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Turning a blind eye

Updated: Jul 27, 2021

I am not the first person to say that history can teach us a lesson. So what is the lesson for today? It's about doing the right thing.

Roll back your clocks to the year 1981. My guess some of our readers were not even born then, but don't let that put your time travel off. I will be your companion on this journey to forty years hence.


For years before 1981 South Africa had a system of governance known as 'apartheid' which saw white supremacists hold all the power, and blacks impoverished. Despite reactions from the international community, the disgusting policy of apartheid continued in South Africa for more than half a century. There is copious material available about life in South Africa under apartheid - too much to cover in full here. Here are a few enlightening snippets (thanks to flokka.com):

Apartheid was introduced by the minority white population in South Africa as a result of their erroneous belief that they were the superior race and that the non-whites did not deserve to mingle with them.

The 1913 Land Act was the first formal move to establish apartheid in South Africa. It compelled what the minority, ruling class of whites termed “colored people” to live in reserve areas. These reserve areas made up only about 10% of the total land mass of the country. This act restricted the movement of non-whites to certain areas, unless they had a document authorizing their presence under the ‘pass law.’

The 1948 general election in South Africa saw the National Party come to power. The National Party was a political party focused on ethnic nationalism, and aimed to represent only the interests of the Afrikaner population to the exclusion of all other races/ethnicities in the country. The Afrikaner population in South Africa are the descendants of the white Dutch colonists who had earlier settled in the country.

By 1950, the racist ruling government classified the people of South Africa into four races: Bantus (blacks), coloured (mixed), Asian (Pakistan and Indian), and Whites. The government went even further, banning marriages between non-whites and whites.

In 1953, the education segregation law was passed, denying the non-whites access to quality education. Hendri Verwoer, the minister of native affairs affirmed that the law was meant to lure the blacks into manual labour.

16th June 1976 marked the beginning of the Soweto uprising when over 20,000 high school students protested the use of Afrikaan as a language of instruction in the non-white schools. The police opened fire on the protesters. At least 176 citizens lost their life during the Soweto saga.


Many countries had once supported the apartheid governance of South Africa - not least because they wanted the gold in South Africa, and also maritime access because South Africa was a vital point in sea trade routes. However, the geopolitical tides turned, and as a consequence of the Soweto uprising and other violent clashes, the UN Security Council placed an embargo on sale of arms to South Africa. The US and UK equally imposed economic sanctions on South Africa in 1985.


Commonwealth leaders were conscious that sport is an important means of developing and fostering understanding between people, and especially between young people, of all countries. But, they were also aware that sporting contacts with countries practising apartheid in sport tended to encourage the belief that the abhorrent apartheid policy could be overlooked, tolerated or even condoned. The government heads were also totally committed to the principles embodied in their earlier 1971 Singapore Declaration stating that apartheid in sport, as in other fields, was an abomination running directly counter to the Declaration of Commonwealth Principles.

In the Gleneagles Agreement of 1977, Commonwealth Presidents and Prime Ministers specifically agreed, as part of their support for the international campaign against apartheid, to discourage contact and competition between their sportsmen and sporting organisations, teams or individuals from South Africa. The agreement was unanimously approved by the Commonwealth of Nations at a meeting at Gleneagles, Perthshire, Scotland. (Wikipedia)


New Zealanders are fanatical about sport-especially Rugby-and the Gleneagles Agreement challenged the traditional arrangement by which South African rubgy teams (the Springboks) and New Zealand (NZ) rugby teams (the All Blacks) would tour each other's countries playing a series of high profile matches.

In the year before the Gleneagles Agreement was signed, NZ had already been embroiled in controversy after the All Blacks rugby team had gone on a tour of South Africa. This action had consequences that were seen in the 1976 Montreal Olympic Games:

"The opening ceremony of the 21st Olympic Games in Montreal has been marred by the withdrawal of 25 African countries.

They are all protesting at New Zealand's sporting links with South Africa.

The International Olympic Committee's refusal to ban New Zealand, whose rugby team is currently touring South Africa, has resulted in the boycott.

South Africa has been banned from the Olympics since 1964 for its refusal to condemn apartheid." (BBC)

Robert Muldoon, a Donald Trump-like corrosive politician used many issues during his tenure as Prime Minister of NZ to win political advantage - one of which was whether the nation should maintain sporting contacts with South Africa. Muldoon, siding with the NZ Rugby Union took the side that 'politics and sports' don't mix- that sport was sacrosanct and nothing to do with politics. Pro-rugby fanatics claimed that playing rugby with the Springboks could teach South Africa that it's okay to be multi-racial...just like NZ, and persuade them to change their discriminatory apartheid system. [Editor's note: Many people were deluded about the state of race relations in NZ at the time]

With the nation evenly divided on the matter, many NZers who were opposed to apartheid and racism wanted the Gleneagles Agreement upheld. They claimed that sporting contact with South Africa would tarnish the NZ's reputation internationally, and that the South African government would be emboldened to continue with the status quo, if sanctions and isolation were not kept strongly in place.


Muldoon set up a battle that played out on the rugby field, in the streets, within the halls of NZ's parliament and at dining tables all over the country.

Recent media commentary says NZ was pushed to the "brink of civil war". The NZ police force did their best to keep the pro-rugby fanatics, and the demonstrators opposing the Springbok tour apart. The battle split families and disrupted careers, but the fight for NZ to take a stand against South Africa’s apartheid regime was far from new.


The NZ Rugby Football Union had left rugby legend George Nēpia and other giants of the game at home in 1928 to conform with South Africa’s segregation laws.

In 1959, the Citizens’ All Black Tour Association had tried to demand “No Maoris, no tour” when Māori players were excluded from the team’s 1960 visit. They weren’t successful then, but Māori players would go on to tour South Africa as “honorary whites” in 1970 and then in 1976 – the same year as the Soweto uprising that saw hundreds of children and student protestors murdered by police.

And so when the 1981 tour was announced, numerous anti-apartheid groups such as Halt All Racist Tours (HART), Citizens Association for Racial Equality (CARE) and the Patu Squad (led by Hone Harawira, Donna Awatere, Josie Keelan and Ripeka Evans) began an organised NZwide campaign to stop it in its tracks.

Ultimately, the demonstrations and petitions to Muldoon’s government – plus a national poll showing only 46% public support for the tour – fell on deaf ears and the South African team were officially welcomed to NZ at Te Poho-o-Rawiri marae in Gisborne on July 19, 1981. What happened in the ensuing days was not pretty!

There were numerous protests in different NZ cities before the Springboks even arrived in the country, and once they did, conflict and protest followed them to every game. Games were disrupted by a level of protest rarely seen in NZ, and a match in the city of Hamilton even had to be called off as a result of protester intervention. The style of policing seen in NZ changed to meet the demands of Muldoon's government with some awful results that included protesters dressed as clowns being beaten by a trained and armed police riot squad. Of course there was also international condemnation:

"When New Zealand decided to go ahead the tour there was a lot of outcry from other countries and especially those within the commonwealth. Australia in particular didn’t like that fact that the tour went ahead. Many highly disliked New Zealand’s overall involvement with South Africa. Some saw this as a turning point for New Zealand, who was always seen as a tiny Britain in the south. People started to see New Zealand as an independent country with views that differed from the motherland. The actions that New Zealand took during the tour gave hope to Black rights activist in South Africa who thought that all hope was lost. Nelson Mandela was in prison at the time and said it was as if “the sun had come out” when he heard about the protestors causing the cancellation of the Hamilton match. Arch Bishop Desmond Tutu said that New Zealand was seen “a bosom pal who would not ever let us down.” And when this ‘friend’ started to fight for the Springbok to go home he said “This was an immense shot in the arm for us, you really can’t even compute it value, in first of all saying the world has not forgotten us, we are not all alone.” We gave both hopes to the supressed people in South Africa, and showed that we were not obedient to the [British] crown by going ahead with the tour after initially saying we wouldn’t." ( Weebly.com )

Now back to present day, and what is to be learnt from the Springbok Tour events of 1981?

Attitudes towards racism have changed markedly in forty years. We have only to consider events in the U.S. and the ongoing impact of the B.L.M. movement to see history in the making. 150years ago any advocacy for the abolition of slavery would hardly have been entertained, for example, and similarly, 100years ago there were people who scoffed at the idea of allowing women to vote.

We should note firstly, that social and political change doesn't always come about quickly. It's only in hindsight that we can reflect on how much the world, our attitudes and values have changed. And for some activists, it is a feeling of vindication, that the struggle and their commitment to that change was worth it.

The second thing to note is that things like sanctions and isolation can and do have the ability to wear stubborn opponents down. Being excluded, or being considered a pariah state is not pleasant. Nations at odds with one another are a bit like young children - while school playground ostracism can be considered akin to bullying, there are times when wayward behaviour can be modified positively through peer pressure or some other intervention.

And thirdly, there is the matter of whether it is possible through engagement with unsavoury or unfriendly people, to influence them and bring about change. So many nations thought they could trade with China, for instance, and once it was admitted to the WTO there was some opening up. Businesses that have set up shop inside China have frequently found the market a difficult one to be in for many reasons. While China may have made some trade concessions over the years since 1990, despite people's hopes, in regards to human rights and democracy things have just gotten worse!

There are other lessons to learn too about the workings of democracy, political alliances, governance and leadership, but that is enough for now.

Going forward, individual sportspeople, teams and states have to consider whether they should participate in the 2022 Winter Olympics scheduled to take place in Beijing. While there is currently no formal agreement sanctioning China, a number of its government officials are being sanctioned for various reasons. Add to that, many business and nation states have seen fit to 'decouple' from China lest they be considered an accomplice to CCP crimes against humanity, lest they give the communist party a signal that they can do whatever they want to anywhere they wish and get away with it!

WTPOHK have many blogs about the human rights atrocities [genocide] taking place in China. Just consider how China treats its neighbours -Taiwan and Hong Kong that it considers its own - Japan, India, The Phillippines. Then there is the growing worldwide body of feeling that CCP has to be held accountable for the current pandemic that first came to scientific and medical attention in Wuhan. There is mistrust of the role of China internationally, especially from its hamfisted attempts at global diplomacy, and things like its 'debt-trap' belt and road initiative.

The threat of an Olympic boycott is real enough - one commentator saying that there is a massive overlap between Western liberal democracies and medal contenders in the Winter Games – enough to gut Beijing’s Olympic dreams.

For CCP it's about saving face, controlling the narrative by denying any and all wrongdoing. Chinese officials, aware of the possibility of a boycott and a global campaign that is gathering steam, are already applying pressure where they can to ensure the Beijing games go ahead.

International awareness is growing of CCP's own racist and supremacist attitudes favouring the Han, and of ongoing repression of religious and cultural minorities. The CCP policy regarding Hong Kong is downright assimilationist, and many international rules and conventions are variously flouted or reinterpreted to suit the party aims. The question is whether the international community has unity to respond appropriately to the CCP problem.

In early April 2021, China's government warned Washington not to boycott next year's Winter Olympics in Beijing after the Biden administration said it was talking with allies about a joint approach to complaints of human rights abuses. A Foreign Ministry spokesperson also rejected accusations of abuses against ethnic minorities in the Xinjiang region. He warned of an unspecified "robust Chinese response" to a potential Olympics boycott.


What CCP has not yet factored into its trajectory going forward is the continuing impact of the Covid pandemic. With the 2020 Olympics in Japan delayed for a whole year, the CCP is being typically bullish and arrogant that it can pull the 2022 games off.

If I was an athlete going there, I would have to remain tight-lipped about any aspect of Chinese politics, or Chinese culture, Chinese laws, the security forces, the accommodation and so on,... for fear of imprisonment, or physical attack on foreigners by crazed nationalist citizens. Would you be comfortable knowing that your presence, like the engagement of the All Blacks with the Springboks, would lend legitimacy to a dictatorial regime responsible for gross human rights, countless deaths, and ongoing injustice?

In June 2021 the U.S. issued a travel advisory stating that China has demonstrated its intention to target a broad range of activities it defines as acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign entities. The advisory notes:

Foreigners in the PRC, including but not limited to businesspeople, former foreign government personnel, and journalists from Western countries, have been arbitrarily interrogated and detained by PRC officials for alleged violations of PRC national security laws.

Sports people could be next!

In July 2021 Foreign journalists covering serious floods in China were harassed by Chinese citizens on the hunt for BBC reporter, and they told forcefully not to say anything negative about China. This raises the concern that anything said by any sportsperson in the Olympics could potentially be taken out of context. No sportsperson needs to have these types of issues hanging over them during an intense and challenging international sports competition!

The IOC has a lot to answer for its own 'values' in selecting host countries and cities - especially in the age of COVID-19 when China has no viable high efficacy vaccine, or vaccination program and is unwilling to share data with anyone about anything!

Going forward, this is a time when "right" has to take a stand against "might", when truth has to be told, and you just cannot turn a blind eye.

Jeremiah B.

Useful Links: 1981 Springbok Tour of New Zealand - Home (weebly.com)

A Boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics Would Work (The Diplomat)

China’s attacks on ‘foreign forces’ threaten Hong Kong’s global standing -top U.S. envoy (Reuters)

Waking the Sleeping Dragon (slate.com)

G7 Foreign Minister's Joint Statement to China on Hong Kong

Please take a look at some of our other insightful blogs:

Self-determination : all HKer's right

The people of Taiwan demand their human right to full UN representation

Everyone in HK is a minority in China (part 1) : Language is the issue

For CCP's "prosperity and stability" humanity suffers coercion and covid torture

Democracies must strengthen, decouple from CCP while engaging peoples of China

8964 : aspirations of Chinese people yet to be realized

There's no denying the elephant in the room

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