“Forgiveness based on truth a path we all should follow: In memory of Nelson Mandela”

In death, as in life, Nelson Mandela has become a focus of debate and contestation in New Zealand.

Several of the country’s former right-wing politicians have seemingly disowned their opposition to him and the anti-apartheid movement, while current ones, including the incumbent Prime Minister, stress their supposed indifference to the hugely divisive 1981 Springbok Tour.

New Zealand’s five-man official delegation that was sent to South Africa for Mandela’s funeral has been soundly criticised for both for the relatively large presence of these people and the absence of anti-apartheid campaigners.

Amidst all the noise, Professor Charlotte Macdonald, from the School of History, Philosophy, Political Science & International Relations at Victoria University of Wellington, has penned a thoughtful opinion piece.  Professor Macdonald, who presented a paper on the 1959-1960 No Maoris, No Tour campaign, with David Stone, at the recent New Zealand Historical Association Biennial Conference, has kindly agreed for this to be reproduced in full below.

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Nelson Mandela’s remarkable capacity for forgiveness is the greatest inspiration he gave the world.

Mandela’s forgiveness, however, was not based on the old adage of forgiving and forgetting but on its opposite: forgiving and remembering.

Shortly after his swearing in as President of the new South Africa, Mandela’s Government established the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. The commission was a place where people of all backgrounds could tell their stories of wrongs committed under the former apartheid regime. The commission sat for several years, hearing stories and publishing the testimony it received.

Telling the truth was the path to reconciliation, to forgiveness; an essential step towards a future together. Nelson Mandela exemplified that in the way he lived his life.

An official delegation will represent New Zealand at the memorial service in South Africa this week but it is as ordinary New Zealanders, acting on conscience, in churches, unions, community groups and as individuals, that many of us walked alongside the struggle that Nelson Mandela led.

[The year] 1981 marked the crescendo of the argument New Zealanders had with each other over whether it was right or wrong to be playing against a Springbok team representing a country built on racial segregation. But it is a history that extends beyond that.

Ever since that infamous telegram sent from Napier by a South African journalist in 1921 expressing disgust at the sight of Pakeha New Zealanders cheering on the New Zealand Maori team, the game has been immersed in the question of racial equality.

Whether playing in New Zealand or in South Africa, the sense that it was not right to play against a team selected on the basis of being white came to be a matter of conscience for many New Zealanders.

They included Major General Kippenberger, commander of New Zealand’s forces in World War II, who protested against the New Zealand Rugby Union’s decision to exclude Maori players from the All Black team which toured South Africa in 1949; over 160,000 New Zealanders who signed the 1959-60 petition calling for the New Zealand Rugby Union not to send another All Black team without Maori players to South Africa in 1960. The petition was organised by the Citizens’ All Black Tour Association chaired by Wellington surgeon and prominent Catholic layman Rolland O’Regan. Joan Stone was the energetic national secretary and David Stone the petition director. Among supporters of the campaign were George Nepia, Eruera Tirikatene and many more.

From the mid-1960s, opposition to sporting contacts broadened and a growing number of New Zealanders felt disquiet at contacts with an apartheid South Africa. The official government stance from 1975 to 1984, however, was to continue contact even though that position stood against the prevailing view in the United Nations, and against the Gleneagles agreement negotiated within the Commonwealth in 1978.

Over many years, New Zealanders have joined in actions to oppose the position taken by governments and bodies claiming to be representative of national interests. Some did so as members of HART or CARE or other bodies. Many did so simply as individuals on the basis of an abhorrence of apartheid.

It is important that, at this time, we remember the history of dissent, of protest within New Zealand and the divisions that came to a crescendo – but did not begin, or end – in 1981.

Forgiveness is based on knowledge, on telling the truth of events and remembering. It is this path, that Nelson Mandela followed so fully, that we should seek to follow.

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