NZ's delegation to wake was just about spot on

Last updated 07:40 13/12/2013

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OPINION: I have been left wondering if other countries have turned the memorial service for Nelson Mandela into a circus or, for some inexplicable reason, is it just us?

I haven't trolled through the various international websites to determine how others are reporting the event so my lens on the entire process has been by way of the New Zealand media machine.

The first, and quite overwhelming, observation is that we have a view that New Zealand punched well above their weight in the fight against apartheid. There is some inherent belief among rank-and-file Kiwis that the 1981 protests made a monumental impact on the South African situation.

My understanding is that Mandela listened to radio reports while he was incarcerated and that contributed to his hope that the international community would ultimately confront the injustice they were suffering. It was not a watershed moment in the tide against apartheid.

I have always believed that Mandela's acknowledgement of the part that we played during the 1981 tour was very generous and more characteristic of his role as a unifier rather than a statement on the international significance of our domestic protest impacting on foreign policy to the point that apartheid was abandoned. He was making sure that we recognised his acknowledgement that he was aware we had played a part in the struggle.

It is this message of Mandela as the unifier that has dominated the tributes to the ex-President since his passing last week and herein lies one of the Kiwi ironies. The delegation that we have sent was, in my view, about spot on.

Maybe we should have also sent the Governor General but the balance of parliamentary leadership and historical association with international diplomacy appeared to be very well managed.

The alternative view is, of course, that those that led the 1981 anti-apartheid protests should have been front and centre when it came to any international delegation that was representative of New Zealand. I suppose I can see how people might find their way to that position because the memory is still fresh in the minds of many New Zealanders but the opposition to apartheid did not begin and end with the 1981 Springbok tour.

New Zealand's general position regarding apartheid has been to condemn it. I have no idea if it is true or not but my father told that when the Maori Battalion soldiers disembarked in South Africa there was an attempt to segregate them from the whites. He said they punched the first white South African that tried to implement the policy and that was that.

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Many older New Zealanders will recall the No Maori No Tour movement of 1960 that ultimately led to Maori players being recognised as honorary whites and therefore able to fully participate in rugby in South Africa.

Although seemingly unbelievable in modern times this was the environment 50 years ago and as a nation we have long been steadfast in opposition.

Perhaps it is because of the violence and bloodshed of 1981 we have apportioned a higher moral value to our opposition during that protest than any before or afterwards.

But in reality New Zealand was always opposed to the racist South African regime.

Sending John Minto or Hone Harawira to Nelson Mandela's memorial service may have had some symbolic value in recognising that particular protest but it would also be quite misguided.

John Key selected a delegation that is representative of a diplomatic cross-section of New Zealand society. It is not meant to be recognition of those who were for or against the tour.

Minto and Harawira may well have been heroes in the face of the adversity that was the thin blue line but in recent times Mandela has stood to represent something else.

He forgave, he built unity, he bent over to do all that he could living in hope that his country would grow and realise its potential.

Despite Mandela's extraordinary leadership he still struggled to make a difference to those at the bottom of South African society. I have visited Kliptown in the heart of Soweto's poorest suburb and it is humbling beyond belief.

People live in cardboard and corrugated iron shacks and Aids is rampant. His real vision of a unified, prosperous nation is yet to be realised.

Those present at Nelson Mandela's service were the current and past world leaders who have, or had, the responsibility for negotiating international relations and had engaged directly with Mandela's legacy of change.

Unbelievably, if we were to simply follow the New Zealand media for all our information one would think that we sent the wrong people, they couldn't get everyone in to the venue, no-one knew who our Prime Minister was and that Pita Sharples rubbed shoulders with Bono and Naomi Campbell.

- The Press


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