In 1994 Guardian editor Peter Preston wrote: “When you stand on the steps of the President’s office, on the hill overlooking Pretoria, the sense of imperial permanency is overwhelming. Great lumps of stone tower over a city devoted to the business of ruling. Nothing, says the bulk of Pretoria, can ever change.”

In 1969, the year the Halt All Racist Tours movement (HART) was formed at the University of Auckland, I had never been to South Africa. Consequently, there were no such feelings of awe. I was 22. I loved university. We were encouraged to be sceptical, to question, to value compassion and, above all else, to think. We felt immortal and invincible.

The timing of HART’s birth was critical. We were baby boomers. We had enjoyed the benefits of full employment. User-pays tertiary education and student loans were 20 years away. These were the ‘glory days’ of student life. Had 1969 been blighted with 1989’s economic realities, we would have been too busy trying to survive to form HART.

As the movement grew, we grew with it. Three very sixties qualities kept many of us going: confidence, optimism, and belief – the sixties were not only about drugs, sex and rock ‘n’ roll.

If New Zealand couldn’t make the right call on the sporting contacts issue, it seemed to us that it couldn’t make the right call on anything. It was a political issue, but even more than that, it was a moral issue. It affected the way we viewed the world, and the way in which the world viewed us – and the glue that held all the strands of the issue together was race. In 1970, Eric Gowing, the Anglican Bishop of Auckland, had said “What we think about sporting contacts with South Africa depends on what we think about racism”.

Few New Zealand politicians in 1969 understood just how important an issue race was becoming. Internationally, opposition to apartheid was growing. At home, a huge gulf was developing between assimilationists who wanted Māori to be quiet and behave, and increasing numbers of Māori, whose cultural renaissance was demanding and insistent. Ngā Tamatoa and the Polynesian Panthers were unlike anything most Pākehā had seen before. Ngā Tamatoa told New Zealand there was no Māori problem – “what we have is a problem with Pākehā”.

National identity is built substantially on myths and easy generalities. In the 1950s and early 1960s, I grew up being told by politicians, the press and our next-door neighbour that New Zealand’s policy of racial assimilation meant that we had the best race relations in the world. To most Pākehā, assimilation meant telling Māori that if they behaved like Pākehā, they would be treated like Pākehā. To Māori, it meant discovering this was a lie.

At the 1921 farewell dinner to the Springboks, then-Prime Minister William Massey had remarked that as far as Māori were concerned, “they and the Pākehā were one in this country”, yet until the protests of 1958-60, most Pākehā were content to allow South Africa to dictate the racial composition of the All Blacks.

Robert Muldoon, prime minister from 1975-84 and chief advocate for a virulent set of racist, populist policies, was one of the few politicians who had understood the power of race as a political issue. Dawn raids on suspected Polynesian “overstayers”, strident attacks on Māori “radicals”, enthusiastic support for playing sport with white South Africa and cries of “acts bordering on treason” against HART – following Africa’s walkout from the 1976 Montreal Olympics – were all part of appeals to ‘Rob’s Mob’, his base. He was Trump before Trump.

The 1970s was an ugly decade, but it was also the engine room for social change. In 1960, New Zealand excluded Māori from that year’s All Black tour of South Africa and welcomed the USS Halibut, the world’s first nuclear-powered submarine, into Auckland. Homosexuality and abortion were illegal. Women knew their place. They brought ‘the plate’.

Ugliness can sometimes be transformational. By 1990, New Zealand was another country. We were anti-apartheid and anti-nuclear. Māori had been recognised as tangata whenua, homosexuality had been decriminalised, safe abortions were available and Sian Elias was less than 10 years away from becoming Chief Justice. What a difference 30 years and a helluva lot of campaigning can make.

Where are today’s transformational groups? Will they emerge out of student protests over climate change? Has one emerged already in the shape of SOUL (Save Our Unique Landscape), campaigning to protect Ihumātao?

Wherever they are, they are needed. They will always be needed.

Trevor Richards will be taking part in a University of Auckland Society Salon event 1969 to 1985: Sixteen years of protest that changed New Zealand to mark 50 years since HART (Halt All Racist Tours) on Wednesday 30 October at OGH Lecture Theatre, 5.30-7pm. The event will be chaired by Professor Jennifer Curtin from the Public Policy Institute. Other speakers include writer and cartoonist Tom Scott, David Wickham, former HART Auckland organiser, and distinguished alumna, singer Moana Maniapoto and registration is free.

Trevor Richards is a University of Auckland distinguished alumnus.

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