Māori had long held concerns over sporting contacts with apartheid-era South Africa, but protests began in 1960. Prior to this New Zealand Māori rugby teams played against the Springboks in 1921 and 1956. The problem to come was foreshadowed in the 1921 match played in Napier, after which a South African journalist sent a telegram home.
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 a racially selected team. 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, with the slogan ‘No Maoris, no tour’. Anglican bishop Wiremu Panapa (Ngāti Ruanui, Te Rarawa) led a petition for equality between Māori and Pākehā over not just the tour but in New Zealand society. The tour went ahead anyway.
In 1967 a tour of South Africa was cancelled by the governmnent 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 the South African government to certain ethnicities, giving them most of the rights of white citizens. 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 (Ngāpuhi, Ngāti Hine) 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 of Prime Minister Norman Kirk forestalled planned protest action 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. By now both the Māori protest movement and the 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 was not always an easy one. Some issues supported by Māori protesters – particularly their emphasis on New Zealand racism and push for mana motuhake – did not always sit well with Pākehā protesters. Many demonstraters were arrested and charged as protests became increasingly militant.
Rugby protest outcomes
The 1981 tour was the last time the All Blacks would play the Springboks while the apartheid system survived. A 1985 All Black tour to South Africa was cancelled after a legal challenge, though nearly all of those selected joined a rebel squad which went to South Africa the following year. Following the end of apartheid in the early 1990s, the impact on South Africa of New Zealand protests became clearer. President Nelson Mandela remembered that when in his prison cell on Robben Island he heard that the Hamilton game in 1981 had been called off 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 meeting 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 initially stated that this was not the right time to apologise, but later followed suit.