Norman Kirk called staff and media into his third-floor office at Parliament 40 years ago to say something you'd be unlikely to hear a prime minister say today.
The short statement, said his private secretary Margaret Hayward, who was there on April 10, 1973, amounted to the prime minister admitting: "I was wrong."
He also said he was embarrassed, and knew he would be criticised.
He said, 40 years ago this week, that a white-only South African rugby team would have an invitation to tour New Zealand withdrawn by the rugby union. It was a direct backtrack on his suggestion the previous year that he would not stop the tour.
The decision was a long time coming, and cartoonists were taunting Kirk to make a decision, Hayward said.
Anti-apartheid group Halt All Racist Tours (Hart) was talking of militant action if the tour was not stopped.
"Hart were trying to up the ante. Kirk was very keen for it not to become a law and order issue," she said.
African nations, as well as Malaysia, parts of the Caribbean, and India, were making rumblings about boycotting the following year's Commonwealth Games in Christchurch if the Springboks toured New Zealand.
Kirk's eventual decision to stop the whites-only team was always coming, Hayward said - he was just waiting to have half the population or more behind him.
It was a harbinger of what lay ahead when a government of a different hue approved the now-infamous 1981 Springbok tour, said Trevor Richards, who was the Wellington face of Hart and author of Dancing on Our Bones, which traces the history of opposition to playing sport against South Africa.
Speaking from Paris this week, he said that, by 1981, protests had grown hugely.
"In 1981 there was also a more intense, sustained and widespread anger than had been the case in 1973. It would be wrong, however, to view the mood in the earlier period as passionless.
"In Ashburton, in February 1973, around 600 pro-tour supporters turned out to prevent me from addressing a meeting. The meeting went ahead, but only after a number of their placards had become intimate with my head."
In 1973, the ruling Labour Party opposed that tour and communicated with protesters.
"By 1981, persuasion was a lost cause," Richards said.
"Since 1976, persuasion had been replaced with a policy of exposure - exposing to the international community the National government's active support for apartheid sport."
While Richards was elated at the 1973 postponement, rugby commentator Keith Quinn remembers there was a feeling in the rugby community that politics and sports should not mix.
"It took a visit to South Africa with the All Blacks in 1976 to see the horrors of apartheid and change my mind."
Dark-skinned All Blacks on that tour entered the country as "honorary whites" and, of the many games played, only one - a token match - was against a mixed-race team.
"You weren't called mister, you were called master or boss, just out of the habit of black people," Quinn said.
Chris Laidlaw, now a Wellington regional councillor, but an All Black who toured South Africa in 1970 with a mixed-race team, was one of those who turned anti-tour.
In 1972 he was working for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and was asked by Kirk to offer his insight on the situation, at a time when most of New Zealand was pro-tour.
"Kirk was agonising over this. It was one of the biggest political issues of the day."
After the 1970 tour, Laidlaw suggested to Kirk that New Zealand should insist South Africa send a mixed-race team here.
"I left him, thinking it was unlikely he would go with this, but he dug his toes in."
He has no doubts the protests and sporting boycotts played a significant role in the eventual end of apartheid.
He remembers meeting South African Prime Minister John Vorster at a reception in 1970 and asking him what he thought of the wrangle about allowing the dark-skinned All Blacks in.
"He looked me in the eye and said, ‘This is the beginning of the end for us'."
A TIME OF PROTEST
1960: Public outcry for the first time about New Zealand agreeing to send an all-white team to South Africa. It is the true beginning of the anti-apartheid movement in New Zealand. The "No Maoris, No Tour" movement saw protesters invade Parliament's public gallery and war veterans throw medals on the floor. The tour goes ahead with no Maori.
1967: New Zealand Rugby Union cancels a tour because of the issue.
1970: An anti-apartheid sit-in in Willis St, protesting against a tour, leads to violence between police and protesters.
Maori players allowed on the team as "honorary whites".
1973: Norman Kirk cancels Springbok tour.
1976: South African tour, again with dark-skinned players as "honorary whites".
Protests in New Zealand, where the anti-apartheid issue is increasingly linked to talks about Pakeha-Maori relations.
Prime Minister Rob Muldoon is made to sign the Gleneagles Agreement, discouraging Commonwealth countries from having sporting contact with South Africa.
1981: Mass protests against the touring Springboks. Protesters invade the pitch in Hamilton, forcing the cancellation of a game. Clashes between police and protesters common. Some bars and restaurants ban anyone displaying anti-tour badges. It will be the last official apartheid-era Springbok tour.
1986: All Blacks not allowed to tour South Africa but a breakaway team, featuring many All Blacks, does tour. More but smaller protests in New Zealand.
1994: Apartheid ends in South Africa.
- © Fairfax NZ News
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