Social activism in New Zealand


There was so much wrong with the New Zealand of the 1980’s. It was the decade in which the Government of Robert Muldoon nearly bankrupted the country. It was the decade of the Springbok tour and the associated unrest. It was also the decade that French government agents bombed the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland Harbour. But out of the latter two arose a New Zealand social conscience that few realized we were capable of.

The divisions in New Zealand society along racial lines were exposed graphically to the world when the South African Rugby Union tour of New Zealand took place in 1981. This tour, consisting of a South African team of entirely European lineage, was a watershed. It came at a time when the Muldoon Government was showing intolerance towards over stayers, mainly of South Pacific origin and powerful Hikoi’s lead by people such as Dame Whina Cooper were descending on Parliament to display frustration Maori social issues. South Africa was in the grip of its Apartheid regime then and nations were threatening to boycott international competitions in New Zealand if we did not reject the South African tour.

The tour was approved by Mr Muldoon. New Zealand divided into two camps – the pro-tour and the anti-tour. The pro-tour were mainly those who just wanted to see some rugby, without caring about the politics. The anti-tour was about highlighting the wrongness of a team chosen by race, and not by sporting ability. But by the time it reached Auckland, having worked its way up from Dunedin against the backdrop of increasingly violent demonstrations, it had attracted world attention. The violence including flour bombs being dropped on the rugby field from aircraft, pitched battles with riot police, pitch invasions and other disruptive activity. At least one match had to be abandoned. It was a hugely damning indictment on the Government of the day, but years later, the late Nelson Mandela gave thanks to New Zealand for its stand.

It was the naked act of terrorism and the consequences of it that defined New Zealand foreign policy for much of the next two decades. It was also the defiance, the resolute courage with which New Zealand stood on the world stage and called out the French. In one move the prestige of a small south Pacific island nation rose to an unprecedented level, whilst the French lost much respect amongst the Pacific island nations. But in the decades since then, our participation in wars that we have had no good reason to be involved in, our increasing reluctance to be the leader we once were, have left me wondering how we could revive the social activism without winding New Zealand society on the whole back to those heady days of the 1980’s.

Winston Churchill once said, “so you made an enemy? Good. That means you stood up for something in your life”, or words to that effect. Whilst not quite expecting or wanting people to make foes, social activism that does not intrude unreasonably on other peoples lives or property, is quite fine. Not all social activist organizations respect this unfortunately – a good case in point is the Greenpeace desecration of the Nazca Lines, a United Nations World Heritage site in Peru, where damage that might not be repairable was done to geoglyphs depicting animals of significance to the Nazca people.

There are reservations about organizations that conduct activism. Some people mistakenly believe that Amnesty International for example is a political organization because of its frequent interaction with Government figures. Whilst this is true, the organization receives no funding of any sort from politicians, politically aligned organizations or political parties, because to do so would be to take away the independence that it needs to conduct its activism and human rights advocacy work.

A perhaps bigger issue is the transparency of funding. Where does a donation one makes go once it has been made. Does it go to where the organization says it will? Not necessarily. Some organizations have been found to be spending less than 1/3 of the money they get in donations on what they said it would go to. Know the organization you want to support.

We need people to be aware of what is happening in society. When the Government commits a grievous wrong against its population it needs to be told so. We need people and organizations who are able and willing to make a stand. Although there is general consensus the Springbok protests of 1981 were a force for the good, the methods used had a high risk of causing injury or even deaths. Direct activism has a time and place, but it should not precede peaceful methods first. But the peaceful activist who writes letters to politicians, organizes demonstrations, carries out fundraising and awareness raising and does all of this peacefully, with respect for people and property, they can go far.

And so they should.

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