The recent passing of Nelson Mandela saw much sorrow expressed around the world, as well as a great deal of reflection and celebration of his life. Many articles were written from a wide range of angles and perspectives. And many people related their personal experiences of how the events and achievements of Mandela’s life had impacted them. One of the aspects that resonated with me and that I saw in a number of articles was how sports, and particularly rugby, played a part in Mandela’s story and in South Africa’s history. If you have seen the movie Invictus you will have an idea of how divisive, and also how unifying, sports can be. Being from New Zealand, South Africa’s greatest rugby rival, my country’s sporting ties with South Africa were of great prominence in the discussions about apartheid that I read and heard growing up. Many of the key events occurred before I was born or when I was very young, but I was always keenly aware of the controversies surrounding New Zealand’s relationship with South Africa – and not least because I watched a lot of rugby.
Upon reading the recent articles, I decided to search for more information on the history and controversies of the relationship. Some aspects I had good knowledge of, and some I didn’t. For example, I knew that for many years the New Zealand rugby team (called the All Blacks due to the color of the uniform) had been asked not to include Maori players for tours of South Africa. And of course I knew about the 1981 Springboks (the common name for the South African rugby team) tour of New Zealand and the massive debate and protests that accompanied it. At law school and later as part of my job I had even looked at cases involving accusations regarding police tactics in relation to these protests. But there were many details that I didn’t know very much about. Of course, due to the prominence of the issues and the relationship in New Zealand’s history, including its own domestic history of race relations, there is a great deal of information to be found. So much so that it is difficult to do it justice in this blog post. Hopefully the following timeline and links show the extent of the debate, and the relevance of various laws and legal issues.
1921: The first official international rugby game (called a “test match“) between the All Blacks and the Springboks was played in Dunedin, New Zealand. During the tour, the Springboks also played a team of “New Zealand Natives” (i.e., Maori players). A South African journalist reported that the Springboks were “frankly disgusted” at playing against “a band of coloured men.”
1928: The All Blacks toured South Africa for the first time. The host nation insisted that the touring team not include any Maori players.
1937: The Springboks toured New Zealand for a second time, as well as Australia for the first time. However, on this tour the South Africans refused to play an all-Maori team, although several Maori players were included in the All Blacks team that faced the Springboks.
1940: A proposed All Blacks tour of South Africa was canceled due to World War II.
1948: The South African government, at that time led by the National Party, began to systematically put in place apartheid legislation.
1949: The All Blacks toured South Africa, again with an all-white team.
1956: The Springboks toured New Zealand, and the touring team was met with warm welcomes and very little protest.
1959: A proposed All Blacks tour of South Africa was met with protest by some New Zealanders. A petition calling for the tour to be cancelled was signed by more than 150,000 people and thousands of people around the country marched as part of the “biggest protest against racially selected sports teams in the world at that time.” The protesters sought the intervention of the New Zealand government to stop the tour.
1960: Despite the protests, which grew stronger following the Sharpeville massacre in March of 1960 (which occurred during a protest against laws requiring the carrying of pass books by black men and women), an all-white tour of South Africa went ahead.
1964: Mandela was sentenced to life imprisonment.
Also in 1964, the Citizens Association for Racial Equality (CARE) was established in New Zealand. One of its purposes was to protest against another upcoming Springboks tour of the country. Also during this year, South Africa was barred from sending a team to the Olympics in Tokyo. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) would also later bar South Africa from participating in the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. The IOC officially expelled South Africa from the Olympic movement in 1970. The ban was lifted prior to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.
1965: Although previously multiracial sports were effectively banned in practice in South Africa, a new official proclamation made under the Group Areas Act, 1950 (subsequently amended and consolidated in 1957) required segregation in “any place of public entertainment.” This meant that black spectators could not attend sports events in white areas without government permission. Also in this year, the South African Prime Minister, Dr. Hendrick Verwoerd, inferred in a speech that the government would only permit all-white New Zealand rugby teams to tour the country in the future. New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Keith Holyoake, responded by saying (p. 914) that the country could not be fully represented by a racially selected team. A planned 1967 All Blacks tour of South Africa was subsequently canceled.
1967: Following the assassination of Dr. Verwoerd in 1966, South Africa’s new Prime Minister, John Vorster, stated in a speech to the House of Assembly that, while attendance at sporting events would still be controlled under the Group Areas Act, the country would no longer dictate what the racial makeup of visiting sports teams should be. This was part of his broader policy of seeking to improve foreign relations.
1969: Another organization, Halt All Racist Tours (HART), was formed in New Zealand to organize protests against the planned All Blacks tour of South Africa in 1970.
1970: The planned tour of South Africa went ahead amid ongoing protests. For the first time, however, Maori players (plus a Samoan) were able to be included in the touring All Blacks team. They were officially labeled “honorary whites” to get around the apartheid policies. In addition, Prime Minister Vorster apparently made several requests regarding the number and skin tone of non-white players. Nevertheless, a faction of his ruling National Party were highly opposed to the development, leading to a major rift in the party.
1971: Other countries also continued to have sporting ties with South Africa during this period. For example, in this year, the Springboks toured Australia, although six Australian players refused to play and there were widespread protests to an extent previously unseen in the country.
1973: HART (which, along with CARE, had formed international ties with other entities taking action against racism) threatened disruptions nationwide if a proposed Springboks tour of New Zealand went ahead. Groups that supported the tour also spoke up strongly. The New Zealand government stepped in to “postpone” the tour, believing it would strain domestic race relations.
1976: The All Blacks again toured South Africa with several “honorary white” players, in the midst of civil unrest in the country. This tour also included, for the first time, a match against the “coloured” team, known as the Proteas. This time, the protests reached the international stage to a much higher degree. The United Nations had called for a sporting embargo on South Africa, and a number of African countries had previously threatened to boycott the Montreal Olympics should the tour go ahead. When the IOC refused to ban New Zealand from competing in the games, more than 20 African countries followed through with a boycott.
1977: The countries of the Commonwealth signed the Gleneagles Agreement, which was effectively a Commonwealth boycott against apartheid sports. In this Agreement, the countries accepted that “it was the urgent duty of their governments to combat vigorously the evil of apartheid by withholding support for and by discouraging contact or competition with sporting organisations, teams or sportsmen from South Africa or from any other country where sports are organised on the basis of race, colour or ethnic origin.”
1978: Nigeria boycotted the Commonwealth Games to protest New Zealand’s sporting contacts with South Africa.
1981: The New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU) arranged for a Springboks tour to take place in this year. Despite the terms of the Gleneagles Agreement and the level of outcry on the international and domestic fronts, the New Zealand government decided not to step in to cancel the tour. The tour is seen as one of the most divisive events in New Zealand’s history, with the biggest protests ever held in the country continuing throughout the 56-day tour. (“More than 150,000 people took part in over 200 demonstrations in 28 centres, and 1500 were charged with offences stemming from these protests.”) Those that strongly supported the tour argued that politics and sports should not mix, and those that opposed it felt that New Zealand was in a position to take a firm stand against South Africa’s apartheid policies. Two matches were canceled – in Hamilton, protestors occupied the field and in Timaru the game was called off due to security concerns.
Also in 1981, the United Nations Special Committee against Apartheid published its first “Register of Sports Contacts with South Africa,” which was aimed at putting moral pressure on athletes.
1985: The NZRU accepted an invitation for the All Blacks to tour South Africa. This time, two lawyers brought a court case against the NZRU in an effort to stop the tour from going ahead. A main issue was that of standing, as the two plaintiffs were not NZRU members but were members of affiliated rugby clubs. The High Court initially dismissed the case and noted that the NZRU had the power to accept the tour invitation. The plaintiffs then appealed to the Court of Appeal, which held that the two individuals did have standing under public law and their case should be heard. Following another hearing at the High Court, an interim injunction was granted just days before the tour was scheduled to start. In a significant decision, the judge stated that the interest of the public and the nation in not having the tour go ahead was a “potent factor” that should be considered by the NZRU. He further stated that the tour “is contrary to a clear direction from the Government because of the harm it would do to our national interests; to the unanimous resolution of Parliament for the serious harm it would do to New Zealand’s interest at home and abroad; and to the spirit of the Gleneagles Agreement to which the country is fully committed.”
As a result of the injunction, the NZRU was forced to call off the tour. Nevertheless, it applied to the Court of Appeal for leave to appeal to the Privy Council. This motion was dismissed by the court.
Also in 1985, the International Convention Against Apartheid in Sports was adopted by the UN General Assembly.
1986: A “rebel” team of New Zealand rugby players, called the Cavaliers, participated in a tour of South Africa that was not supported by the NZRU or the New Zealand government. Only two of the original All Blacks squad selected for the 1985 tour decided not to go on the rebel tour.
Also in this year, Nigeria led a 32-country boycott of the Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in protest against the UK government’s attitude towards sporting ties with South Africa.
1987: South Africa was excluded from the first Rugby World Cup tournament. It was also excluded from the tournament in 1991.
1990: Nelson Mandela was released from prison.
1991: The legal framework of apartheid was repealed by the South African Parliament.
1992: The international sporting boycott against South Africa was lifted. During this year, the country’s two official, separate rugby bodies unified and became the South African Rugby Football Union (now SARU). The Springboks’ first opponent following this unification was the All Blacks with the test held in Johannesburg.
1994: Following the first universal election in South Africa in April 1994, which saw Nelson Mandela elected president, the Springboks toured New Zealand and played three tests against the All Blacks.
1995: As portrayed in Invictus, the Rugby World Cup tournament was held in South Africa. South Africa defeated New Zealand in the final in extra time. Before the game, Mandela appeared in the Springboks dressing room in a Springboks jersey, and he handed the trophy to the captain on the field after the game. The tournament was seen as “the dawning of a new era” in South Africa, and Mandela’s actions as sending a powerful message about forgiveness and unity.
1996: Rugby became a professional sport following the 1995 World Cup, and the New Zealand, South Africa, and Australia rugby unions created two tournaments – one at the test level (the Tri-Nations, now the Rugby Championship) and one at the provincial level (the Super 12, now the Super 15) – that continue to this day.
2004: The Freedom Cup, contested between New Zealand and South Africa as part of their regular series each year, was introduced as part of celebrations for the 10th anniversary of South Africa’s first democratic election.
2010: The South African government officially apologized to Maori players left out of the All Blacks tours of the country in 1928, 1949, and 1960. Also in that year, SARU changed a post-apartheid policy that prevented its teams from playing against any racially-selected team. This was changed to allow matches against the Maori All Blacks, a separate team that has been in existence in New Zealand for more than 100 years and has played the Springboks on several occasions, including during the apartheid era.