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Anti-racism and Treaty of Waitangi activism

by Robert Consedine

In the 1960s Pākehā New Zealanders subscribed to a belief in racial harmony, while passing legislation to confiscate Māori-owned land. Since the 1980s governments have been more open about acknowledging and addressing racial injustices. As ethnic diversity has increased, new forms of racism have been confronted.

Early attitudes and anti-racism

‘He iwi tahi tātou’ (often translated as ‘We are one people’), announced British representative William Hobson at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840.1 Since then New Zealand has frequently claimed that its race relations are the finest in the world. However racism, the belief that one group of people is superior to another on the basis of characteristics they did not choose, has also been present from its colonial beginnings. New Zealand has always been an isolated country, with relatively little ethnic diversity for much of its history, and this has encouraged intolerance of ethnic differences.

Early colonial attitudes to race

In the mid-19th century, as large numbers of European migrants began arriving, European attitudes towards race and the domination of indigenous peoples were becoming more liberal. The worldwide movement to abolish slavery was near the peak of its influence. The damaging effects of colonisation on the indigenous populations in places such as Australia and French Polynesia disturbed many Europeans. Some migrants to New Zealand regarded Māori as superior to other colonised peoples.

These attitudes contributed to the climate of feeling that resulted in the Treaty of Waitangi, which offered Māori the rights of British citizens. This was ‘the fairest treaty ever made by Europeans with a native race’, according to a textbook used by all New Zealand schoolchildren in the 1920s and 1930s.2 The New Zealand Constitution Act 1852, based partly on the treaty, gave Māori males the right to vote on the same basis as European males.

Upholding the Treaty of Waitangi

However, very soon after the signing of the Treaty there were indications that many of its promises were not being kept. Only a small number of Māori men were actually able to exercise their right to vote since, like Pākehā voters, they needed to own or rent land (Māori land was traditionally communally owned).

In the late 1840s the Waikato chief Te Wherowhero wrote to Queen Victoria protesting at breaches of the Treaty. In 1884 and 1914 two of his descendants led delegations to Britain seeking to have the Treaty of Waitangi recognised. Both were unsuccessful.

A philo-Māori writes

Sarah Selwyn, along with her husband Bishop G. A. Selwyn, was appalled at the government’s 1860 decision to enforce the purchase of land in Taranaki. She wrote, ‘It is strange how coolly even right-thinking people consign a whole people to destruction as something inevitable, as no blot upon the so-called superior race … assuming the natives are rebels before they have done one single thing to prove themselves to be so.’3


The term ‘philo-Māori’ (or ‘Māori-lover’) was used, usually in a hostile sense, by mid-19th-century journalists and politicians to refer to those Pākehā who were seen as supporting Māori and therefore obstructing the interests of settlers. Philo-Māori were usually familiar with the Māori language and had strong connections with the government in Britain. Many were associated with the Anglican Church. The missionary Octavius Hadfield, for example, wrote a series of pamphlets criticising the government’s policies in Taranaki. When these were published in London in the 1860s, many settlers regarded his actions as bordering on treason.

A colonial official, Walter Mantell, had helped to deprive South Island Māori of nearly all their land, and later bitterly regretted what he came to regard as an unjust process. He became a minister in several governments but resigned each time because the government failed to honour its promises to Ngāi Tahu.

In 1883 George Rusden, an Australian civil servant and historian, published a History of New Zealand, which set out a long list of violations of the Treaty of Waitangi.

    • Quoted in William Colenso, The authentic and genuine history of the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi. Christchurch: Capper Press, 1971, p. 17 (originally published 1890). Back
    • Michael King, The Penguin history of New Zealand illustrated. Auckland: Penguin, 2007, p. 402. Back
    • Quoted in Frances Porter and Charlotte Macdonald, eds, ‘My hand will write what my heart dictates’: the unsettled lives of women in nineteenth century New Zealand as revealed to sisters, family and friends. Auckland: Auckland University Press with Bridget Williams Books, 1996, p. 121. Back

First sporting contacts with South Africa

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 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.

    • Quoted in R. Thompson, Retreat from apartheid – New Zealand’s sporting contacts with South Africa. Dunedin: Otago University Press, 1975, p. 12. Back
    • Retreat from apartheid, p. 17. Back
    • Quoted in Trevor Richards, Dancing on our bones: New Zealand, South Africa, rugby and racism. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1999, p. 12. Back
    • Retreat from apartheid, p. 14. Back
    • Retreat from apartheid, p. 15. Back

Opposing domestic and international racism, 1960s and 1970s

Myth of racial harmony

Until the 1960s many Pākehā New Zealanders, including those opposed to racially selected sports teams, believed their own country’s race relations were beyond reproach. They assumed full equality between Māori and Pākehā was an established part of the New Zealand way of life. Only occasional voices suggested otherwise.

One was Professor Ivan Sutherland, an anthropologist teaching at Canterbury University College. In 1935 Sutherland wrote The Maori situation, an appeal for a more sympathetic understanding of the Māori point of view. In 1940 he edited a general survey of the condition of Māori, The Maori people today. These books and Sutherland’s later efforts on behalf of Māori led the Ngāti Porou people to name him Paikea, after their most famous ancestor.

Discrimination against Māori remained widespread. A US psychologist visiting New Zealand in the 1950s, David Ausubel, was appalled at the level of racial discrimination he observed – in Pukekohe, South Auckland, Māori were barred from hotel bars and barbershops and restricted to the back stalls of the movie theatre until the early 1960s.

Citizens Association for Racial Equality

When a fourth Springbok tour to New Zealand was planned for 1965, public opposition led to the formation of New Zealand’s first specifically anti-racist organisation. The Citizens Association for Racial Equality (CARE) was formed in Auckland in 1964. The group aimed to devote equal attention to racial questions in New Zealand and abroad. As well as protesting against the 1965 tour, they began considering the problems faced by Māori and Polynesians moving to the cities. CARE set up the first Citizens Advice Bureau, and made a submission opposing the Maori Affairs Amendment Act 1967, which allowed the confiscation of unused Māori land, but not unused land owned by Europeans.

Tom Newnham was CARE’s secretary from 1966 and helped organise nationwide protest against a proposed tour of South Africa by an all-white All Black team in 1967. The New Zealand government was, by then, prepared to put pressure on the Rugby Football Union, which cancelled the planned tour.

Keeping politics in sport

Groups opposed to sporting contacts with South Africa were regularly accused of being ‘anti-sport’. This accusation was flung during one public meeting in the mid-1970s. HART activist and sports fanatic Dave Wickham shouted back, ‘Okay, let’s start with the 1960 All Blacks. You name the backs and I’ll name the forwards – or would you rather do it the other way round?’1 The meeting dissolved into laughter and applause for the anti-apartheid speakers.

Halt All Racist Tours (HART)

Another All Black tour was planned for 1970. To organise opposition to it, Trevor Richards of the New Zealand University Students’ Association formed Halt All Racist Tours (HART) in 1969.

Māori groups such as the Māori Organisation on Human Rights, led by Tamatekapua Poata, also spoke out against this tour. Syd Jackson, leader of the New Zealand Federation of Māori Students, said his members opposed the tour even if Māori players were included. In 1970 and 1976 the All Blacks toured South Africa with Māori team members, who were declared to be ‘honorary whites’.

Links with international anti-racist groups

The anti-racism movement had become openly anti-apartheid and had an international focus. Strong links developed with overseas bodies such as the Organisation of African Unity, the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa, the United Nations and the governments of Tanzania and Nigeria. In 1971 HART and CARE called on the government to make guidelines for sporting contacts with South Africa, but without success. When a further Springbok tour was scheduled for 1973, HART threatened nationwide non-violent disruption. It was confronted by equally vehement pro-tour groups such as War Against Recreational Disruption (WARD), which claimed 3,000 members. The government believed the proposed tour would strain domestic race relations, and it was cancelled.

    • Quoted in Trevor Richards, Dancing on our bones: New Zealand, South Africa, rugby and racism. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1999, p. 48. Back

Organising against racism, 1970s to early 21st century

New anti-racist groups

In the early 1970s new anti-racism organisations were formed to address the consequences of colonisation. Ngā Tamatoa, made up of young Māori, campaigned on issues such as the loss of land and language, and breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi. The group Te Rōpū Matakite o Aotearoa campaigned against the loss of Māori land and organised the huge 1975 Māori land march, bringing Māori political issues to national attention.

Waitangi Day became known for colourful protest actions, especially by Māori under the banner of the Waitangi Action Committee.

Māori and non-Māori worked together on issues of domestic racism during protests over dawn raids by police on the homes of Pacific Island overstayers, who had come to New Zealand on temporary work permits, and over the return of Māori land at Raglan and at Bastion Point in Auckland.

Ending the dawn raids

Dawn raids by police on Pacific Island overstayers were a major concern of anti-racist groups in the mid-1970s. The Citizens Association for Racial Equality (CARE) mobilised other groups to campaign for a fairer immigration policy, and for better conditions for Pacific Island migrant workers. In March 1974 CARE, Ngā Tamatoa, the Polynesian Panthers, trade unions and other groups picketed the liner Ocean Monarch in Auckland to prevent it deporting Tongan overstayers. The ship’s British crew supported the picket and refused to sail with the overstayers on board. The government rushed through a new immigration policy the following day.

1981 Springbok tour

When a South African rugby tour of New Zealand was proposed for 1981, the anti-racism movement grew larger and more unified. Coalitions of anti-tour groups arose in the main centres. In Auckland MOST (Mobilisation to Stop the Tour) was established, and in Wellington COST (Coalition to Oppose the Springbok Tour). While the Springbok team was touring the country more than 1,500 people were charged with protest-related offences. The protest campaign galvanised and strengthened New Zealand’s anti-racist movement. After 1981, no more racially selected Springbok teams toured New Zealand.

Actions against institutional racism

Longstanding issues of racism within official institutions also came to the fore. In 1970 the Nelson Māori Committee began giving legal advice to young Māori appearing in court, highlighting the institutional racism of the judicial system. In 1973 the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination (ACORD) was formed to research and expose institutional racism in the education, health and social welfare systems, as well as the police and the courts, and to promote biculturalism. Together with Ngā Tamatoa and the Polynesian Panther Party, formed in 1971 by New Zealand-born Pacific Islanders, ACORD set up New Perspectives on Race to provide anti-racism workshops in churches, community groups and government departments.

In 1984 the Women’s Anti-racism Action Group, comprising staff of the Department of Social Welfare in Auckland, published a report on institutional racism in their workplace. As a result, the government later undertook to respond better to the needs of Māori. Various anti-racism groups were also active in their local communities. In Wellington, Double Take and Urban Training to Combat Racism were formed in 1978. Fight Against Institutional Racism emerged in Palmerston North. In 1982 members of mainstream churches launched the Programme on Racism to educate fellow churchgoers. The programme held anti-racism workshops and published a monthly newsletter.

Project Waitangi

In 1985 a national anti-racism programme, Project Waitangi, was launched to educate New Zealand communities on the Treaty of Waitangi. Project Waitangi had a mainly Pākehā membership but regarded itself as accountable to Māori views. By 1990, the 150th anniversary of the signing of the treaty, it aimed to educate as many New Zealanders as possible about the treaty’s place in present-day New Zealand society. Some of the original educators from Project Waitangi and other anti-racism groups continued delivering treaty education after 2000. Thousands of New Zealanders attended anti-racism and treaty workshops.

Government and community anti-racism organisations

The variety of ethnicities represented in New Zealand increased sharply from the 1960s as people emigrated from the Pacific Islands to fill gaps in the labour market. A new wave of migrants arrived from the 1990s, when immigrants from Asia were encouraged to bring their capital and skills to New Zealand. Refugees and migrants from several African countries, and from elsewhere, have contributed to a much more culturally diverse society. By 2038 it is expected that Pākehā will comprise 66% of the population, while Māori will be 20%, Asians 21%, and Pacific peoples 11% (some people identify with more than one ethnic group).

New challenges to cultural and ethnic diversity, and new forms of ethnic intolerance, have emerged. Both community and government organisations have been formed to combat discrimination and to support ethnic, migrant and refugee communities.

Earning international respect

In 1996 New Zealand Prime Minister Jim Bolger officially apologised to the people of South Africa for the 1981 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand. Later that year, at the suggestion of former HART activist Trevor Richards, Labour leader Helen Clark moved that Parliament ‘acknowledges the importance of the contribution made by New Zealand citizens and organisations over the period 1948 to 1990 to national and international campaigns against apartheid; [and] recognises that their contribution … was also responsible for earning New Zealand enduring international respect’.1 The motion was carried unanimously.

Human Rights Commission

The Office of the Race Relations Conciliator was established in 1971 to promote positive race relations in New Zealand, and to settle complaints of racial discrimination, racial harassment and incitement of racial disharmony. In 1977 the Human Rights Commission, Te Kāhui Tika Tangata, was formed to promote a wider range of human rights issues than the race relations conciliator did. In 2001 the Office of the Race Relations Conciliator merged with the Human Rights Commission and a new race relations commissioner was established to investigate complaints of unlawful discrimination in public life, including in employment; access to public places, vehicles and facilities; provision of goods and services; accommodation and education.

Treaty of Waitangi

From the 1980s the Treaty of Waitangi came to assume far greater importance in New Zealand life. The authority of the Waitangi Tribunal was extended in 1985 to consider claims for any breach of the treaty since 1840. In 1987 the Court of Appeal ruled that the treaty embodied specific principles applying to the present day, and these were subsequently included in more than 30 pieces of legislation. Constitutional arrangements, economic development, land, language, science, health, education, justice, intellectual property, and fishing and resource management and ownership were all affected. This in turn created responsibilities for government departments and the need for further treaty education.

Te Tiriti o Waitangi is entrenched in New Zealand’s political structure and is integral to the social and economic development of the country. Public debate about the future of the treaty relationship in a multi-cultural society will continue, as the population continues to change.

    • Trevor Richards, Dancing on our bones: New Zealand, South Africa, rugby and racism. Wellington: Bridget Williams Books, 1999, p. 252–3. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Robert Consedine, 'Anti-racism and Treaty of Waitangi activism', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 17 June 2024)

He kōrero nā Robert Consedine, i tāngia i te 5 o Mei 2011, reviewed & revised 28 o Mei 2018