Why so many SA rugby fans support the NZ All Blacks

Posted on October 10, 2017


Outside of New Zealand itself, one of the largest contingents of All Black rugby supporters is to be found in the Eastern and Western Cape. And, last Saturday, they were again out in force at the Newlands rugby ground, South Africans proudly displaying the silver fern emblem, often to the puzzlement and consternation of Springbok supporters.

Yet there is a simple explanation for this phenomenon: a long and often bitter history of rugby in what was the Cape Province, coupled, in the later apartheid years, with the particular relationship of New Zealand with the non-racial South African Rugby Union (SARU). This body, with a history dating from the 1890s, retained a non-racial constitution in contrast to the “whites only” SA Rugby Board (SARB).

Although the history is disputed, the fact remains that, by the 1960’s and the emergence of international anti-apartheid movements, the two rugby bodies existed side by side although SARU suffered the loss of amenities and other difficulties caused by apartheid laws. In contrast, Danie Craven’s SARB prospered.

But, in New Zealand, there was also a bitter legacy among the Maori population, dating from the 1928 All Black rugby tour of South Africa. Apparently because of SARB demands about “players of colour”, one of the greatest fullbacks in the game, George Nepia, was omitted from the team. .

“As early as that, apartheid came to New Zealand,” Tom Newnham, the late doyen of the New Zealand anti-apartheid movement (AAM) once noted. “Because, in order to accommodate players such as Nepia, the local union set up a New Zealand Maori side that toured elsewhere when the all white All Blacks went to South Africa.”

Against this background it is easy to see why New Zealand, by the 1970s, had per capita the largest anti-apartheid movement in the world. Also, unlike their counterparts in other parts of the world, the NZ AAM did not impose a blanket ban on all things South African.

In this they were supported and encouraged by two members of the now governing African National Congress (ANC) and Pan Africanist Congress (PAC). Both had been sent by their movements to the country and had no contrary instructions from their boycott-backing organisations. Also at the time encouraging direct links with still existing non-racist sport was Precious McKenzie, the exiled black weightlifter who went on to become the greatest ever Olympic and Commonwealth Games medal winner of all time. But he did so first for England and then New Zealand.

Shortly after the launch of the NZ AAM in 1972 — it featured two then current All Blacks, Chris Laidlaw and Bob Burgess on the platform — contact was made with the SARU, headed by Abdul Abbas. With the agreement of Abbas and the SARU members — they accepted that the apartheid government, let alone the SARB, would never allow a tour — an invitation was extended to SARU to tour New Zealand.

As one of Saturday’s All Black supporters, Shaheeda Alexander noted: her father, one of the potential players on the putative your, had his passport revoked. Other passports were denied, an action that reinforced the AAM argument that apartheid amounted to politics in sport.

The issue not only won more AAM supporters in New Zealand, it created the impression in the non-racist rugby centres of the eastern and western Cape of the All Blacks being “comrades in the struggle”. This is part of local folk memory and for which there is plenty of evidence whenever the All Blacks play in Newlands or Port Elizabeth.

This comradely concept was further reinforced by the graphic images of the massive protests when, in 1981, a Springbok team arrived in New Zealand, invited by then Prime Minister, Robert Muldoon. Every survey showed that a clear majority of that generally rugby mad country were opposed to the tour and Muldoon was aware that, by then, the AAM had become a mass organisation.

What he probably did not know — and nor, apparently, did the police — was how well organised and trained were many of the AAM groups. Ever since a threatened Springbok tour of 1973 — cancelled by then prime minister Norman Kirk — a series of “protest camps” were held around the country. Here tactics of non-violent direct action were taught and practiced, providing a core of “trainers” who, when the 1981 tour was announced, were on hand.

Many of the young protestors were trained by trainers who had attended a course run by one of the best-known exponents of non-violent direct action, George Lakey, a Quaker who came to prominence in the United States during anti-Vietnam war protests. The sight of hundreds of protestors invading pitches and of Springbok rugby having to shelter behind batons and barbed wire was a massive inspiration to anti apartheid strugglistas on the home front, and no more so than to the SARU supporters of the Cape.

A history such as this provides inspiration that traverses generations. Especially in areas where little, materially, has changed and where a new generation feel they still need to struggle. So when the Springboks come up against the All Blacks, there is still a strong impression among families in the SARU tradition of it being a case of Us versus Them.

As a result, the sight of South Africans waving the silver fern of the All Blacks whenever the New Zealanders confront the Springboks is likely to be with us for some time to come.

Posted in: Commentary