By George Lakey
Fifty years ago, anti-apartheid activists in New Zealand overcame internal divisions and rugby fans to maintain the sports boycott against South Africa.
[Some of the signs at protests read, “Support Black Liberation” and “Don’t Play Rugby with Racists.”]
Among the leading national rugby teams in the world, New Zealand and South Africa were usually at the top. Rugby fans in both countries, therefore, were always eager to see their teams compete to see which could claim to be the best in the world.
In 1973, it was New Zealand’s turn to play host to the South African Springboks team, which would mean doing a series of games in New Zealand’s biggest stadiums.
During this same period, however, the rising global movement against racism had decided to boycott South Africa’s all-white rugby team, seeing it as a pressure point on the apartheid regime. They figured that denying the South African Springboks the opportunity to play other nations — particularly those within the British Commonwealth, where rugby was most popular — would force the South African government to change its ways.
The people in New Zealand, therefore, were heavily conflicted about the scheduled games for 1973. Rugby fans were salivating at the thought of New Zealand proving its rugby players were the best. And of course the New Zealand anti-racist movement saw a golden opportunity: The goal was to force the government to cancel the games and add pressure on South Africa to open up.
As winter of 1972 approached, I was asked by New Zealand Quakers to lead training workshops for the national movement against apartheid sport. The New Zealand movement leadership was interested in organizing mass civil disobedience if the Springboks came, but recognized that in some other countries the result had been fights, injuries and even deaths. Perhaps, they thought, training in advance could be helpful.
I happily agreed to a three week agenda: three major workshops (in Auckland, Wellington and Christchurch) for leaders and aspiring trainers who would carry on after I left. I would be taken care of by Michael and Marilyn Payne, two Quakers from Wanganui. They told me they were taking their children out of school so the whole family could accompany me on their microbus around the country.
In those days, travel to New Zealand involved stop-overs in Los Angeles, Honolulu and Tokyo before reaching Auckland. I was exhausted on arrival and relieved to see Michael waiting at the airport. “George, I must warn you,” he said. “There are mass media reporters waiting outside who will barrage you with questions as soon as we step out the door. I’m not sure I told you that the right wing in New Zealand mounted a national petition drive to persuade the government to ban you from coming on the grounds that you’re a known international radical agitator.”
“Are you serious?” I asked.
“Of course our system is highly democratic, and there’s no way the government would agree to the petition, but it does mean our media are in a frenzy about you.”
We walked through the exit door to find dozens of reporters with cameras and microphones, vying with each other to get the first question lodged. I had time for only the quickest of prayers. The questions were mostly traps, hoping for radical rhetoric on various issues most of which had nothing to do with rugby or nonviolence.
As Michael pulled me away and into the van he looked relieved, while Marilyn welcomed me with a radiant smile and their kids all talked at once. I guessed that I passed the first hurdle, although Michael said there were radio and TV interviews still to come.
The New Zealand anti-apartheid movement had two main branches: one consisting of older and more conservative people, and the other consisting of the younger radicals. The planning for the trainings was among the best I’ve seen anywhere — and had a part to play in the outcome of their struggle. A core of top leaders from the two branches would participate in all three of the trainings. Other participants would represent a geographical spread of local activists, plus six people designated to learn how to carry on the training once we were done. Care was taken to include Maoris, the indigenous people of New Zealand.
The first two trainings were similar to each other, mostly experiential activities that raised key tactical and strategic questions. For the second one, I added some excitement by taking everyone to a local tavern known as a favorite among zealous rugby fans. We stood outside and took turns street speaking with the message “Don’t import apartheid sport!” Sure enough, the customers inside were soon outside cussing and threatening, so we had a real-life chance to experiment with nonviolent de-escalation.
To add spice to the third training, I employed a little-used training tool called “the extended role play.” For this one, I created an elaborate scenario: We would pretend that activists in a rural retreat setting were training to disrupt a rugby game, when a group of die-hard rugby fans attacks their workshop, hoping to provoke them into retaliating violently. The attacking group would include a media reporter who would get photos and video of the retaliatory violence so the workshop group would be exposed as frauds. I started the roleplay at 9 p.m. with no set end time, so it could go all night if I thought that useful.
The core leaders from both branches of New Zealand’s anti-apartheid movement were the first to arrive in the workshop room after breakfast, excited to share the news. “We’ve got a plan to protest the Springboks that we all agree with” they told me. “We came here thinking that could never happen, given our differences. But we nailed it, and we’ll be more powerful together.”
“Great” I exclaimed. “But please don’t tell the rest of the group until we’re done with the debrief of the extended roleplay. That’s what they’ll mostly be thinking about.” They nodded with understanding, and then I asked what got them to create a plan they all agreed on.
“Last night’s roleplay” they said, some looking surprised that I hadn’t figured that out. “Our group of leaders was mixed up on both of the two sides of last night’s fight. The shake-up brought a new point of view.”
The day after the exhausting final workshop concluded, I was looking just to hang with the family, but Michael said he’d gotten a call from the police commissioner of New Zealand, which — unlike the U.S. — has a national system for policing. “He wants an off-the-record meeting with you,” Michael continued. “I very much hope you’ll do it.”
I agreed, and we shared a group hug, with the children grabbing legs and waists.
When we met, the police commissioner explained that he’d deliberately set the meeting after regular office hours. “It’s an off-the-record meeting. After all the media attention, I wanted to meet you personally. I hope you’ll understand.”
“You won’t be surprised to learn that we had one of our people in the training, so I know what the plan is that the leaders crafted while doing your workshops. The government will cancel the Springboks tour.”
When I asked the commissioner to explain why, he said, “I was hoping the movement would plan to mass their forces, call on the anti-apartheid movement to come together in Wellington and do civil disobedience together. We could handle that. What we can’t handle is the strategy of de-centralized civil disobedience actions at stadium locations.”
I wanted to test his thinking. “Why not deputize additional forces to help you?”
“Because deputies in a politically polarized situation like that are undisciplined, useless. Our professional police would have to focus on controlling the deputies.”
“Well then, why not get help from the army?” I asked.
“That’s what Australia did in a similar situation a few years ago. Some protesters got killed and the government fell. No, it’s obvious that your workshops generated a plan we can’t handle.” He paused, then said “The anti-apartheid movement won.”
Even the cramped, long hours of airplane-riding back home didn’t stop my smile from coming back again and again.
George Lakey’s forthcoming memoir”Dancing with History: A Life for Peace and Justice” includes other stories of strategy and training. Order an advance copy ahead of the Nov. 15 release.
This article was published on October 11, 2022, at Waging NonViolence.