From Protest to Resistance

John Minto is a political activist who was spokesperson for HART, a New Zealand Anti-Apartheid Movement, during the 1980s and a leader of the campaign to stop the 1981 Springbok (South African rugby team) tour to New Zealand. Early in 2008, Minto was in the South African news for rejecting a nomination by the South African government for the Oliver Tambo awards, on the grounds that the African National Congress (ANC) economic policies oppress the majority. Minto has been a high school teacher for the last 25 years and currently works for Unite Union, a trade union for low-paid workers in New Zealand. He is also a spokesperson for Global Peace and Justice Auckland and is national chairperson of the Quality Public Education Coalition.

Majavu: The New Zealand anti-apartheid movement was very effective in organizing the public around its agenda. What lessons could today’s activists learn from the way the movement organized itself and communicated and fought for its goals?

Minto: The movement has to be seen in the context of New Zealand at the time. New Zealand by 1981 was out of step with international opinion. Most countries had given up sports ties with South Africa, but New Zealand persisted. We were remembered for the 1976 All Black Tour to South Africa which took place as black kids were being murdered on the streets of Soweto and elsewhere. The Gleneagles Agreement which required commonwealth countries to take practical steps to stop the tour had been enacted because of the 1976 All Black tour. Our prime minister, Robert Muldoon, had used the issue of sports links with apartheid South Africa as an election winner in 1975 in particular, but also in 1978. He was determined to do so again in 1981. However, by this time the activist movement was strong and New Zealand bitterly divided over Muldoon’s leadership style.

Do you think the merger of the Halt All Racist Tours (HART) with the National Anti-Apartheid Movement New Zealand (NZAAM) gave the movement the political edge? What lessons can be learned from that union?

The merger was important because it brought together the experienced HART leadership with the more activist side of the anti-apartheid movement, which was involved in the economic boycott campaigns. HART had been almost dormant for the previous few years after the campaign to stop the 1976 tour. There was a strong consensus from grassroots activists for the merger and it duly happened.

According to Peter Limb, in 1981, HART-NZAAM organized a campaign which sparked 205 demonstrations over 57 days in 28 centers involving 150,000 people with 1,944 arrests. What made it so effective?

It was an intense period, but those 57 days came at the end of a 2-year campaign to stop the tour. The campaign was officially launched on Labor Day weekend in 1979 and consisted of widespread activity with an educational focus. Leaflets, posters, T-shirts, street stalls, petitions, deputations, film screenings, national speaker tours, national film tours, etc. were undertaken alongside public pickets and demonstrations. In the latter stages of the 1981 campaign, HART initiated the formation of local coalitions against the tour in centers around New Zealand. Each center had its own group with its own local flavor. This brought together activists from churches, unions, student organizations, Maori activists groups, and community groups to the campaign. These local coalitions were independent, but took part in the nationally coordinated mobilizations on May 1 and July 3, 1981 where the biggest marches New Zealand had seen took place.

Protester at rugby match in NZ, 1970

At the early stages in Auckland conservative trade unions lobbied for a central committee made up of a single representative from each group in the coalition to be the final decision maker on strategy and tactics. This would have been disastrous had it been adopted. It would have stifled popular involvement. The alternative was genuine peoples’ movements where everyone who wanted to contribute in their own way was free to do so and where "grassroots democracy" was at the center of decision-making. The coalition MOST (Mobilization to Stop the Tour) in Auckland was the largest coalition and raised $63,000 to fight the tour and another $100,000 to pay for costs associated with the court cases.

Regular national meetings were held of the HART national council along with representatives from the local coalitions to help plan and coordinate the campaign. HART provided the experience and national leadership but the coalitions had their own spokespeople and this also added to the strength of the movement.

After this successful campaign, didn’t the New Zealand left lose its political edge?

The left continued mobilizing through the 1980s on a host of other issues such as agitating for gay and lesbian rights and participating in the anti-nuclear protests. The problem was that in 1984 the Labour government was taken over by neo-liberals. So while the left focused on social issues, the right destroyed the welfare state, sold state assets to their rich mates, and introduced free market policies which destroyed quality jobs and grew the gap between rich and poor dramatically.

According to the former acting secretary for education, Lyall Perris (1998), the government did not expect New Zealanders to oppose the introduction of the free market policies. Perris says New Zealand is a "relatively peaceful and homogenous society accustomed to the rule of law and to accepting government decisions as being legitimate. There was never any likelihood that the government’s decisions would have been disobeyed." Is this government propaganda? Or is there an element of truth in that?

Yes, there is truth to what Perris said and in general this applies to people anywhere. New Zealanders had the reputation as "passionless people," but this reflected the relative improvements in standards of living for 50 years between the depression and the 1980s and so social unrest was not widespread or continuous.

How was it possible, in a time period of four years, for the government to introduce free market policies without those being opposed by activists and other organized left groups? What happened to that spirit of resistance that New Zealand activists showed in 1981? What happened to all that organizing experience that went into the HART-NZAAM campaign?

The main problem in the failure of New Zealanders to fight neo-liberalism was the failure of the union movement to provide leadership or direction. They capitulated to every neo-liberal reform—including the destruction of the union movement itself—without a whimper. Not only that, but at every turn they quashed organizing efforts of union activists to get campaigns going. The leadership was dominated by grey, colorless figures that supported the USSR through the Cold War and saw the priority as the election and re-election of a Labour government—irrespective of its policies. They saw Labour as being less anti-Soviet than the National Party and this drove a corrupt agenda. One of these people, former head of the union movement Ken Douglas, was instrumental in this crushing campaign. He now enjoys positions on government boards of various kinds. He is well paid for what was nothing less than deliberate treachery against workers.

Most of the activists from the anti-apartheid campaign became activists for other social issues such as the anti-nuclear issue, tino rangatiratanga (Maori self-determination), gay and lesbian rights, etc. This involvement brought important social changes in the 1980s, but alongside those were the neo-liberal economic reforms which were hammering working New Zealanders. To some extent activists were looking the other way and leaving it to the union movement to at least provide the lead on economic issues.

I should say that the union movement as a whole was supportive on paper, but mainly inactive in the 1981 tour protests. Workers were as divided as any other sector and union officials were very often reluctant to raise the issue of the tour. It was left to some very strong and committed union activists to draw workers into the protests.

Now that you have seen post-apartheid South Africa firsthand, do you think it was worth it? Did your trip change your attitude or views about what international solidarity ought to be about? What can young activists today learn from all of this?

It was well worth it. I’ve always been very proud of how the movement in New Zealand campaigned so strongly and punched well above our weight on this issue. My trip was not a surprise. South Africa is a hopeless basket case as far as the ANC and its policies are concerned. It’s always economic issues which are at the heart of everything and, to borrow from Bishop Desmond Tutu, "The ANC stopped the apartheid gravy train just long enough to jump on."

So many of our heroes from the 1980s, such as Cyril Ramaphosa, have been bought and sold by business interests many times over these past 20 years. The rot began well before the first ballot was cast in 1994. By then ANC economic policies had been turned into the reverse of the Freedom Charter. History won’t be as kind to Nelson Mandela as the media are today. He led the struggle for civil and political rights, but never seriously engaged in the struggle for social and economic rights.

Regarding international solidarity, I think there are things we can do at several levels. For example, I’d like to think we could organize a tour by someone from the South African social movements to inform New Zealanders, as we did frequently through the 1970s and 1980s. There could be many spinoffs from such a visit.

In the same speech you say that "none of us outside or inside South Africa expected overnight miracles." What were your hopes for post-apartheid South Africa?

As we campaigned in the 1980s, most of us hoped to see a new South Africa that would end apartheid laws and begin building a country based around the principles of the Freedom Charter. We thought some changes would take a couple of generations, but expected something of a visionary leadership with a program of positive change. Instead we got the ANC.


Mandisi Majavu is a writer and activist based in South Africa. His writing has appeared in a number of South African publications. He is also a member of the Africa Project for Participatory Society.