Which Side Were You On? The Prime Minister's decision not to include a representative of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in the New Zealand delegation to Nelson Mandela's memorial service in Johannesburg revealed how very close to the surface the memories and passions of the 1981 Springbok Tour still lie. The words and gestures of the racists may have moved in a progressive direction, but their hearts and minds have not followed. (Photo and superimposed text by John Miller)
DO PEOPLE REALLY CHANGE? Do political parties? It’s a question that many people have been asking this past week.
Well, I say “people”, but the one’s I’m actually thinking of are those who are old enough to remember the days when Apartheid was a living system, and Nelson Mandela’s jailers still called him “Prisoner 46664”.
We were all 32 years younger back in 1981 – most of us just kids in our late teens and early twenties – but that didn’t mean we couldn’t tell the difference between right and wrong.
Because, seriously, how difficult was it to identify South Africa’s racially segregated society as a vicious affront to human dignity? After 1976 and the wanton killing of hundreds of protesting high-school kids in Soweto, you didn’t need to be a moral philosopher to know that Apartheid was wrong.
And yet, there were hundreds of thousands of New Zealanders (and millions more around the world) who just couldn’t or wouldn’t make that judgement. When they saw the images of black school-children doubled over by 12-guage shotgun shells, their sympathies were with the man holding the shotgun. They had no problem imagining themselves into these horrific scenes but, invariably, it was alongside the white slayers – never with the black slain.
They hated us – the opponents of Apartheid – with an intensity that was frightening to behold. We just wouldn’t stop telling them that they were wrong to back a tour by Apartheid’s most effective sporting ambassadors; kept on insisting that only bad people could possibly defend such a self-evidently evil political system.
It made them furious.
Because they couldn’t admit that what they were doing was wrong: their indefatigable racism simply wouldn’t let them. White was right, and anyone who said different was a treacherous commie stirrer. And they weren’t the only ones saying so: the National Party Government said exactly the same thing. The Prime Minister, Rob Muldoon himself, had accused Hart and Care of actions “bordering on treason”.
And the New Zealand prime minister wasn’t alone. When the US Congress passed the Anti-Apartheid Act, mandating economic sanctions against the South African regime, the Republican President of the United States, Ronald Reagan, vetoed it. As late as 1987 the UK prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, was still telling the House of Commons: “The ANC is a typical terrorist organisation ... Anyone who thinks it is going to run the government in South Africa is living in cloud-cuckoo land.”
Her Conservative Party colleagues were blunter: “How much longer will the Prime Minister allow herself to be kicked in the face by this black terrorist? asked Terry Dicks. “Nelson Mandela should be shot.” declared Teddy Taylor.
Seven years later Nelson Mandela and the ANC were running the South African government.
The racists and the haters had backed the wrong horse. History was spitting in their faces. Reluctantly, and seething internally, they found themselves nodding and smiling as the world celebrated the end of Apartheid. How sorry they were, the smarter ones confessed, that they hadn’t seen it earlier, because, clearly, Nelson Mandela is the Black Messiah: Jesus with a Xhosa accent.
And Mandela, bless him, forgave them their trespasses. He simply declined to notice that his former persecutors (and the multitude who had apologised for their crimes) still had blood on their hands. And when the White World finally acknowledged Black South Africans’ formal political equality it was only after the saintly “Madiba” had conceded his people’s continuing economic servitude.
How confusing it must be for the racists and haters: how complex and mutable the language and mechanisms of oppression. The man who was once branded a terrorist is now hailed as a statesman. Segregation, once as blatant as “Blankes”, “Nie Blankes”, is now achieved by the promise that black and white, alike, are free to live wherever they can afford the deposit.
But the racists’ visceral hatred of the ones who called Apartheid and its supporters by their true names has not diminished. The same Prime Minister who professes no memory of his opinion of the 1981 Tour has somehow remembered enough of his National Party contemporaries’ hatred of John Minto to deny the anti-Apartheid leader a place in the delegation to Mandela’s memorial service in Johannesburg.
"Where black is the colour, and none is the number" - Bob Dylan
But, perhaps, John Key’s instincts are correct. Where black remains the colour, and their number is still zero.
This essay was originally published in The Waikato Times, The Taranaki Daily News, The Timaru Herald, The Otago Daily Times and The Greymouth Star of Friday, 13 December 2013.