(Reprinted from Herald on Sunday, 15 December 2013)
What an insult that John Key appointed Jim Bolger and Don McKinnon as part of a five-person New Zealand delegation to Nelson Mandela’s memorial services.
Both were members of a National government that supported apartheid and labelled Mandela a terrorist. They cynically used the Springbok rugby propaganda tour in 1981 to whip up the redneck base for electoral purposes. On the back of the carnage the tour caused, their party called a snap election and scraped home by one seat.
I’ll always remember Ben Couch on television, the sole Maori in the cabinet, actually supporting white rule over blacks. When African countries protested against the tour, the National Party retorted they were supporters of terrorism. We had already wrecked the 1976 Olympics after many countries boycotted us as a result of the All Blacks’ tour of South Africa in 1975. After the British Commonwealth’s Secretary General joined in the protest Muldoon dismissed the Commonwealth as irrelevant. How galling that McKinnon later took the Commonwealth top job and hobnobs at Mandela’s memorial services on our behalf.
When Mandela became South Africa’s president, Bolger and other National MPs who had supported apartheid sycophantically queued for photo opportunities with the newly christened “freedom fighter”.
Most former apartheid apologists whitewash (pun intended) their history. Key goes to another level. He claims with a straight face that as a 20-year-old university student at the time of the Springbok tour he can’t recall if he had an opinion. Apparently he was too busy to notice the country was in virtual civil war. For a man who says he dreamed of being prime minister since he was a boy, but can’t remember what he thought during the tour reveals a lot about his character – then and now.
The lone non-government delegation member, Labour’s David Cunliffe, did consider giving up his place for John Minto, the public face of the anti-apartheid movement and the New Zealander most deserving of anyone to go. Wise advice to Cunliffe was to not play politics and so he didn’t.
The fifth delegate, Pita Sharples, offered to represent the New Zealanders who opposed the tour and the tens of thousands of protesters. No one I know remembers Sharples active in the protest. Hone Harawira prominently led the Maori-based Patu groups who were on the frontline confronting the infamous paramilitary police red squads. These were the uniformed thugs who routinely removed their identification badges before beating unarmed protesters.
When Mandela, in his cell, heard of the bravery of New Zealanders he said “it was as if the sun had come out”.
Having three of our delegation who supported or condoned apartheid is an insult to the people who fought for the cause of freedom in South Africa.
It was as if a cloud had passed over the sun.
(Matt McCarten is National Secretary of Unite Union. His weekly Herald on Sunday column is a commentary on social and political issues in New Zealand. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect the views of Unite Union.)