If the historical footage is any indication, the protesters who demonstrated in the streets, clashed with police and attempted to disrupt the games during the 1981 Springbok rugby union tour of New Zealand didn’t chant Nelson Mandela’s name. They chanted Steven Biko’s and Amandla Ngawethu. The near-exclusive identification of Mandela with the global struggle against Apartheid came later, but has affected those events retroactively, to the point of grafting itself onto some personal recollections. ‘The Specials’ “Free Nelson Mandela” was the soundtrack to that year,’ wrote Michele A’Court in one of our newspapers this week. But no, it can’t be. The song wasn’t recorded until 1984.
Memory can be tricky like that. But one aspect on which people who lived through those years seem especially unanimous is the rift that the issue provoked, both within (and between) families, and within (and between) entire sectors of society. Even if you didn’t protest or directly oppose the protests, you weren’t allowed not to have an opinion or to refuse to pick a side. Political memory can be tricky, too, so we may wish to test this narrative against the documents produced at the time. But even if it were true only in hindsight, the perception that a stand was required of the entire nation would still matter a great deal. For then who would want to be the one who says: ‘not me’? Or: ‘this history of which you speak, it didn’t really concern me’?
That would be John Key, my prime minister. Asked in a radio interview where he stood on the subject of the 1981 Springbok Tour, the normally relaxed, affable Key broke into a nervous laugh followed by some mumbling, and then offered one or two hesitant declaratives that amounted to look, I don’t know, it was a long time ago, I don’t remember, while the subtext was a much sharper why in the world are you asking me this?! It was a rare, unscripted moment, in which Key’s remarkable instinct for the politically safe ground failed him: here was an issue in which he couldn’t articulate a position that didn’t risk alienating someone, and so he produced an answer likely to alienate everyone. You could either believe him, and conclude that he was a man of little conviction, or disbelieve him, and reason that he was trying to soften his image or hide his true beliefs from the public. The outside possibility – that a young man of twenty, in his first year at university, might really not have cared to such an extent that it would make no sense to ask him, three decades later, about his feelings – was both inconsistent with the ‘rift’ narrative and with the retrospectively constructed image of a man who would one day be a prime minister.
Asked later to clarify those comments, and after having had time no doubt to discuss the best course of action with his advisors, Key characterised his position as having been anti-Apartheid, but very mildly pro-Tour, which was the safest course out of those particular shallows. But now that Mandela has died the spectre haunts him again, of a past carelessly remembered, as he selects a delegation that fails pitifully to account for it.
It is a complicated, tortuous past, in which the racial politics of segregation abroad is mixed in with the struggle for Indigenous rights and sovereignty at home, and in which politics intrudes – almost always unwelcome – in the national sport, our layman’s religion. It’s a long history, too. The ban on non-white players touring South Africa had sparked the ‘No Maoris, No Tour’ campaign of 1960. There was an aborted tour, in 1973, when the Labour Government of Norman Kirk kept the Springboks out. There was the boycott by twenty-five nations of the 1976 Olympic Games, after the All Blacks toured South Africa in defiance of the international community.
1981 is when things came to a head. In spite of New Zealand having since signed up to the Gleneagles Agreement, Tory Prime Minister Rob Muldoon gave the Springboks permission to enter the country, after an invitation was extended to them again by the local rugby union. The team had to fly via Los Angeles and Hawaii, as Malcolm Fraser refused to allow the plane to refuel in Australia. When they arrived, they were met by an organisation – Halt All Racist Tours – that had been active, on and off, for over a decade, and had solid ties with the trade unions and with the Maori militants that had fought in struggles such as the occupation of Bastion Point. It’s no coincidence, in fact, that the most vivid document of the two months that followed was produced by the same filmmaker who directed Bastion Point: Day 507, which chronicles the day in 1978 when the police and the army put an end to the occupation, making over two-hundred arrests.
Merata Mita’s Patu! is a raw, unflinching, extraordinary film. While it speaks for a movement that was clearly conscious of the need to document itself – the footage, recorded by camera-people working in each of the major centres where the protests took place, includes planning meetings and even training sessions on how to occupy the grounds and resist removal – its true force lies in the ability to show the actions of the police up close, often from within their ranks and to profoundly alienating effect. Thus the movement’s moment of glory – when protesters successfully occupied the ground in Hamilton forcing the cancellation of the second game of the Tour – is greeted by Mita without triumphalism, as if she were anxious to get to the repression to follow, after the army became involved and the police attacked peaceful marchers in a reprisal action in Wellington. The protesters would never succeed in disrupting a game again: we stand with them impotent, looking over through the barbed wire or over walls of shipping containers erected around the rugby grounds. We look outward, again, from the chilling viewpoint of the police in riot gear. We advance, our batons thrusting forward in a stabbing motion, while they chant ‘Biko! Biko! Biko!’ in obsessive monotone.
The history of protest and struggle is also always the history of repression, and of that encounter with the might of the state that shocks each generation of militants as they come of age. That is the central subject of Patu!, and with it comes the reminder of what it is that we are actually called upon to remember: a painful struggle locked inside other struggles, with no discernable solution or end.