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Africa and New Zealand

by Megan Cook

Apart from familial relationships with other former British colonies, New Zealand has had few connections with Africa. The strongest tie, with South Africa – mainly through rugby – was the cause of great tension in the second half of the 20th century due to South Africa’s race laws.

Africa and New Zealand in the 2000s

Africa’s great variety and expanse, its 1.2 billion people and 54 nations, remained relatively unexplored by New Zealand and New Zealanders in the 2000s. Few New Zealanders visited Africa, and the continent received little attention from the government.

Africa in the 2000s

Africa has been known for its poverty, lack of infrastructure, corruption, political instability, dictatorships and sometimes genocidal wars. In the 2000s, 34 of the 49 least developed countries in the world were African. Some, including Cote d’Ivoire and Zimbabwe, were unstable and sometimes dangerous.

Overall, however, the 1990s and 2000s saw a decline in violent conflict, with donor states providing more effective aid and debt relief, and more African countries holding credible elections. The economies of some African countries did well. Ghana, Burkina Faso and Mali, for example, maintained growth rates of more than 5% from 2000 to 2008, and continued to grow during the global financial crisis.

Sport and church

New Zealand’s British Commonwealth background, trade relationships, and enthusiasm for rugby shaped its contact with African nations. Its closest links were with the white settler states of South Africa and Rhodesia (renamed Zimbabwe in 1980). In the 2000s long-standing relationships, particularly through sport and the churches, continued to be the most visible form of contact. New Zealand and South Africa competed on the rugby field, and Christian charities appealed for help during famines or to care for African children.

Ignored and neglected

After being ‘singularly absent’ and ‘generally neglected’ in New Zealand, Africa was the subject of a 2010 conference held by New Zealand’s Institute of International Affairs. NZIIA president and former Minister of Foreign Affairs Russell Marshall pointed out that New Zealand’s ‘very low level of ambition’ in Africa contrasted with the potential for investment and economic growth that was seen by other countries.1

Diplomatic relations

In 2010 New Zealand had only two Africa-based embassies – in South Africa and Egypt. New Zealand’s ambassador in South Africa also covered Botswana, Kenya, Lesotho, Mauritius, Namibia, Tanzania, Zambia and Zimbabwe. Its ambassador in Egypt covered Algeria, Libya, Morocco and Tunisia. The New Zealand High Commission in London covered Nigeria. There was also a non-resident ambassador to the African Union and Ethiopia (where the African Union, the continent’s regional organisation, is based). Compared to New Zealand, a number of Pacific rim and Asian countries were more active. Australia had eight embassies scattered across the continent. Japan, South Korea and Indonesia were all actively engaged with Africa, and China and the US had increased investment and government contact.

Africa’s rich resource base, its increasing stability and its voting strength in the United Nations all helped drive engagement by countries outside the region. For New Zealand, Africa’s United Nations representation was possibly of most significance. Within the General Assembly, 25% of members represented African nations. The General Assembly elects non-permanent members to the Security Council; New Zealand’s interest in being elected to the Security Council in 2015–16 gave engagement with Africa an increased importance.


Underlying New Zealand’s limited diplomatic relationship with Africa was a limited economic relations. In 2010 only South Africa, Nigeria, Algeria and Egypt were among the top 50 nations New Zealand traded with, and the value was very small, falling well below 3% of the total. The perception of Africa as unstable, poor and likely to be dangerous may have continued to mask opportunities offered by the strengthening economies and growing population of some African nations. In areas where New Zealand has expertise (dairying and food safety, for example) or an advantage (such as access to the South African market) there was potential for a substantial increase in trade.

    • Russell Marshall, ‘Introduction.’ In Africa: a continent on the move: implications for New Zealand, edited by Brian Lynch. Wellington: New Zealand Institute of International Affairs, 2011, p. 1. Back

Colonists, soldiers and sportsmen: 1800s to 1940s

For 19th- and early 20th-century New Zealanders, Africa was neatly divided into the white colonies of southern Africa, other British possessions, and the rest. South Africa in particular was well known – until the later 19th century shipping between Britain and Australasia often went via the Cape of Good Hope. Travelling to one colony and then, for a variety of reasons, moving on to the other was also a common experience. Among the steady trickle to and fro was George Grey, New Zealand’s governor in 1845–1853 and 1860–1868. Between his two stints in New Zealand, Grey was governor of the Cape Colony and high commissioner for South Africa.

Apart from the British possessions, the rest of the continent remained ‘darkest Africa’ for most New Zealanders. An exception was those few who went to Africa as missionaries. Christian missions were supported by New Zealand churches with money and sometimes staff through the 19th and into the 20th century. The focus was not only conversion, but education, health care and, at times, famine relief.

South African War

South Africa provided New Zealand’s first experience of war beyond its own borders. From 1899 to 1902 the British, with enthusiastic New Zealand support, fought the Boer republics. (The Boer were descendants of mainly Dutch settlers to South Africa). After the war, which Britain won, British and Boer states joined as the Union of South Africa. In 1907 New Zealand Prime Minister Joseph Ward was one of the few to object to South Africa allowing only white people to vote, as part of the Act of Union passed by the British Parliament. This was an exception – from 1910, when South Africa became a dominion, New Zealand more often supported it against British ‘interference’ in domestic matters.

Cheering for the wrong team

A match between a Māori team and the first South African rugby team to visit New Zealand in 1921 was marred for the South Africans by Pākehā onlookers cheering for the ‘wrong’ team – the Māori team. Peter Buck, a Māori leader, is said to have commented that the South Africans did not realise that Māori were Caucasian not negroid in origin.

Sporting contact

New Zealand and South African teams first played rugby against each other at the end of the South African War, and a South African side toured New Zealand in 1921. When New Zealand teams visited South Africa, Māori were not chosen because of South Africa’s race customs and laws. Although this exclusion provoked resentment among both Māori and Pākehā, it was accepted until 1970.

Although contact between New Zealand and South Africa in sports other than rugby was less common, cricket provided another important link. The first full tour to South Africa by a New Zealand side took place in 1953/54, with its high point a dramatic match at Ellis Park in Johannesburg. Several New Zealand batsmen were injured by fast bowling, but played on. After the ninth wicket fell, New Zealander Bob Blair, whose fiancée had died in the Tangiwai rail disaster the day before, unexpectedly came out to bat. The crowd stood in silence as he emerged from the tunnel.

Sporting contact sometimes led to other forms of personal and business contact.


New Zealand granted South Africa preferential tariffs in 1906. Although trade volumes were never high (both countries were primarily agricultural producers and imported manufactured goods), this preference was maintained into the second half of the 20th century.

Sheep OE

Six sheep were the second-most valuable New Zealand export to East Africa in 1924. By then New Zealand was well-established as a source of breeding stock. In the 1870s James Little of Canterbury had developed the versatile Corriedale – a breed that was shipped to south and east Africa – as a source of both meat and wool

Elsewhere in Africa trade was even more limited. By the end of the 19th century all of Africa except Ethiopia and Liberia were colonies of a European power, with Britain and France dominant. Like that of New Zealand, such countries’ trade was predominantly with the colonising country.

From East Africa (Tanganyika, Uganda, Kenya and Zanzibar), for example, New Zealand imported cocoa, coffee, spices and tobacco, in return for exports of sheep, furniture, cabinet ware, upholstery and dairy machinery. A large share of the latter was re-exported manufactured goods (generally British-made). But the trade in the early 20th century was worth less than £100 per year. In the 1920s and 1930s this increased to the low thousands. An abrupt jump during the Second World War was followed by a continuing increase in trade, with annual values reaching tens of thousands of pounds.

North Africa during the world wars

During both the First and Second world wars, New Zealand troops spent time in North Africa. During the First World War troops were based in Egypt while they trained, and the New Zealand Infantry Brigade played a small part in the British defence of the Suez Canal.

During the Second World War the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force took part in Britain’s North African campaign (1940–43). Africa was little more than the setting for the campaign, which was between European powers. The purpose of the allied campaign was to clear German and Italian forces from Egypt, Ethiopia (then known as Abyssinia), Libya and Tunisia, where they threatened supply lines through the Suez Canal and the oil on which the British war effort depended.

Politics, apartheid and sport: 1940s to 1990s

New Zealand’s limited but comfortable relationship with Africa was severely disrupted from the 1960s through to the 1990s. Sport and New Zealand’s familial relationship with South Africa and Rhodesia were central to that disruption.

South Africa introduced apartheid (a system of racial segregation) in 1948, and Southern Rhodesia declared its independence from Britain in 1965. In both countries a white minority held power, and the black majority were denied the vote, discriminated against, and at times the target of violent repression.

Multilateral organisations

The international context within which South Africa introduced apartheid and Southern Rhodesia unilaterally declared independence was hostile to both developments. After the Second World War a great wave of decolonisation washed over Africa – its high point was 1960, when 17 countries became independent. Some of these newly independent states joined the British Commonwealth, and all became members of the United Nations. A regional group – the Organisation for African Unity – was formed in 1963, and a Supreme Council for Sport in Africa was set up in 1965.


From 1960 New Zealand aid to Africa was channelled through the Special Commonwealth African Assistance Programme. Scholarships brought African students to New Zealand, a forestry training centre was set up in Kenya, machinery was given to agricultural training centres in Zambia and a correspondence school in Malawi, a milk processing plant was set up in Tanzania, and Ghana was helped with its school dental service. But Africa was not a priority for New Zealand aid, and the amount spent was less than 10% of that given to the Asia-focused Colombo Plan.

The Commonwealth ceased to frame New Zealand’s interactions with Africa in the 1960s, when South Africa resigned its membership (1961) and Southern Rhodesia was expelled (1965). The old ‘white’ members were now outnumbered by African and Asian nations. Bitter debates took place in the mid-1960s, almost splitting the Commonwealth. New Zealand Prime Minister Keith Holyoake was so angered by the activism of new Commonwealth members that he refused to attend, or send a senior government minister to, a Commonwealth heads of government meeting in Nigeria in 1966.

United Nations

As the African states became more numerous and first South Africa and then Rhodesia reinforced their discriminatory regimes, the weight of United Nations opinion shifted. Resolutions called for an end to one aspect or another of race discrimination, expressed blanket opposition to apartheid, denied South Africa’s right to occupy South-West Africa (which would become Namibia in 1990), and urged that cultural, sporting, political and trade interactions with South Africa and Rhodesia be ended. Until the end of the 1960s New Zealand usually abstained from voting on these resolutions. During the 1970s and early 1980s its voting record was a patchwork of yes, no and abstention. At the same time New Zealand had ongoing contact with South Africa and, until 1980, Rhodesia.

Politics and sport

During the 55 years following the Second World War, only Labour governments found Africa of great interest. Norman Kirk believed in the importance of the decolonisation process and the Commonwealth. The National government that followed Kirk’s used sporting contact with South Africa to appeal to the electorate in 1975 and 1981.

The rugby tours that resulted caused deep anger among African nations. The 1976 tour of South Africa was a diplomatic disaster without precedent. The 1981 tour, which caused much turmoil in New Zealand, resulted in the country’s 1982 attempt to win a seat on the United Nations’ Security Council failing. International sporting events involving New Zealand participation, including the Montreal Olympics, were boycotted, and New Zealand’s international reputation for excellent race relations was damaged.

With the election in New Zealand of another Labour government in 1984, the end of the apartheid regime in South Africa a decade later, and the failure of Rhodesia’s white regime, the heat went out of New Zealand’s relationship with Africa.

Family sympathy

Some white Rhodesians migrating to New Zealand entered under the radar, using their British passports. Many New Zealanders were comfortable with this, seeing Rhodesia’s white minority (who, unlike white South Africans, were all British in origin) as kith and kin for whom, said Prime Minister Keith Holyoake, they felt ‘nothing but admiration’.1

Migration to New Zealand

The African community in New Zealand is small, and overwhelmingly white. The number of white South Africans and Rhodesians in New Zealand was low until white rule was challenged, when numbers swelled. There were 2,685 South Africans in New Zealand in 1986; by 2006 there were 41,676, most of them white.

    • Quoted in Malcolm McKinnon, Independence and foreign policy: New Zealand in the world since 1935. Auckland: Auckland University Press, 1993, p. 237. Back

External links and sources

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Megan Cook, 'Africa and New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 25 June 2024)

Story by Megan Cook, published 20 June 2012