Farewell to an anti-apartheid battler

Posted on December 17, 2010


Tom Newnham, the man who probably did more than any other single individual in New Zealand to break rugby and other sporting ties with apartheid South Africa, died in Auckland this week, aged 84. And educator, editor, publisher, author and activist, he was the driving force behind the Citizens’ Association for Racial Equality (CARE) that, together with the student-based Halt All Racist Tours (HART) spearheaded the established in New Zealand of the biggest per capita anti-apartheid movement in the world.

Newnham also played a prominent role in the Peace Squadron, a flotilla of some 2 000 boats — everything from yachts and motor launches to kayaks — that blockaded Auckland harbour against nuclear powered and armed warships. Two major water-borne clashes took place before the country was declared nuclear free, a position it still holds.

But, for more than 20 years, until apartheid sports tours were banned following the riot-wracked 1981 Springbok tour, Tom Newnham’s prime focus was fighting apartheid. CARE and HART, together with Maori groups, churches, trade unions and members of parliament, joined forces in 1972 to form the National Anti-Apartheid Council (NAAC) dedicated to breaking ties with the apartheid state. Specifically targeted were sporting links.

Perhaps uniquely among such groups around the world, the NAAC also attracted leading All Black rugby players such as Chris Laidlaw and Bob Burgess. Tom Newnham attributed this to the fact that, unlike other anti-apartheid groups that obeyed the call to completely boycott South Africa, the New Zealanders made direct contact with existing non-racist sporting codes in South Africa. “They can’t say we are in any sense anti-sport. We’re not. We’re against racism in sport,” he explained at the time.

In line with this, the NAAC, with the tacit agreement of Labour Party prime minister, Norman Kirk, invited the non-racist South African Rugby Union (SARU), headed by Abdul Abbas, to tour New Zealand. At the time, SARU was under growing pressure from both the apartheid state and Danie Craven’s racially exclusive SA Rugby Board.

Although he was aware that the apartheid government would not permit such a tour, Abbas approved the invitation as part of the fight against apartheid. As expected, no passports were available for SARU players. This passed with virtually no comment in South Africa, but provided a huge boost to the New Zealand anti-apartheid movement.

NAAC members, armed with proxy votes provided by church investment funds, also targeted the two New Zealand companies — New Zealand Insurance and South British Insurance — that had investments in South Africa. Annual general meetings became scenes of chaos as hundreds of anti-apartheid proxy shareholders demanded that the companies withdraw from South Africa. Both eventually did.

Over the past 20 years, Tom Newnham returned to his original profession as a teacher. Having learned Cantonese during a spell working in Hong Kong in his younger days, he nastered Mandarin and taught the Chinese languages at local schools. But he continued to campaign against local racism.

In his 2004 autobiography, Interesting Times, Tom Newnham defined his belief as extending “love and goodness” to all humanity. As he saw it: “This must be the key to a happy society and to world peace.”

Posted in: Obituaries