The skipper who tackled apartheid head-on

00:53, Dec 15 2013
STAND-UP: All Blacks captain Graham Mourie refused to play against the Springboks when they toured in 1981.

Graham Mourie has no regrets about a decision that reverberated all the way to Nelson Mandela in prison, writes Tom Hunt .

It's not hard to imagine the wry grin beneath Trevor Richards' trademark moustache when he sent the telegram: "100% current All Black captains opposed to tour".

It was 1980 and All Blacks skipper Graham Mourie had just confirmed that he was not available to play the Springboks in their 1981 tour of New Zealand.

He could not play against a country with a racist policy he strongly opposed, he said.

Mourie was not the first New Zealander, nor the first All Black, to stand up against apartheid. But he was the first captain to refuse to play, which made him, according to sports journalist Ron Palenski, the "most influential" defector.

Speaking this week, following Nelson Mandela's death, Mourie said his decision was not taken lightly.


The arguments of tour supporters were that sports and politics shouldn't mix. Mourie believed it was politics that - with token exceptions - meant blacks could not play in white teams.

He did a lot of research. He talked to journalist and friend Ian Fraser, then a TVNZ reporter, about the situation "over some glasses of red". "[It was] a head and heart decision, rather than just an emotional one."

A few years ago he said: "I felt that playing would have given tacit support to the unjust regime in South Africa - it would have been hypocritical of me to say apartheid was wrong but [then] go ahead and play just because I wanted to."

It was a decision that meant Mourie never played the Springboks, which he admitted this week left "a bit of a hole" in his career.

Predictably, there was a backlash, and he received hate mail.

"My father and brother probably thought I was an idiot."

He would not then discuss his reasons publicly, saying: "I don't intend on imposing my view on anyone. It's my decision, and that's all."

Nor did he join the protests. He had a Taranaki farm to run.

For some demonstrators, the tour was little more than a chance to cause trouble, he says now.

"I had done a lot of research and probably had a better idea of what the likely result would be of demonstrations."

News of his defection made it around the world, and to the cells of Robben Island, where Mandela was imprisoned. These days tour guides, themselves former prisoners, talk of the lift in spirits when they got the news.

They were further lifted soon after, when fellow All Black Bruce Robertson, an already outspoken opponent of apartheid, also withdrew.

Protest leader Trevor Richards said this week that support for the anti-apartheid cause from within the All Blacks "always put a decided spring in my step". "By 1980, cracks were beginning to appear in fortress rugby."

He recalls Mourie's stance in his book, Dancing On Our Bones. "When [rugby administrator] Ron Don claimed that the antis did not enjoy the majority support of any section of the New Zealand community, it was great fun to send him a telegram: '100% current All Black captains opposed to tour'."

Mourie - like many who opposed apartheid - is reluctant to overstate his role, saying he played a "very small part" in ending the regime. "There's a lot of people out there who did a lot of stuff, but it all added up."

In 1981, South African newspaper Die Transvaler invited Mourie to visit the country on a "fact-finding" mission.

He refused when the newspaper said the trip would be cancelled if his "journalist friend" and travel companion Fraser displayed "biased, preconceived or vicious anti-South African views, or if his conduct should fall short of accepted professional standards".

Mourie watched the 1981 tour with mates on television. He never made it to a game but was happy when New Zealand won the series.

In fact, he had sympathy for the Springboks facing a country where so many didn't want them.

He met South African captain Wynand Claassen a few years later. "He was a good man, he was a bright man. It would have been immensely difficult for them."

Mourie would return to the All Blacks, finishing with a Bledisloe Cup series victory at Eden Park in 1982.

He met Mandela at Government House in 1995. The South African president made a point of acknowledging what Mourie had done.

"He had a huge amount of mana," Mourie said of Mandela. "The way he carried himself was admirable for someone who spent 27 years in prison."

These days more people ask him about his stand against apartheid than his rugby career. He has no regrets.

"You have got to be able to look at yourself in the mirror - look yourself in the eye and say that is the right thing to do."

The Dominion Post