Colin Espiner: Put Minto on that plane

Last updated 13:12 10/12/2013

I was 13 years old when I joined my first protest march. 

Gathering with thousands of others on a cold August morning in Christchurch, I marched down Colombo Street, over the overbridge, and down Moorhouse Ave to Lancaster Park where the Springboks were about to play the first test against the All Blacks in the infamous 1981 tour. 

The day is a bit of a blur to be honest, although I remember being terrified by the police in their riot gear. I also remember being roundly abused by some very drunk patrons outside a number of pubs en route to the ground. 

I also remember how the Tour split friendships, families, couples, and schoolmates. You were either Pro Tour or you were Anti Tour. Whose side were you on?

Well, everyone except John Key, of course. He can't remember what he felt about this seminal event in our nation's history. Presumably he had something more important on.

Nevertheless, he's leading New Zealand's delegation to South Africa to attend the funeral of one of the greatest statesmen of the 20th century, and arguably the 21st century as well.

Much has already been written and said about the irony of Key heading to South Africa, but his place I don't have a problem with. He's the Prime Minister, and therefore he must go. To not send our country's leader would have been an insult to Mandela's family.

I do, however, have a problem with the composition of the rest of the sorry excuse for a representative delegation from a country that did more than almost any other nation to oppose the evil South African Apartheid regime.

With all due respect to former prime minister Jim Bolger and the former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Don McKinnon, they should not be taking seats on the plane to South Africa.

Both are representatives of the National government that gave every comfort and support to the white South African regime both before, during, and after the 1981 Springbok tour. 

Bolger was a Cabinet Minister in the government that approved the '81 Tour - a government that described Mandela's ANC Party as a terrorist group. McKinnon was junior whip in that government. 

Sure, Bolger was Prime Minister when Mandela made his only visit to New Zealand, and by all accounts the pair got along famously. But Mandela made a habit of forgiving his enemies and by then he was a political rock star. Easy to be buddies with him then. 

Labour leader David Cunliffe is on the plane for no other reason than the fact he's leader of the opposition. Fine, if there's room. But if seats are as limited as the PM says, then there are others who should go in his place. 

Pita Sharples was the MFAT "safe Maori'' choice for a seat. Fair enough. He was on the protest lines - unlike everyone else on that plane. But why not take Hone Harawira too? He says he's going anyway, but it might be wiser to have him inside the official tent than outside it. Green MP Kevin Hague is another prominent anti-Tour protester who should have been offered a place.

The decision to exclude the organisers of those protests, John Minto and Trevor Richards, from the official party is as shameful as it is predictable. I would have expected nothing less from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade, which is a government department made up of toadying weasels terrified of controversy who always suck up to their political masters. 

But Key could have and should have over-ruled MFAT and insisted that Minto at least be on that plane. I understand Key doesn't like him. I understand Minto can be a self-aggrandising bore who probably should have hung up his megaphone a few years ago. 

But his part in pressuring the South African government to end the Apartheid regime and release Mandela from prison cannot be denied. Minto's Halt All Racist Tours movement became the second-largest anti-Apartheid group in the world at the time. 

Mandela himself referenced the 1981 Tour protests as a "ray of sunshine'' during the dark days in his cell. If the great man had been asked which New Zealanders he wanted at his funeral, I'm pretty sure the anti-Tour protest leaders would have been at the top of his list.

It's perhaps ironic that Mandela, a man who became a byword for tolerance and unity above division should be responsible for such squabbles on his death. But that's another reason Minto should be sharing Key's plane to South Africa.

If Mandela could greet our political leaders who were previously happy to let him rot in jail with open arms, surely Key can put aside his personal antipathy toward Minto for a few days.

Even if our Prime Minister isn't sure what all the fuss was about back in '81, most of us Key's age or older remember it well.

- © Fairfax NZ News


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