Turning Their Backs On Fear: The students of 38 years ago didn’t run to the nearest authority figure tearful and distraught: they padded-up, put on crash helmets, and went out onto the streets; risking pro-tour fists and police batons to do all that they could to end the genuinely and murderously white supremacist regime that was Apartheid South Africa. (Photo by Alan Cumming)
HOW VERY DIFFERENT the university campuses of 2019 are from the campuses of 1981. Thirty-eight years is a long time. There will be lecturers and tutors on campus today who weren’t even born in the year the Springboks came to tour. To those whose job it is to look back into the darker episodes of our past, New Zealand must seem like another country. Just how much that other country differed from the New Zealand of today was driven home to me while listening to RNZ journalist Katie Scotcher’s story on this morning’s (24/6/19) edition of Morning Report.
At the heart of that story were the feelings of shock, horror and disgust that gripped a University of Auckland staff member, and her class, when, just five days after the Christchurch Shootings, a young, Pakeha, male student gave voice to his profoundly racist beliefs. The staff member in question was outraged that the University authorities, upon receiving her complaint against the student’s behaviour, counselled her to say nothing more concerning the incident until the complaints process had been completed. This, she asserted, amounted to the university “silencing” a staff member who was attempting to confront the presence of “white supremacists” on the Auckland campus.
I couldn’t help wondering how that staff member would react if she was somehow transported back in time 38 years to the University of Otago campus of 1981.
Rough-and-ready polling conducted during that year’s Orientation Week had indicated that while roughly 60 percent of the student body opposed the forthcoming tour of the Springbok rugby team from Apartheid South Africa, at least a third of the student body supported the tour.
Determined to organise this large percentage of the student body, a young post-graduate history student and tutor by the name of Michael Laws (later to become a controversial National Party, then NZ First, Member of Parliament, and, later still, an even more controversial talk-back host and Mayor of Whanganui) formed what he called the “Students Civil Rights University Movement” (SCRUM). As the months went by, the membership of SCRUM increased to number hundreds of highly vocal student supporters of the Springbok Tour.
All-too-aware of the sizeable number of pro-tour students on campus, I felt obliged, as the editor of the Otago University Students Association’s newspaper, “Critic”, to invite Laws to submit a weekly opinion column. He accepted with alacrity, and “Dragonfly” was born. The subject matter of “Dragonfly” was by no means limited to the Tour, Laws was equally vociferous on a broad range of social issues – all of them approached from a decidedly (and, at times, outrageously) right-wing perspective.
Though many of my comrades urged me to do so, I never once considered what we would today call “de-platforming” Michael Laws. The student newspaper was paid for by the student body, and a significant part of that body were staunchly right-wing in their opinions. It was always my view that, in spite of my personal distaste for conservative students’ opinions, they had a right to see them represented on the pages of their newspaper. Certainly, they had no less a right to representation than those students who, like myself, viewed matters from a radically left-wing perspective.
I can only imagine how the staff member in Katie Scotcher’s story would have responded to Michael Laws. A champion New Zealand debater, he would, I suspect, have made a considerably more cogent case for his views than the rather unfortunate-sounding young man in her class. Indeed, she would have been required to do what my old history professor, John Omer-Cooper, did when, in the early months of 1981, he squared-off against Laws, his former student, in the Main Common Room, in a white-hot debate on whether the Springbok Tour should proceed.
Omer-Cooper, in front of hundreds of students, won that debate. Not by silencing Laws, but by simply out-arguing him. The professor had spent much of his life in southern Africa. He knew of what he spoke – and everybody in the MCR that day could see that he did.
I have never forgotten the professor’s response to Laws’ crowning accusation that he was abandoning the right thing for the expedient thing:
“Sometimes, Michael,” the professor said quietly, “the right thing, and the expedient thing, are the same thing.”
It seems to me, still, even after the passage of 38 years, that Professor John Omer-Cooper’s command of the evidence; his obvious moral commitment to the cause of racial equality; and his quiet dignity (in the face of all the rhetorical slings and arrows Laws could hurl at him) provided that student audience with a truly magnificent example of what a university was – and still should be – about.
Perhaps the most depressing aspect of Scotcher’s story was the staff member’s statement that after the confrontation with the young “white supremacist” a significant number of her students stopped coming to class. The contrast between these students’ response to overtly racist behaviour, and the response of Otago students to the provocations of SCRUM and the violence of the Police and the “Rugby Thugs” off-campus, is stark. The students of 38 years ago didn’t run to the nearest authority figure tearful and distraught: they padded-up, put on crash helmets, and went out onto the streets; risking pro-tour fists and police batons to do all that they could to end the genuinely and murderously white supremacist regime that was Apartheid South Africa.
What a pity that the staff member in Scotcher’s story didn’t present the infamous “Dawn Raids” against Pasifika immigrants (which triggered the young man’s outburst) as proof of how far this country has come since the days of Rob Muldoon and his ilk. She could have reminded her students that, even then, in the 1970s, there were thousands of horrified New Zealanders prepared to challenge the racist policies of their government.
Because that, in the end, is the point. By joining together in solidarity with the victims of imperialism and colonialism; by facing down both the personal and institutional racism that is its toxic legacy; we can bring it to an end. Public outrage halted the Dawn Raids. Apartheid South Africa is no more.
The evil of racism, again on the rise, will not be defeated by hiding from it and issuing complaints, but by confronting it openly and fearlessly – as tens-of-thousands of New Zealanders did in the aftermath of the Christchurch tragedy.
In the words of that pioneer of African-American civil rights, the freed slave, Frederick Douglass:
“Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle.”
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Tuesday, 25 June 2019.