The way the rugby ball bounces

It would be a supreme irony if a Maori rugby team were not able to play some or all its proposed games in South Africa because it is a “racially selected” team. 

As a young student, I took part in the “No Maoris No Tour “ protest before the All Blacks tour of South Africa in 1960.  I was obviously a good loser and soon had my ears adhered to the radio in the middle of the night to the enthralling call of commentator Winston McCarthy.

In 1976, the year that New Zealand triggered a boycott of the Montréal Olympics by African nations because of the equivocal policy of Robert Muldoon’s government towards South African rugby, I visited the Republic as the guest of Round Table South Africa  (the service club not a business association). Ironically the movie on the South African Airways flight from Sydney was on the life of Scott Joplin, with hardly a white actor to be seen.

The next movie I saw a few days later, in the Northern Cape town of Prieska, was a Northern, the Afrikaans equivalent of a Western, about the heroic white settlers, holding out against the guerrillas in the mist. Apart from some long shots there was hardly a black actor to be seen. At this fundraising black tie but whites only “premiere” put on by Round Table I had fresh memories of touring Soweto a few days before, just weeks after the riots of 1976, to see the legacy of damage and talk with some of the  youth involved.

Just before the Prieska movie I had been shown a tour of the town. We stopped at a tennis game being played on a corporate tennis court for me to take photos.  Almost as if this had been choreographed for my benefit  (perhaps it was) there were four players, in the nomenclature of the day a European, an Indian,  a black and a  coloured. I was momentarily impressed by this multicultural display before reminding myself that such a game of literally mixed doubles was prohibited in the town’s public facilities and in the rest of the Republic.

Membership of Round Table then was more English than Afrikaans and more liberal than, say, the South African Rugby Union but it, too was segregated racially. However, the black tennis player, who rejoiced in the name of Petrus Pollyanna, was an honorary member, accorded the same sort of  temporarily colour blind status given to Maoris in touring All Black teams after 1960.

Petrus also doubled as the movie projectionist, as I found when the film broke down part way through and, as a zealous teacher,  I helped rethread the derailed 16 mm film. Afterwards Petrus invited me back to his home. He lived only 3 km from downtown Prieska  in a segregated black area but in socio-economic terms it was like driving from the middle of Ashburton to a less favoured part  of Mumbai.  The Petrus family lived in a small rented house on state land. Pride of place in the living room was a photo of  a family member incarcerated on Robbins Island with Nelson Mandela.

We discussed the Soweto riots and his view of the state of race relations. His optimistic attitude fitted his surname but while he was proud of his honorary Round Table status, if  apartheid was openly challenged and  things got hot he was quite clear where his allegiance would lie. “ …if this house catches fire, I will do all I can to save my family but the house and the land are not mine.”  The implications of the bulk of the population not having a  real vested interest were chillingly clear.

The conflagration was averted and the new rainbow world of South Africa was proclaimed when President Mandela wore the national rugby jersey to celebrate South Africa’s Rugby World Cup win in 1995. Now, ironically, the new slogan could be “No Pakeha No Tour” unless commonsense prevails and the cultural dimension of a Maori rugby team is appreciated, together with an understanding of the level of intermarriage and other cultural interaction in New Zealand for more than 200 years.

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