“Rugby was rightly identified as one of the institutions that needed a bomb under it”

Chris Laidlaw

An internationally renowned halfback with the All Blacks in the 1960s and a civil servant working in Africa throughout the 1970s and 80s, Chris Laidlaw witnessed first-hand the international struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Here, he talks to Global about the power of sport to confront complex political issues.

Global: You excelled at rugby from an early age and were selected for New Zealand’s All Blacks at only 19. Was rugby an all-consuming passion?

Chris Laidlaw: It was through travelling as a rugby player that my eyes were opened to a big wide world full of challenges and opportunities. I realised that I wanted to be part of all that and began to work much harder as a student.

In 1969, you went to Merton College, Oxford, as a Rhodes Scholar. This was a time of student revolt accompanied by the widespread questioning of traditional ideas and beliefs. How did these two aspects play out in your life?

Not easily. Although Oxford was a bit slow to usher in the revolution, it certainly be­came clear that on issues like apartheid our generation was not going to be subdued or ignored. Rugby became identified – rightly in retrospect – as one of the institutions that needed a bomb under it to see the world was changing.

In 1970, you were back playing with the All Blacks when a controversial tour of South Africa loomed. For a time it was doubtful that South Africa would accept Maori players, though eventually they relented. Why did you decide to join the tour, knowing by then some of the realities of apartheid?

I had resolved to go on the tour if New Zea­land was able to take non-white players on the grounds that this was a step forward. As it turned out, it was a considerable step forward. It created such a visible precedent that the Vorster government was thereafter under relentless pressure to go further. Im­mediately after the tour, I was pessimistic about the prospects of further reform and began to believe I had done the wrong thing. A decade later, I realised that this tour had helped crystallise the whole issue.

Was this your first visit to apartheid South Africa? What were your impressions?

I had been there twice before and had roamed around the country trying to under­stand why it had come to such a racial im­passe. Several of the 1970 All Blacks were students and we spent quite a lot of time talking to dissidents and ANC members. I think the entire New Zealand team came home convinced that apartheid was a sick, perverted system, and their voices were lis­tened to in New Zealand.

In 1972, you joined the New Zealand Foreign Service and, some time later, went to work for the Commonwealth Secretary- General, Shridath ‘Sonny’ Ramphal. What led you to serving an institution that some still saw as an imperial afterthought?

I was at the NZ embassy in Paris where I met Sonny Ramphal who offered me a job in his private office. Ramphal’s vocation was to turn the Commonwealth into a force for transformation of the rigid North-South divide, and he was perhaps the most per­suasive man in the world on how to defeat apartheid. I took a 50 percent salary cut and jumped at the chance to be part of that.

In 1975, Robert Muldoon was elected New Zealand’s prime minister, on a policy of supporting sporting exchanges with South Africa. The 1976 All Blacks tour of South Africa went ahead, but in the midst of the Soweto student uprisings, when scores of young black men and women lost their lives. How did you feel about that as a New Zealander?

I was furious that Muldoon had refused to intervene, even though it was more or less impossible to stop a team departing New Zealand (as against preventing a visiting team from entering). Muldoon hated the anti-apartheid movement. It represented everything that he personally stood for. He hated the Commonwealth and he hated Sonny Ramphal. The 1976 boycott was a major debacle and many New Zealanders began to ask whether New Zealand was on the wrong side of history.

What was the significance of the 1977 Gleneagles Agreement? In 1981, despite Gleneagles, the Springboks toured New Zealand, which proved to be bitterly divisive within the country. How did this bruising experience lead you, just a few years later, to accept the appointment as New Zealand’s first resident High Commissioner in Zimbabwe?

Gleneagles was a watershed. It was a rather clunky blunt instrument, but one which the drafting group, drawn from several coun­tries but coordinated by the Commonwealth Secretariat, knew had to be blunt. It had one or two loopholes, one of which – relating to action that was “consistent with a country’s domestic laws” – was exploited by Mul­doon, and the 1981 tour went ahead. It was such a disaster that it effectively spelt the end of New Zealand’s long flirtation with apartheid. I had, in the early 1980s, been spending quite a lot of time on African is­sues with Sonny Ramphal, but when David Lange came to power in New Zealand, I returned to work for him in Wellington as a foreign policy adviser. From there, I was appointed to the post in Zimbabwe, where one of my main preoccupations was build­ing relations with the ANC and other dissi­dent leaders in exile around the region. And repairing a few fences!

Interview by Stuart Mole

About the author:

Chris Laidlaw is a former member of New Zealand's All Blacks rugby team


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