in his last months showed a man who looked as if he had lost heart. And who could blame him, when his family was being torn apart in an ugly feud and South African police were shooting down black miners in scenes remarkably reminiscent of the worst days of apartheid?
I cringed at the frequently replayed scene of President Jacob Zuma visiting him – eager, no doubt, to portray himself as the natural inheritor of Mr Mandela’s mantle – and clutching his hand while he (Zuma) played to the cameras.Mr Mandela was powerless to say or do anything, but his expression suggested he would just as soon have had a cobra dropped in his lap.