As a professional historian for some 40 years I have been to many history conferences. But never have I been to one so emotionally gripping as this last weekend, when I was privileged to attend ‘”When hope and history rhyme”: how New Zealand helped to end apartheid’.
What made this day-and-a-half so different was that the speakers were not historians reporting from their archival research, but the movers and shapers of history itself, men and women who talked from their own experience about how the anti-apartheid struggle, a movement which changed two nations, unfolded. Don’t get the wrong impression – this was not just a succession of ‘war stories’. It was far more reflective and analytical than that, as each speaker was questioned closely by Trevor Richards as moderator and by the audience. What gave the stories emotional power was the sheer courage that came through.
In one extraordinary session on the first morning, two men sat on chairs in front of us. One, Michael Lapsley, had no hands and was blind in one eye; the second, John Osmers, had one arm. Both men were born in New Zealand; both had joined the Anglican ministry and had gone to southern Africa. Both joined the African National Congress (ANC) and spent their lives working for the end of apartheid. Both had been sent parcel bombs by the apartheid regime with resulting injuries that were visible to all of us. Their commitment, courage and overwhelming modesty was there for all to see.
In the afternoon came more fascinating memories – Ripeka Evans talking about the early involvement of Māori in fighting apartheid, and later Bob Scott, Russell Marshall and Norman Kirk’s secretary and biographer, Margaret Hayward, each analysing under Trevor Richards’s deft probing just why Kirk decided to cancel the 1973 Springbok tour. A particular highlight for me was a woman of advanced years, Pam Ormsby, who had served as the secretary of CABTA, the organisation established to fight the 1960 rugby tour of South Africa – the ‘No Maoris, No Tour’ movement. Her secretarial skills came to the fore and with delightful humour and turns of phrase she pulled out her notes and described how some of the key incidents of that movement unfolded. When the police refused to allow the organisers to march on Parliament because they had no permit, one of the organisers said, ‘Who’s coming for a walk downtown with me?’ and the assembled group proceeded single-file on the footpath down to Parliament!
Sunday was no less engrossing. There were fascinating accounts from Dave Wickham about his involvement in the 1976 Olympic boycott; from early and brave sportspeople who had voted with their consciences – All Blacks Bob Burgess and Graham Mourie and runner Anne Hare; and interesting recollections about 1981. But the highlight was unexpected. Sir Edward Thomas, Phil Recordon and Patrick Finnegan told the inside story of how they took the legal bid to stop the 1985 All Black tour. It was touch-and-go, and only sheer hard work and courage brought the case ultimate success. While many New Zealanders paid money for the case, the real payment was made by Arnold Stofile and his family. A member of the ANC, Stofile agreed to come to New Zealand to give evidence of the impact an All Black tour would have on the black community. His evidence was crucial. But when he returned to South Africa he was met by police at the airport. Both he and his wife spent the next 11 years in prison. Stofile was the undoubted kaumātua of the conference – a former rugby player, he later became premier of East Cape and minister of sport. He is now South Africa’s ambassador to Germany. He was the first at the conference to stand and express his distress at the recent shooting of 44 platinum miners in South Africa.
Both South Africa and New Zealand are very different places as a result of the long struggles to rid the world of apartheid. It is easy to forget the passions that were raised on both sides, or the sheer courage of those involved in the fight. Last weekend was a marvellous moment where we were encouraged to remember and reflect. For all of us there, history came alive.