Chance missed for wider symbol of unity

Last updated 13:00 11/12/2013

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OPINION: In normal circumstances, the makeup of the New Zealand delegation to Nelson Mandela's memorial service would have excited little comment.

The prime minister, a former prime minister, the leader of the Opposition, a Maori cabinet minister, and a former foreign minister would seem an appropriate measure of respect for one of the world's most revered leaders.

But against the background of New Zealand's own small part in the worldwide opposition to South Africa's former apartheid regime - a struggle that Mandela devoted much of his life to - the delegation should have been given more thought.

It should have included a protest representative from the divisive 1981 Springbok rugby tour of New Zealand. They took to the streets in the name of racial equality, despite abuse and outright hostility from their fellow New Zealanders.

It was a brave and, history shows, enlightened stand against a prevailing "politics and sport should not mix" attitude that now seems awfully narrow-minded.

Its influence on the eventual dismantling of apartheid is debatable, but Mandela personally thanked New Zealand activists for their anti-tour efforts, describing the stadium occupation that prevented the Waikato match as if "the sun had come out" when the news filtered through to his Robben Island jail.

Maori Affairs Minister Pita Sharples was the only member of the delegation who took part in the anti-tour protests. Prime Minister John Key either didn't have an opinion on the tour or won't say what it was. Jim Bolger was part of the National Government that agreed to the tour, as was Don McKinnon.

Both Mr Bolger and Mr McKinnon, a former foreign minister and Commonwealth secretary-general, later worked with Mandela, but it's questionable that both needed to go.

They almost had a wasted trip when restrictions threatened to allow only two members of the delegation access to the service, but all five eventually got in. If he had been forced to choose, Mr Key would have taken Labour leader David Cunliffe, in a nod to parliamentary unity.

A more meaningful unity would have involved reaching out to one of those involved in the 1981 protests, which also brought a deeper level of political debate and, ultimately, national identity.

It could have been John Minto, the face and voice of the tour protests, though his unrelenting activism against successive governments would have made him a controversial paid passenger.

Green MP Kevin Hague, who was arrested five times during the 1981 protests, would have fitted the bill. He would have symbolised both the protest movement and political opponents uniting for a greater good.

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Mandela knew all about the power of symbols. His donning of a Springbok jersey to present the Rugby World Cup to his countrymen in 1995 was a powerful statement of reconciliation.

He appreciated the actions of people who showed their support for his country's struggle half a world away; he would surely have been happy for them to be represented at his farewell.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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