Wounds healed as Madiba honoured at Rugby Park
Nelson Mandela healed the rifts of Apartheid, and on Sunday night representatives of the divisions that formed in New Zealand over the former South African regime came together at Hamilton's Rugby Park to mend old wounds.
Ross Meurant, who was second-in-charge of the police riot group Red Squad that clashed with protesters during the 1981 Springbok tour, was a surprise guest speaker at a memorial service for the former South African leader.
The venue was the very spot where, on July 25 that year, a group of around 350 anti-tour protesters ran onto the field just before a match between the visiting Springbok rugby side and the Waikato team was due to kick off.
The interlopers linked arms and chanted "the whole world's watching" as they were surrounded by baton wielding police and thousands of rugby fans in the stands roared their disapproval.
Rows of empty seats greeted around 250 people sedately wandering into Waikato Stadium as The Special AKA's 1984 hit Free Nelson Mandela played over the loudspeakers.
Mr Meurant delivered a moving speech in which he said the violent scenes at Rugby Park and elsewhere had set him on a journey of eventual change and enlightenment.
"Entering the grounds tonight I had more trepidation than on that day in 1981," he said.
He also spoke of being "deep in the forest of police culture" and his eventual respect and admiration for Mandela "which allowed me to see where I was going wrong".
"The fact he can forgive, and not forget, and put behind him the way he was treated is the difference between being a politician and being a great leader."
Former Halt All Racist Tours leader John Minto, who helped organise last night's service, said he was heartened Mr Meurant had accepted the invitation to attend and speak.
"It was a lovely wee speech."
"The lasting impact of the tour was on race relations here," he told the Times before the ceremony.
"While the focus at the time was on South Africa, it prompted many to think about the situation in this country, and that manifested itself in quite a few positive ways.
The Waitangi Tribunal was given extra powers. Space opened up for a renewed Maori nationalism. The overall experience did have some good effects."
Such positive spin-offs could hardly have been foreseen in the rancorous days of conflict and families divided over the tour, he said.
"In any other country [the Springbok tour] would have been closed down . . . Muldoon revelled in it. At the end of the day it turned out to be a clever political strategy for him and it got him re-elected.
"New Zealanders were shaken by what happened to us during the tour. It sunk in that we were offside with the rest of the world on apartheid. Our country is less isolationist now. We take a broader view of the world."
As well as Mr Meurant, the New Zealand Rugby Union accepted the group's invitation to have a presence at the ceremony.
Although chief executive Steve Tew was unable to attend in person, he sent through a speech in which he spoke of his admiration of "a great man who showed us all that forgiveness is a much greater weapon than any gun".