Rugby was the national game of both New Zealand and white South Africa, and the two countries competed fiercely on the field from the 1920s.
South Africa was ruled by a white minority which enforced rigid segregationist laws over the black majority. From 1948 a formal system of apartheid was established. Black and ‘coloured’ (mixed-race) players were excluded from the country’s national sports teams.
Pre-war rugby tours
The Springboks, South Africa’s national rugby team, first toured New Zealand in 1921. They played one close-fought match against a team of ‘New Zealand Natives’ (Māori) and a South African journalist reported that the Springboks were ‘frankly disgusted’ at playing against ‘a band of coloured men’.1 On their next tour in 1937, the Springboks refused to play an all-Māori team, although several Māori were included in the All Blacks. Te Arawa tribe called for a sporting and cultural boycott of South Africa, and most Māori supported them. Some protested with banners announcing ‘Cash before Conscience’ – tours were lucrative.
For their own good
Excluding Māori players from All Black tours to South Africa was a kindly act, claimed some supporters of apartheid sport. The South African newspaper Die Burger insisted that, ‘The decision to invite only white All Blacks is, in fact, in the interests of the Maoris themselves, for we cannot imagine that they would find the tour of [South Africa] enjoyable. Everywhere, and especially socially, incidents would threaten, and the Maoris would find how radically different things were here compared with New Zealand.’2
The All Blacks first toured South Africa in 1928 and agreed to exclude all Māori players, even outstanding performers such as the fullback George Nēpia. He wrote later that ‘the whole of New Zealand was indignant at this deference to apartheid.’3 The Akarana (Auckland) Maori Association described the exclusion as ‘a slur on the dignity and manhood of the Maori’.4 Another all-white All Black team toured in 1949, provoking much stronger protests from trade unions and cultural figures such as the writer O. E. Middleton, who said there should be no more tours to South Africa until it abandoned apartheid. Major General Howard Kippenberger, who had Māori troops under his command in the Second World War, told the Returned Services Association, ‘I am not going to acquiesce in any damned Afrikaners saying [Māori] can’t go.’5 The Springboks returned to New Zealand in 1956, and this time only the Māori Women’s Welfare League spoke out officially against their racially selected team.
First organised opposition to racist rugby
New Zealand’s first organised nationwide opposition to racist sporting contacts was in 1959, when the Rugby Football Union accepted another invitation to send an all-white team to South Africa. Many prominent New Zealanders formed the Citizens' All Black Tour Association (CABTA). Its chair was Rolland O’Regan, father of Tipene O’Regan who later became a prominent leader of Ngāi Tahu. CABTA established more than 20 regional branches and mounted a vigorous campaign with the slogan ‘No Maoris, no tour’. Around 160,000 New Zealanders signed an anti-tour petition, and thousands around the country marched in protest. This was the biggest protest against racially selected sports teams in the world at that time. However, it did not persuade New Zealand’s government to intervene to stop the tour, which went ahead in 1960.