Protest, climate change and racism in NZ

“One person by themselves has the effect of one person, but five people working together can have the effect of 30 or 50.” That, says political activist John Minto, is the power of a protest movement.

Minto was among former anti-apartheid campaigners on stage and in the audience for a symposium to mark the 50th anniversary of the formation of Halt All Racist Tours (HART).

HART’s two-decade campaign against rugby and other sporting ties with apartheid-era South Africa “shook and changed our society, taking New Zealand into a new and different national and international consciousness”, according to organisers of the symposium, co-hosted by Te Herenga Waka–Victoria University of Wellington’s History programme and Stout Research Centre for New Zealand Studies in partnership with the National Library of New Zealand–Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa.

The symposium brought together HART leaders Minto, Trevor Richards and Dave Wickham, along with supporters Rosslyn Noonan, who was New Zealand’s Chief Human Rights Commissioner from 2001-11, former All Black Bob Burgess, writer Linda Burgess, ex-Green MP Sue Bradford, lawyer and criminal justice campaigner Moana Jackson and journalist Simon Wilson.

Providing their perspective on protest today and current human rights challenges were Green MP Golriz Ghahraman, writer and trade unionist Morgan Godfery and Tayyaba Khan, founder of the Khadija Leadership Network and New Zealand Peace Ambassador for the European Muslim League.

Richards quoted Irish poet Seamus Heaney’s lines “History says, Don't hope/On this side of the grave,/But then, once in a lifetime/The longed-for tidal wave/Of justice can rise up/And hope and history rhyme”, before telling fellow HART veterans: “Over the past 50 years in New Zealand, Heaney’s longed-for tidal wave of justice has been doing quite a lot of rising up thanks to people such as yourselves. But as we look around the current political and social landscape, it is obvious there is much more rising up that needs to be done.

“Climate change, the growing gap between rich and poor, anti-Māori and anti-Muslim racism, both systemic and casual, child poverty and homelessness are all issues that need to be addressed. The job isn’t finished. It will never be finished. As societies develop and change, the power that protest can exert will always be needed.”

For Jackson, “If I take one lesson at all from the 50 years of HART, it is to remember the words of Martin Luther King. They are, I think, his most important words, certainly for me. They are not about his "I have a dream" speech, they are about something in a vein more basic but also more profound: when he said the history of protest and activism shows the arc of history always curves towards justice but it does not curve in and of itself, it requires people with courage and imagination to make the curve happen.”

Richards said he has a friend who asks him from time to time, “‘The Halt All Racist Tours movement—just remind me: how many tours did they actually halt?’ I can proudly say we were very involved in halting two, 1973 and 1985. We failed to halt 1970, 1976 and 1981. But viewing success through such a narrow prism of ‘how many tours did you halt?’ escapes the whole point of what it was HART was actually responsible for in the end.

“I think we gave great encouragement, support, comfort, to the people whose call we were responding to, black South Africans. They asked us to do this. And they very much appreciated the fact it was done. No stronger comment I think could be made than that by [then South African President] Nelson Mandela to [then New Zealand Governor-General] Cath Tizard when he was here in 1995 for the Commonwealth heads of government meeting. He said to Cath, ‘You know, when in my cell on Robben Island [where he was imprisoned before apartheid fell] I heard the Waikato game [with the Springboks during their 1981 tour] had been cancelled, it felt as if the sun was coming out.”

Another HART achievement, said Richards, was that “we were there for New Zealand internationally when New Zealand needed someone, people like us, to be there for them. Because the image New Zealand was promoting in that 1975–84 period [under National Party Prime Minister Robert Muldoon] was one of a small, insular, inward-looking racist country at the end of the world. I even remember our ambassador to the United Nations in 1981 used our efforts in an attempt to deflect criticism from his government. Which I thought was taking diplomacy just a little bit too far.”

Minto said that for school projects, students frequently write to him asking about the most important effect on New Zealand of the 1981 protests.

He tells them it was bringing arguments about colonialism, race relations and racism in New Zealand “right into the heart of Pākehā communities”.

It was, said Minto, “a big challenge for Pākehā when people like [Māori activist] Hilda Harawira would get up at a meeting and say, ‘How can you people be concerned about racism 6000 miles away and not be concerned about racism in this country?’”

HART, “in its own – too slow for some, too fast for others – way took that on”.

Jackson’s father, Everard, and uncle Tori Reed were All Blacks when the team was scheduled to tour South Africa in 1940. In 1939, they “received a letter from the Rugby Union asking them if they would make themselves unavailable for selection the following year to save the Rugby Union from embarrassment. Well, the Second World War arrived and saved them from embarrassment”.

Racism remains a persistent issue in New Zealand, said Jackson.

In 1988, he was involved in a report into why there were so many Māori in prison. In 2008, he was part of a national forum to see what had changed in the 20 years since the report. “And nothing in fact had changed.”

A research project was established to investigate further.

“We’ve been working on that report for nearly four years and it will be published early next year. In the course of the research, we spoke to more than 6000 Māori people - every one of them referenced racism within the criminal justice system at a systemic and individual level. We spoke to 600 Māori men and women who had served time in prison and all of them named racism within the criminal justice system.”

That racism is evident in the statistics, said Jackson.

In the 1980s, he said, Māori men made up 52 percent of the male prison population and Māori women 6 percent of the female prison population. Now, Māori men still make up about 52 percent - but Māori women make up 66 percent.

“Which makes Māori women per capita the most imprisoned group of women in the world.”

Alongside racism as an issue requiring ongoing protest, Jackson highlighted climate change – as did others.

Ghahraman spoke about UN Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights Philip Alston’s reference in a recent report to ‘climate apartheid’ - “a different kind of apartheid”.

Jackson and Godfery singled out the Ihumātao occupation in Auckland as an example of young people coming through with a different protest ethic.

“The occupation there is a lesson to everyone in how to do things,” said Godfery. “It’s not just how to be an activist, but how to be someone who cares for their community.”

Ihumātao, he said, is “such a brilliant example of how an organic movement can work and very much an example of how a Māori movement works, of how - without wanting to issue a challenge - everyone in this room who is not Māori should conduct an activist movement”.

Among activist groups promoting change within the criminal justice system, Jackson said, “it’s been interesting for me that some of the young people involved in those organisations are grandchildren of those involved in HART. So there’s a whakapapa, there’s a tradition, that is now transmitting into other areas”.

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