1981 brought a winter of bitterness and discontent as a Springbok rugby team toured New Zealand amid widespread protest and international condemnation of our government and rugby union.
Tomorrow is the 25th anniversary of the cancellation of the Waikato Vs Springboks game of the tour when some 300 protestors invaded the pitch and former flying-doctor pilot Pat MacQuarrie flew a light plane from Taupo to buzz the Hamilton ground.
The cancellation of the game was probably the single most important contribution New Zealand made towards the ending of apartheid policies but a sober assessment of events in South Africa since raises the question – was it worth it?
The protests were directed against South Africa’s apartheid policies which enshrined in law discrimination against blacks (and in fact anyone who was “non-white”) on the basis of race. This legislated racism was backed up by brutal police and army firepower in suppressing the struggle for human rights while with harassing, torturing and killing those organising opposition to the regime.
There was a familiar litany from these apartheid policies: blacks could not vote; they were paid far less than whites for doing the same job; black students received an inferior education; there were appalling health services and shocking child mortality rates for blacks with the best of everything reserved for whites.
The United Nations called it 20th century slavery. Black South Africans appealed to the world for help. They didn’t ask for an invading army but for a boycott of the white regime to bring pressure for change. Most of the world responded quickly but the old white western nations, businesses and sports organisations were slow to respond. Rugby ignored the cry for help and yet it was rugby which was the most important link we had with white South Africa. It was the most sensitive pressure point New Zealand could use to support the struggle against apartheid.
This was the backdrop in 1981 against which New Zealanders took to the streets. It was a human rights movement supporting civil disobedience action. It was a movement which said that the rights of New Zealanders to play and watch rugby was not as important as the rights of black South Africans to basic human rights.
The action of the protest movement here was part of the international pressure which eventually saw Nelson Mandela released from prison and black South Africans winning the right to vote. Negative discrimination on the basis of race was eliminated from the laws. Apartheid as such disappeared.
However, in the 12 years since the election of the ANC to power the political rights gained have led to no improvement in the social and economic position of the big majority of black South Africans. In fact for most their economic and social situation has worsened.
One study has shown that the average white household income has risen by 15 per cent under ANC rule while the average black household income has dropped by 19 per cent.
It’s a sorry picture. With the ANC election to power the oppression of blacks has shifted seamlessly from race to income so while blacks gained the right to buy a house anywhere in South Africa for example the vast majority could not afford to move. Ending apartheid was a symbolic victory only.
It is true that small sections of the black community have done well. There is a small black middle class and there have always been a few black millionaires but for those in the poorest communities the situation has deteriorated. The proportion of South Africans living in absolute poverty almost doubled from 1996 to 2004.
No-one expected things to change overnight and the ANC government can point to improvement for many people in housing, healthcare and education but taken overall the situation is worse.
The reason is very simple and familiar. The ANC have followed the same failed, free-market ideology that has driven our economy for the past 20 years. Privatisation of community assets and commercialisation of community services are rampant. Just as New Zealanders have seen an explosion in poverty levels and whole communities going backwards, South Africa has likewise seen a “reversed Robin Hood” situation with wealth forced uphill from the poor to the rich.
So with hindsight should we have bothered to stop the apartheid gravy train just long enough for the ANC leadership to jump on? The answer must be yes. It was a step, but just one step, towards freedom. A much greater struggle now looms for impoverished South Africans of all colours to build a movement to challenge the ANC government in which so much hope was misplaced.