Māori had long held concerns over sporting contacts with apartheid-era South Africa, but protests began in 1960. Prior to this New Zealand Māori teams played against South Africa in 1921 and 1956. The problem to come was foreshadowed in the 1921 match played in Napier, when a South African journalist sent a telegram home regarding the match.
Bad enough having play team officially designated New Zealand Natives. Spectacle thousands Europeans frantically cheering on band of colored men to defeat members of own race was too much for Springboks, who frankly disgusted.1
In 1960 it was made clear that South Africa would not tolerate the selection of Māori players for the All Blacks team to tour its country. The New Zealand Rugby Football Union (NZRFU) decided to send racially selected teams to South Africa. This was not the first time that Māori players had been excluded, but it was the first time that a significant protest campaign was organised. A campaign emerged with the slogan ‘No Maoris, no tour’. Anglican bishop Wiremu Panapa led a petition for equality between Māori and Pākehā over not just the tour but wider instances of racism and inequality in New Zealand. The tour went ahead anyway.
In 1967 a tour of South Africa was cancelled because Māori were still excluded.
For the 1970 tour of South Africa a compromise solution was devised for Māori (and Pacific Island) players. They would be considered ‘honorary whites’. It was a term applied by South Africans to certain ethnicities, giving them most of the rights of white citizens. However, while this placated some, many others were angered. Protest organisation HART (Halt All Racist Tours) was formed in 1969 and had significant Māori input. The tour went ahead with Sid Going (who was Māori) and Bryan Williams (Samoan) participating as honorary whites. While the New Zealand Māori Council saw this compromise as acceptable, the Māori Women’s Welfare League opposed the tour.
In 1973 the government under Prime Minister Norman Kirk effectively forestalled planned protest actions when it intervened to cancel a planned Springbok tour of New Zealand, as the team was to be selected on grounds of race rather than merit.
1981 Springbok tour
In 1981 a Springbok team was permitted to tour New Zealand, and protests against the tour reached a level unparalleled in New Zealand history. This reflected the fact that both the Māori protest movement and anti-apartheid movement had developed significantly. The Patu Squad in Auckland was led by Māori activists Ripeka Evans, Donna Awatere and Hone Harawira. It had a core of around 100 members, mostly Māori. While the squad represented Māori opposition to the tour, there was overlap with other protest groups such as HART. The alliance between the groups was not always an easy one. Some issues supported by Māori protesters – particularly their emphasis on New Zealand racism and push for mana motuhake (Māori self-determination) – did not always sit well with other members of protest groups. Many protesters were arrested and charged as protests became increasingly militant.
Rugby protest outcomes
The 1981 tour was the last time the All Blacks and South African rugby teams would play while South Africa was still under an apartheid system. A 1985 tour to South Africa was cancelled after a legal challenge, though a group of rebel players went to South Africa the following year. It was not until the fall of apartheid in the early 1990s that the impact on South Africa of New Zealand rugby protests became clearer. President Nelson Mandela remembered that when he was in his prison cell on Robben Island and heard about the cancellation of the Hamilton game in 1981 due to protests it was as if ‘the sun had come out’.2 When Mandela visited New Zealand in 1995, he made a point of visiting key New Zealand protesters, including many prominent Māori, to thank them for their efforts. In 1994 Prime Minister Jim Bolger said that the 1981 tour had been a mistake.
In 2010 the South African Rugby Union apologised for the exclusion of Māori rugby players due to apartheid. The New Zealand Rugby Union, which had initially stated it was not the right time to apologise, later followed suit.