The heartbreak of apartheid

Not for the first time, I just do not understand a Dominion Post editorial.

The South African Rugby Union said last week they were not sure if a match could take place between the New Zealand Maori team and the Springboks.  The obstacles included:

the fundamental stumbling block of a long-established President’s Council resolution forbidding the appearance of SARU teams against opponents selected along racial lines.

Of course, South Africa has a history when it comes to sports teams and race – picking national teams which the vast majority of the population could not play for because they were not white – and this only changed in 1994 when the ruling ANC introduced a policy of “transformation.”

Here in Aotearoa, Maori who demand sovereignty, tino rangatiratanga or the ability to be self-determining are often accused of seeking apartheid, particularly by politicians who use the “race” card as a populist vote-grabbing campaign – both Pakeha and Maori.

Some seem to have problems seeing the difference between apartheid in South Africa and tino rangatiratanga in Aotearoa.

One was an economic, social and political system imposed by a minority (white South Africans) over a majority (Black South Africans) solely for their own benefit.

The other is an attempt to preserve Maori cultural, social and economic values and ways of being through establishing separate spheres and structures, by Maori, for Maori.  It does not impose anything over any other group of people.

The New Zealand Maori rugby team is a tiny speck of tino rangatiratanga – a team you are eligible to play for only if you can trace Maori whakapapa.  A racially selected team.

The DomPo says some New Zealanders are uncomfortable with this, then reminds us how powerful a symbol of combating racism in New Zealand such specks of tino rangatiratanga are:

South Africa was the country where a journalist on the 1921 tour of New Zealand could write of the Springboks’ disappointment at having to play a Maori team and their disgust at thousands of Europeans cheering in a “band of coloured men to defeat members of their own race”.

Sports journalists in New Zealand often write sympathetically about South African sports teams having to pick non-white players in order to fulfill quotas and change national teams with nearly 100 year histories of selecting only white people.

They are not alone.  When South African cricketer Kevin Pietersen left his home country in 2000 to qualify for England, it was because:

I was dropped because the quota system was brought into South African cricket to positively discriminate in favour of ‘players of colour’ and to fast-track the racial integration of cricket in the country,” he said. “To me, every single person in this world needs to be treated exactly the same and that should have included me, as a promising 20-year-old cricketer. If you do well you should play on merit. That goes for any person of any colour. It was heartbreaking.

Sports journalists in the UK, in New Zealand, in Australia have become adept at writing of the heartbreak of sportspeople like Kevin Pietersen, who was once not selected for a team when he was 20, because he was not good enough to take one of the (still majority) quota places in a team transforming from all-white to mixed. 

Six years earlier his skin colour would have guaranteed him a place.  It must have been heartbreaking indeed.

So why do I not understand the DomPo editorial? 

Because after noting the former president of the South African rugby union, Danie Craven, had once proclaimed no black man would play for the Springboks, the editorial concludes:

Against that background, and despite Maori rugby’s long and proud tradition, the South Africans’ caution is wise.

It’s the wisdom I’m struggling with.

As I said earlier, some New Zealanders struggle to understand the difference between Maori self-determination and apartheid.  It’s a pity we can’t find New Zealanders who get it to go explain to the South African Rugby Union –  it might help them “transform” their sport into something all South Africans can celebrate.

After all, which rugby tradition has better combated racism, has better selected on sporting merit, has more unified a nation state?

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