On 13 August 1921, the ‘Springboks’ and the All Blacks played each other for the first time in a rugby test.
The Springbok team was, of course, all white. Unquestioningly so. Why? Somma.
Long before the rise to power of the Afrikaner-dominated National Party, rugby was considered by the those who ran the country as a ‘white-man’s’ sport. It didn’t matter an iota to them that black South Africans throughout the country played the game with refreshing vigour and impressive skill, even while being forced to use vastly inferior facilities.
And the All Blacks? Well, who knows?
Whether hosts or visitors, the South Africans wanted their opponents to be all white. But remember, New Zealanders did not know – at that point anyway – about the ‘pencil-test’ and what scale of skin colour constituted ‘white’.
But that’s another story.
What I want to highlight here is that there will be an almighty knees-up to celebrate 100 years of arm-wrestling, pretending and let’s be honest, scumbaggery over race next the two teams meet in a few weeks.
I’m convinced that the story that will be published in South Africa will be painted over with candy floss, fake smiles and never-ending love stories.
The PR people must not be allowed to get away with this.
It is for this reason that it is so important that those who care about the history of sport in this country – in this instance, rugby – remember what the journey (still unfinished, in my opinion) has entailed, and what must still be done.
One hundred years ago, on that first tour, a match between the Springboks and the New Zealand Maoris became mired in bitter controversy, both before and after the game….
A Māori player told RH Chester and NAC McMillan, authors of 1990 book The Visitors, that Afrikaner members of the South African team had turned their backs on a poi (a ball on a chord procedure) and a singing performance by a group of Māori girls. ‘We were seething with anger as we waited for the kick-off,’ the player recalled.
The match itself bubbled with tension when a large crowd performed the famed haka throughout proceedings, while roaring their support for the home team.
Then, a report by a travelling South African journalist, CWE Blackett, to South African newspapers added fuel to the fire. ‘Most unfortunate match ever played,’ he wrote … ‘Bad enough having [to] play [a] team officially designated New Zealand natives, but [the] spectacle [of] thousands [of] Europeans frantically cheering on [a] band of coloured men to defeat members of [their] own race was too much for [the] Springboks who [were] frankly disgusted.’
Inevitably, the cable was leaked by a post office employee to Napier’s Daily Telegraph, and caused deep anger in New Zealand.
Despite calls by Māori leaders for a boycott of South Africa, officials agreed to send a team to South Africa in 1928 – and to rub salt into the wounds, New Zealand authorities acceded to a South African demand that they do not choose ‘indigenous’ players. The result was that two of their best players – George Nepia and Jimmy Mill – were sidelined.
Nepia criticised his home union for its policy of appeasement towards the South Africans. It was prepared to sacrifice its Maori players for the sake of maintaining ties with South Africa, he argued.
And he was right.
But rugby officials justified their decision by arguing that they did not want their star players to be ‘insulted’ on racial grounds.
The All Blacks were back in South Africa in 1949, a year after the National Party came into power – but with no change of attitude, from their or the South African side. Star players such as brothers Johnny and Peter Smith, Vince Bevan and Ben Couch were simply dropped.
But storm clouds were gathering….
Calls for New Zealanders to pick their own teams grew ever louder, even though the arrogant South African Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd swatted them away. On 4 September 1965, he told a gathering of the faithful at Loskop Dam in present-day Mpumalanga: ‘Our standpoint is that just as we subject ourselves to another country’s customs and traditions without flinching, without any criticism and cheerfully, so we expect that when another country sends representatives to us they will behave in the same way, namely not involving themselves in our affairs, and that they will adapt themselves to our customs.
‘In short, South Africa is not prepared to allow a New Zealand team containing Māoris to tour the country,’ he said.
But after the assassination of Verwoerd, and following increasing political pressure on South African sporting codes, the new South African Prime Minister, BJ Vorster, performed a masterful sleight of hand which caused consternation – and, indeed, a political breakway (the formation of the HNP) – among parts of the volk: with a stroke of a pen, Vorster allowed Māori’s to become honorary whites.
The result was that an All Blacks team consisting of Samoan Bryan Williams and three Māoris – Sid Going, Buff’ Milner and Blair Furlong – arrived in South Africa in 1970.
In 1976, the year of countrywide rebellion in South Africa, the New Zealanders were back. This time the team included Williams and Going (again), Billy Bush, Tane Norton, Bill Osborne and Kent Lambert.
It must be emphasised that not all New Zealand rugby players jumped at the chance to play in and against South Africa: Some of their greatest players felt strongly enough to turn their backs on their ‘traditional’ rivals – on moral grounds: Among them were Ken Gray, Sandy McNichol, Chris Laidlaw, Bruce Robertson (who visited South Africa once, and was so disgusted with what he saw that he vowed never to play against them again), Wilson Whineray and Graham Mourie.
Sadly, others such as Don Clarke remained diehard Springbok supporters until their dying days.
Like so many others, changes proposed by apartheid South Africa, Vorster’s plans for rugby proved too little, too late.
And so, it proved, with a break finally coming with the 1981 tour – and it arrived in dramatic fashion….
Off the field events (while the game was on) in the third test between the two sides on 12 September 1981, stunned the world. In an unprecedented show of opposition to the Springboks, a New Zealander called Marx Jones flew over Eden Park, Auckland, in a small plane, dropping flour bombs over the venue while the match was in progress.
This air of unbelievability playing out high above the stadium, took place on the field too, more so when the South African captain, Wynand Claasen, asked the referee: ‘Don’t you have an airforce?
It was a bizarre quEstion on a bizarre day – but on a day that bubbled with change.