Trevor Richards, in July 1981, on Molesworth Street, Wellington, after police batoned anti-Springbok tour protesters.

For much of his life, Trevor Richards has been fighting racism both here and internationally, most notably as one of the founders of HART (Halt All Racist Tours) which campaigned against New Zealand’s sporting ties with apartheid South Africa. Here he looks back at the history of New Zealand’s race relations, which was once touted (by Pākehā New Zealanders) as the best in the world.


I was one of the early baby boomers, born in South Auckland towards the end of 1946. I grew up in the north, in Kaikohe and Paihia, before heading off to university in Auckland. My teenage stamping ground was the cradle of early European settlement. Kororāreka, New Zealand’s first capital until 1841, was a short ferry ride away. Re-named Russell in 1844, I could see it from our front door. It was on the hill overlooking Kororāreka that Ngāpuhi chief Hōne Heke Pōkai and his supporters chopped down the flagstaff, not once, but four times. War followed. 

The Waitangi Treaty Grounds, where, five years earlier, Heke had signed the Treaty, was even closer to where we lived. Five minutes in the opposite direction was the site of the country’s first church. Built of raupo, it had been constructed in 1823. The church which now stands on the site was only erected in 1925, but its adjoining graveyard dates from 1826. The Mission House and the Old Stone Store in Kerikeri, New Zealand’s two oldest surviving buildings, were no more than a short Sunday afternoon drive away. 

Being surrounded by all this history was great. But in school, we weren’t taught much about it — and what we were taught was a history viewed pretty much through a 19th century Pākehā lens. Growing up in the Bay of Islands felt like growing up in the middle of an old disused movie set. The props from our past were all there, and we doffed our hats in their direction on occasions, but it was as if they no longer had any real relevance to contemporary life. 

Trevor, after a day of fishing.

As a Pākehā kid, I can’t recall the word “racism” being used very much. In the 1950s and 1960s, most Pākehā New Zealanders believed that our race relations were great. At Northland College in Kaikohe in the early 1960s, Prime Minister Keith Holyoake told our school assembly that New Zealand had “the best race relations in the world”. Newspapers were regularly reporting someone or other expressing such views. 

Our next door neighbour in Kaikohe, a widower in his 80s, certainly believed that this was the case. One night in 1957, as we were tracking the Russian Sputnik across the night sky , he commented approvingly on a recent newspaper story praising the state of our race relations — before going on to marvel at the strength of the light the Russians had put in their satellite. 

At the time, most Pākehā believed that they had been fair in their dealings with Māori, and that, if there was a problem, it was the other party in the relationship that was to blame. 

For most, this wasn’t based on any real understanding. There was little or no awareness of anything indigenous. Māori history, language, culture and values were subjects for neither contemplation nor discussion. Most Pākehā wouldn’t have known the difference between a pōwhiri and a waiata. 

In the days of my childhood, land confiscation and the systematic destruction and debasement of an indigenous culture were unacknowledged concepts. An awareness of the effects of English colonialism and its impact on Māori was an understanding for a future time. To many Pākehā at this time, Māori was simply “Hori” — an overweight, happy-go-lucky, not very bright character who was work-shy and drank too much. This derogatory term became more common in the 1960s as Māori became increasingly urbanised. 

What often sustains racism and gives it potency is that it’s not recognised for what it is by those practising and benefiting from it. A majority culture can belittle the minority culture without thinking — without even knowing it’s doing so. 

Many Pākehā (fewer now) took their privileges for granted, and were oblivious to the conditions under which Māori and other ethnic minority groups lived. The “natural order of things” often turns out to be the result of a narrow, insular, self-serving vision based on a series of unrecognised, embedded racist assumptions. Those racist assumptions can form the basis of the majority culture’s attitudinal DNA. 

Trevor with his sister Shirley, parents Ruth and Wilfred, and maternal grandparents Nellie and Frederick Civil.

I don’t remember much of my early years in South Auckland. Kaikohe I remember well — which is different from saying that there was much understanding involved. TS Eliot writes in Little Gidding, the last of his Four Quartets, lines that first struck home when I was writing Dancing on Our Bones: New Zealand, South Africa, Rugby and Racism

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

That observation is certainly true of my recollections of growing up in Kaikohe. Looking back, Māori were all around us, but what did we know about them and their lives? It was Pākehā who were in control and the town reflected Pākehā dominance. Māori had lived in the area for more than 500 years, but the streets and roads in the town centre were named after Europeans — Clifford, Routley, de Merle, Bisset — whoever they were. 

Kaikohe was not unique. It was pretty much the same throughout the country. Irrespective of whose whakapapa dominated a particular area, the names on street signs were mostly European. In Kaikohe, some roads had descriptive names — Hillcrest, Memorial, Park, Recreation. There were some streets named after trees — Kowhai and Tawa — and yes, a few on the outer reaches of the central township did have Māori names. Hongi, Heke and Wihongi. 

But, mostly, central Kaikohe was all very Pākehā, despite its history, and the significant number of Māori living in the area. There was a large Māori settlement in the west of the town on Rangihamama Rd, which most people I knew referred to simply as “Rangi Rd”. Unlike the roads in the town centre, Rangihamama Rd was bumpy, potholed and unsealed. 

Most, if not all, of the retail outlets were owned and operated by Pākehā. The local council had a succession of white mayors and although there may have been Māori councillors, I don’t recall any. The town’s one picture theatre, the Regent, had two floors: upstairs and downstairs. In the years that I was at college, upstairs was one shilling and three pence, downstairs was nine pence. Upstairs had comfortable padded seats. Downstairs the seats were much less comfy. Pākehā sat upstairs. Māori sat downstairs. 

That wasn’t the law — but it was the reality, the result of a mix of social convention and economic realities. At the time, I didn’t regard any of this as in any sense wrong or unfair. It was just the way it was. 

Kaikohe Primary School, forms 1 and 2, 1958. Trevor is second from right, bottom seated row. Until 1969, most Māori children went to the Kaikohe Native School.

At primary school, we were taught about the arrival of Kupe, Toi and Whātonga and The Great Migration. At Northland College, we were taught about something called “The Māori Wars”. It was some time before they became known as “The New Zealand Wars”. 

Fortunately, some of our teachers were living in advance of their time. In the fourth form, I recall writing an essay in which I quoted from a book, written by an early settler, which I had found on my grandfather’s bookshelf. The author was no Elsdon Best. Alongside one of the passages critical of Māori, which I had taken from the book, my teacher (Jim Gale, who, by the 1970s, was a well-known anti-racist activist) had quoted from Lear in the margin: “More sinned against than sinning.” 

All power to teachers! In Kaikohe, in the 1960s, there were scarcely any others to keep the flame of liberal values alive. 

Trevor, with wreath, on Anzac Day 1961.

Northland College isn’t much more than half an hour from Waitangi, and the Treaty grounds were no more than a brisk walk from our home in Paihia, where I lived during the last few years of my time at secondary school. 

My first enduring memory of Waitangi was February 6, 1963. The Queen, on her second visit to New Zealand, attended celebrations at the Treaty grounds. I was part of a Boy Scout Guard of Honour which greeted her as she stepped ashore at the Waitangi jetty. I’d been told by our college principal that “this will be the most important day of your life”. 

That was a build-up on which the day sadly failed to deliver. Everybody in the official party down at the jetty had just looked so uninspiring. The PM, Keith Holyoake, looked too much like New Zealand Herald cartoonist Gordon Minhinnick’s caricatures to be taken seriously, and the Queen didn’t look that much different from many others her age that I’d seen at the Kaikohe A&P Show. 

As to the actual events at Waitangi which followed, I don’t remember much about them. Platitudinous speeches are rarely memorable. I left the Treaty grounds, empty and disappointed, half wondering how I was going to get through the rest of my life if this day was its most important. 

The basis of national identity is often myths and easy generalities. When it came to matters of race, this was certainly so of New Zealand in the 1950s and 1960s. During those decades, assimilation was New Zealand’s official race relations policy. For most Pākehā, this meant claiming that once Māori adopted white ways and behaved like whites, they would be treated like whites. And that was it. 

Assimilation was not a two-way street. Pākehā were not required to adopt or adapt to important aspects of Māori culture. For Māori, even speaking te reo was out. That was a road in the wrong direction. 

Although we didn’t know it, as we baby boomers were growing up, huge changes were taking place in New Zealand society. 

In 1945, the majority of Māori had lived in rural communities. Only 26 percent lived in towns and cities. By 1966, this had risen to 62 percent, and by 1986, almost 80 percent of Māori lived in towns and cities. 

For Pākehā, the “golden weather” of New Zealand race relations was coming to an end. As Māori and Pākehā mixed more, the hoax of assimilation became more clear. Young Māori radicals began arguing that, for Māori, the way forward was to return to and rediscover their roots. A Māori renaissance was underway. When Ngā Tamatoa declared there was no Māori problem — “What we have is a problem with Pākehā” — many Pākehā, who hadn’t spent five minutes examining any aspect of their relationship with Māori, felt threatened. 

Members of Ngā Tamatoa on the steps of Parliament Buildings, 1972. They are (from back left) Toro Waaka (Ngāti Kahungunu), John Ohia (Ngāi Te Rangi, Ngāti Pūkenga), Paul Kotara (Ngāi Tahu), Tame Iti (Ngāi Tuhoe), and (from front left) Orewa Barrett-Ohia (Ngāti Maniapoto), Rawiri Paratene (Ngāpuhi) and Tiata Witehira (Ngāpuhi). (Alexander Turnbull Library)

I was at Auckland University when Ngā Tamatoa was formed. What Syd Jackson, Ted Nia, Tame Iti and others were talking about wasn’t all that radical. Their chief concerns were the continuing confiscation of Māori land and the rapid disappearance of their language. What was “radical” was their presentation of this message. Articulate and uncompromising, their take-no-prisoners approach signalled the beginning of a new chapter in Māori protest. 

As the ‘60s became the ‘70s, the focus on race issues, both domestic and international, increased. Academics and church leaders, university students and trade unionists were speaking out. 

In 1970, Eric Gowing, the Anglican Bishop of Auckland, neatly tied issues of apartheid and domestic racism together when he said “what we think about sporting contacts with South Africa depends on what we think about racism”. 

In 1970, anti-apartheid organisations, including the recently formed HART (Halt All Racist Tours), churches and trade unions came together to form the New Zealand Race Relations Council (NZRRC) under the leadership of Jim Gale, my Northland College fourth form social studies teacher. 

The council’s basic aim, “was to extend and promote understanding, cooperation and harmony between the races”. Honorary vice-presidents included the Māori Queen, Te Atairangikaahu, the Ombudsman, Sir Guy Powles, Cardinal McKeefry, the four Māori MPs, and two Anglican bishops (Eric Gowing from Auckland, and Walter Robinson from Dunedin). The patron was Sir Edmund Hillary. 

The growing indications were that there was no way, when it came to race issues, that 1970s New Zealand was going to be quiet. I was happy to know that whatever it was that lay ahead, there was a solid base of mainstream New Zealand that had committed itself to an important set of beliefs — even if the NZRRC’s aims had been somewhat quaintly expressed. 

Rob Muldoon, New Zealand’s PM from 1975 to 1984.

And so it came to pass. Dominating most of the following decade and beyond was Robert Muldoon, National’s leader during much of the Third Labour Government (1972-75) and the prime minister from 1975 to 1984. He was the chief advocate of a virulent set of racist, populist policies and an unpleasant man. 

If New Zealand was going to have a prime minister with such views, I was pleased it was someone who so polarised the country. Every time he made one of his more egregious statements, more people joined the ranks of those wanting change. By the end of the decade, racism had become an issue on which the country was deeply conflicted. 

Central to this growing ongoing racial division were issues of land alienation. In 1975, Whina Cooper led a highly publicised 1,000-kilometre hīkoi from Te Hāpua in the Far North to Wellington protesting against the continuing loss of Māori land. 

At the time, Māori land ownership had dwindled to five percent. The hīkoi was inspirational and game-changing. The genie was out of the bottle. In the early days of 1977, activists moved on to and then occupied land at Auckland’s Bastion Point in an attempt to prevent Ngāti Whātua land coming under the control of the Crown. They remained there for 507 days. 

Protests spread as far as the United Kingdom. Coinciding with the 1977 Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting that was being held in London to mark the Queen’s silver jubilee, London-based HART activists, Kathy Baxter and Dave Wickham, organised protests outside New Zealand House demanding the return of Bastion Point to Ngāti Whātua. 

In early 1978, another major land dispute flared up in Raglan, where local golf club authorities were planning to extend their 9-hole course to 18 by expanding over an ancient Māori burial site. The protest at Raglan and at Bastion Point were both eventually to have successful outcomes, though not before hundreds were arrested. 

Looking back, on issues of race, it was not just “radicals” who were dominating the political landscape. The Third Labour Government was also making an impact. In April 1973, it cancelled that year’s Springbok rugby tour. In 1974, February 6 became known, for a brief period, as New Zealand Day. 

At Waitangi that year, Prime Minister Norman Kirk’s spontaneous gesture of taking a small Māori boy by the hand as he moved to the speakers’ rostrum became a much talked about symbol of hope in the country’s future. 

Not all my friends had viewed Kirk’s gesture positively — the word paternalism was heard on a number of occasions. But when I compared Waitangi 1975 with my experience of Waitangi 1963, I felt that as a country we had made some progress. 

In October 1975, Labour created the Waitangi Tribunal to hear Māori claims of breaches of the Treaty of Waitangi, which included unresolved land disputes. 

In 1976, the incoming National government entered office encouraging sporting contacts with South Africa. On the domestic race front, New Zealand Day reverted to being Waitangi Day. 

In 1977, the Waitangi Tribunal convened briefly, but quickly went into recess. 

In the 1970s, it wasn’t only Māori who were under attack. We’d welcomed 80,000 immigrants from neighbouring Pacific Islands when the New Zealand economy was booming and there was a shortage of labour, but couldn’t get rid of them fast enough when, by the mid-‘70s, the economy was in trouble. 

The Dawn Raids, which had begun under the Third Labour Government, and intensified under the 1975 National government, focused on rounding up Pacific Islanders who had overstayed their visas. Sāmoan and Tongan overstayers were singled out. Many were stopped in the street and asked for proof of residency. At the time of these Dawn Raids, the majority of those guilty of overstaying were not citizens of New Zealand’s Pacific neighbours. They were from Australia, the UK, and South Africa — but that was okay, because they were white. 

The Polynesian Panthers at a protest rally in 1971. (Photo: John Miller)

Throughout the 1970s, the two strands of New Zealand’s anti-racist struggle — domestic and international — had supported each other. HART had been formed in 1969, the year before Ngā Tamatoa. Syd Jackson and Hana Te Hemara, representing the New Zealand Māori Students’ Association, were two of the 14 at the meeting which established HART. 

From the beginning, Syd and other Ngā Tamatoa members were active in the anti-apartheid campaigns. One night, Syd and I were speaking in Rotorua against the 1976 All Black tour of South Africa when a bomb threat closed the meeting down. 

HART also worked alongside the Polynesian Panther Party, which had been formed in Auckland in 1971 to promote the interests of New Zealand’s Pacific Island community. In 1972, HART organised a speaking tour in Christchurch for the Panthers to help them widen their support. 

In 1974, representatives of Ngā Tamatoa, the Polynesian Panther Party, HART, and CARE met with representatives of the Ponsonby Rugby Football Club in an unsuccessful attempt to persuade them to abandon their planned 1975 tour of South Africa. At the time, 60 percent of Ponsonby residents were Polynesian, and polls indicated that 81 percent of Polynesians living in Ponsonby were opposed to the tour. The following year, HART branches around the country joined with other sympathetic organisations and individuals to prepare food for those on the hīkoi. 

In the post-war period, it wasn’t only the realities of New Zealand race relations that  many New Zealanders were either ignorant of, or in denial, about. As race became a major issue on the world stage, many in New Zealand were slow to respond positively to the new developing international consensus, especially when it came to Southern Africa. 

Support for apartheid among politicians, sportsmen and business leaders was always more widespread than was officially conceded. In a visit to South Africa in 1967, the deputy prime minister, Jack Marshall, had been struck by what he had seen. On his return to New Zealand, in a letter to the South African prime minister, John Vorster, he wrote that he was “impressed by the good relations which seemed to me to exist between the Bantu and the white people. I saw no evidence of tension or resentment”. On another occasion, Marshall had also expressed the belief that Māori were “good bulldozer drivers”. 

Tauranga’s National MP George Walsh visited South Africa and Southern Rhodesia in 1972. Of Ian Smith, he said: “This dedicated prime minister is becoming well known for his generous outlook.” He declared that Southern Rhodesia was “the best run country in Africa”, and that, in South Africa, “under separate development, the racial problems will resolve themselves”. 

Allan McCready, who was the minister in charge of the Dawn Raids of the mid-1970s (and who went on to own a racehorse which he named “Dawn Raid”), commented on his return from Southern Rhodesia, in October 1973, that: “You can take the Bantu out of the bush, but you cannot take the bush out of the Bantu.” To Rotorua MP Harry Lapwood, anti-apartheid protestors were “mentally sick or warped in mind”. 

With Nelson Mandela, in 1995.

In 1994, Nelson Mandela was elected the first president of a new, democratic, non-racial South Africa, but, as late as 2008, at least one politician was still failing the apartheid test. In his first television debate with Helen Clark in the 2008 election campaign, National Party leader John Key claimed that he couldn’t remember whether, when at university in 1981, he’d been for or against that year’s Springbok tour — which is a bit like not being able to remember which party you voted for in the last election. What was probably running through Key’s mind when he gave this dumb answer was whether it was politically safe in 2008 to admit to having been in support of the tour. 

There were many others, and they weren’t all politicians. A Wellington stockbroker and former All Black, Ron Jarden, returned from South Africa in 1968 convinced that apartheid was the only possible method of controlling and developing South Africa’s multi-racial society. “The natives have freedom from want and freedom from the danger of getting a spear through their stomach. They have family unity and continuing security and opportunity. Are these not more important than political freedom?” 

Tom Pearce, the chairman of the Auckland Regional Authority, and an erstwhile house guest of Southern Rhodesia’s Minister of Law and Order, Desmond Lardner- Burke, praised the role of white men in history and called for restraining orders to be placed on anti-apartheid leaders. 

For those seeking racial justice at home and abroad,1975-84 had been a particularly grim period. Internationally, New Zealand had always promoted the view that it was strongly opposed to apartheid, but its support over this period for New Zealand rugby’s continued links with South Africa rather got in the way of that claim. 

For the National government, it wasn’t, as was often claimed, a case of keeping politics out of sport. Between 1972 and 1984, National fought four successive election campaigns making sport central to its political appeal. When the government’s international anti-apartheid rhetoric conflicted with its pro-apartheid domestic decision making, the government acted in accordance with domestic imperatives, but continued to keep on mouthing the rhetoric internationally. 

Not so well remembered are the 1960-72 positions of New Zealand at the United Nations, when it either voted against, or abstained on, most resolutions which condemned South Africa. 

At the time of Southern Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence in 1965, a Tanzanian representative was prompted to describe New Zealand as “enemy number one of Africa” — a theme which Tanzania and over 20 other nations were to give practical effect to 11 years later, when they walked out of the 1976 Montreal Olympics in protest against the New Zealand government’s outspoken support for that year’s All Black rugby tour of South Africa. 

Prime Minister Muldoon had gone so far as to say that the 1976 All Blacks had gone to South Africa with his personal blessing and goodwill. Foreign minister Brian Talboys meanwhile had continued to assure the international community of New Zealand’s abhorrence of apartheid. 

The Muldoon government had once again mouthed the anti-apartheid rhetoric for international consumption, while at the same time singing from an entirely different song sheet for perceived domestic advantage. As Africa boycotted the Montreal Olympics, the government was to discover the perils of speaking simultaneously out of both sides of its mouth. 

By 1981, the New Zealand of my childhood was at war with itself. The battle between the values held by many of my parents’ generation, and those held by many baby boomers, was changing the way New Zealanders thought about themselves — the way they thought about the country they wanted New Zealand to be. 

We were deeply divided over a wide range of issues. It was not just race. That divide included our attitudes to women’s rights, gay rights, and the issue of New Zealand’s role and place in the world. Were we an appendage of Empire, or were we an independent Pacific nation? In 1973, the Labour government answered this question when Prime Minister Norman Kirk sent a navy frigate to French Polynesia to protest against French nuclear testing in the Pacific. 

The impact of the 1981 tour was widespread. First, we did not stop the tour, but we did show solidarity with those suffering under apartheid. Nelson Mandela told Dame Catherine Tizard in 1995 that, when he heard about the cancellation of the Hamilton game, “it felt like the sun coming out”. Second, at a time when they were badly needed, HART projected positive images of New Zealand internationally. We didn’t allow a small-minded, insular and racist government to speak for us. Third, we affirmed and promoted the power of protest. This had a positive impact on many issues, none more so than on issues of domestic racism. 

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the tour protests was the way in which it springboarded the issue of Māori sovereignty into the mainstream of liberal thinking. Increasingly, it wasn’t credible to oppose racism in South Africa while ignoring it at home. 

In 1981, activist and artist Ralph Hotere, ONZ, was painting his Black Union Jack series. My favourite is a mixed media work carrying the handwritten inscription Greetings from the land of the wrong white crowd. I love it, partly because its message, a vernacular play on the translation of the original Māori name for New Zealand, is totally unambiguous. 

In 1985, the Fourth Labour Government, elected the previous year, revived the Waitangi Tribunal and extended its brief to cover claims to include any alleged breach of the Treaty since 1840. 

In 1987, the Māori language became an official language of New Zealand. Not much more than a generation previously, kids in primary school were whacked for speaking te reo. 

Trevor with Springbok captain Francois Pienaar in 1994.

From 1988 to 1996, I was Africa Programme Manager for Volunteer Service Abroad, visiting projects in Tanzania, Zimbabwe, Botswana, Namibia and South Africa on a regular basis. The anti-apartheid campaigns of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s had exposed much anti-African sentiment in New Zealand. Born of ignorance, arrogance and racism, these views often went hand in hand with attitudes unsympathetic to the rights of tangata whenua. Travelling frequently in East and Southern Africa over this period exposed me to rich, sophisticated, and vibrant cultures about which their New Zealand critics knew nothing. As John Lennon said: “Living is easy with eyes closed.” 

I’d been actively involved in the New Zealand anti-apartheid movement and the wider anti-racist struggle for more than 30 years. In 2004, my partner was appointed to a job at the OECD. For 12 years, we lived on Paris’s left bank, in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower. 

France is so very different to New Zealand in so many respects, and yet, in some respects — and I am thinking now of racism — it’s not that dissimilar. Paris has an international reputation for being liberal, even revolutionary. To the casual tourist, it may be these things, but for many of those who live there, particularly those from any of France’s former colonies in North and West Africa, the City of Light is also a city of darkness. 

Living there, it doesn’t take a terribly sharp scalpel to cut through the pretence and discover a society strongly infected with racism. France’s Muslim community, the largest in Europe, is a social underclass. This is a consequence of both France’s colonial past and its post-colonial history of indifference. At the time that I was living in France, an estimated 40 percent of Muslim youth in France were unemployed. French Muslims represented 7 to 8 percent of the country’s population, but 70 percent of its prison population. I doubt that the French figures today are very much different. 

In New Zealand, we have recently passed the first anniversary of a white nationalist terrorist attack on two Christchurch Mosques. Fifty-one Muslims were killed. Twice, while I was living in Paris, the city was the subject of major attacks. The first, in January 2015, killed 17. The second, in November 2015, killed 130. 

In both countries, the epicentre of these attacks became awash with candles, messages, flowers, graffiti. After the second attack in Paris, French journalist Natalie Nougayrede wrote: “It has become both a shrine and a celebration of the Paris we knew before.” 

Similar sentiments were common following the Christchurch attack. But the nature of the attacks suffered by Paris and Christchurch were very different. In New Zealand, the attacker was a white nationalist and Muslims were the target. In France, the attackers were Muslim Jihadists, and it was French journalists, French Jews, and the French population as a whole who were the targets. 

The response of many New Zealanders to the Christchurch attack was to stand by and embrace its Muslim community, but anti-Muslim incidents were also reported. Veiled Muslim women were yelled at in public places and told to go back to where they came from. (New Zealand is where they come from.) 

What would the reaction have been here if the Christchurch attack had been carried out not by a white nationalist targeting Muslims, but by foreign Muslim jihadists, targeting the New Zealand population as a whole? Probably not too dissimilar to the reaction in France, where in the week following the first attack, 26 French mosques were attacked — by firebombs, gunfire, pigs heads and grenades. It was similar after the second attack. 

To those who are culturally and/or ethnically different from mainstream Pākehā New Zealand, this country can demonstrate genuine empathy. It can also display an embittered version of hate. Fortunately, I don’t believe that these differing responses exist in equal measure. 

Arriving back in New Zealand after 12 years in Europe, some changes were immediately obvious. Most noticeable was the growth and public acceptance of the use of te reo. What a delight! And how good it’s been to see basic “teach yourself Māori” being offered online as one of the activities during the coronavirus lockdown. Not that te reo has gained universal acceptance. For too many, the language is regarded as “useless”. 

Returning, it was also encouraging to find that Waitangi Day celebrations had lost much of their hard-edged confrontation. At the time of my birth, the Treaty of Waitangi was just six years on from its 100th anniversary. Earlier this year, it reached its 180th anniversary. 

Recently, the Māori Council issued a challenge to New Zealand. By the time of the Treaty’s 200th anniversary, it said, “we must set ambitious targets to rid the nation of racism”. Since 1840, racism has been an enduring feature of New Zealand life. Today, that racism is recognised for what it is by many Pākehā. For much of the last 180 years, it was not. 

What are the chances of ending racism in New Zealand by 2040? The news on this front would seem to be both good and bad. 

Structurally, racism continues to impact strongly on New Zealand society. The life expectancy of Māori is less than that of Pākehā. The percentage of Māori in prison — especially Māori women — far exceeds that of Pākehā. The percentage of unemployed Māori and of Māori living below the poverty line far exceeds that of Pākehā. The percentage of Māori in home ownership is lower compared to Pākehā. 

Unemployment. Prison incarceration. Irrespective of country, racism always seems to impact negatively in exactly the same areas. 

At the same time, attitudes and understanding are changing. There’s been undeniable progress since my visit to Waitangi in 1963. But it’s a slow and uneven progress across many fronts. Grievances associated with basic issues such as land alienation remain, as the recent occupation at Ihumātao illustrates. 

For many, an unwillingness to recognise this country’s roots remains entrenched. In the poorly designed 2015-16 debate over whether New Zealand should change its flag, bad taste and racism were to the fore. The most popular new designs were ones better suited to either cereal packets or jam jars. The least supported — often ones with the better designs — were ones incorporating Māori motifs. 

Ōtorohanga College students who presented a petition to parliament calling for the New Zealand Wars to be taught in schools.

One piece of good news is that teaching New Zealand history in schools will soon be compulsory. Some schools are teaching some New Zealand history some of the time, but the Ministry of Education doesn’t know how much or to how many. As far back as 1938, James Cowan, one of New Zealand’s early preeminent historians, was questioning why New Zealand schools were teaching English history and not our own history. I must’ve been one of the lucky ones, even if what I was taught at Northland College was a history that reflected the prevailing attitudes of the time. 

Move forward 81 years from Cowan’s observation to September 2019, and we have Jacinda Ardern’s announcement that, by 2022, all schools and kura in the country will be expected to teach New Zealand history. The curriculum changes being made will ensure that all students are aware of key aspects of New Zealand history and how they influenced and shaped the nation. Could this have elements of being a game changer? 

Take Hōne Heke, for example. Chopping down the flagpole at Kororāreka is one of New Zealand history’s abiding images. I left college with a very 19th century colonial understanding of events: that Heke was some sort of lone, troublemaking malcontent who was finally put in his place by Governor George Grey. 

But what if we’d been told that Heke, a Christian, and the first Māori to sign the Treaty, had been given assurances by Rev Henry Williams that, under the Treaty, the authority of Māori chiefs would be protected? The British government never kept this promise. Heke and other Māori felt betrayed. Their multiple attacks on the flagpole were taken out of a sense of that betrayal. 

Historian Vincent O’Malley has written recently that “a mature nation takes ownership of its history, not just cherry-picking the good bits out to remember but also acknowledging the bad stuff as well. Moving confidently into the future requires a robust understanding of where we’ve come from and been”. 

In one of the more famous lines in New Zealand poetry, Allan Curnow writes: 

Not I, some child, born in a marvellous year
Will learn the trick of standing upright here.

Vincent O’Malley again: 

Reconciling ourselves to the history of this land — finding a place to stand — is not just about supporting the settlement of historical Treaty of Waitangi claims. That’s part of the story but not the whole solution. It’s about ordinary New Zealanders taking the time to acknowledge and even own this history. Learn about it, respect it, pass it on, make sure your children and their children learn these stories too. Not so they can feel guilty or ashamed about the actions of their ancestors. But so they can be big enough, and confident enough, to say, “yes, this is part of our history too.” It is only through understanding, accepting and reconciling ourselves to that history will we “learn the trick of standing upright here”. 

Some New Zealanders are on the road “to ending racism”. Some are not. A large number of those who are not are probably not even aware that there is a need for such a journey. On the campaign trail, I would often quote Martin Luther King: 

History will have to record that the greatest tragedy of this period of social transition was not the strident clamour of the bad people, but the appalling silence of the good people. 

The Māori Council’s vision of ending racism by 2040 is an aspirational goal. The trick to making it more than that is for the country to learn what it means to stand upright here. That is happening. But by 2040? 


Trevor Richards was one of 14 people who established the Halt All Racist Tours movement (HART) at Auckland University in July 1969. He was the movement’s first chair (1969-1980) and international secretary (1980-85). In 1977, he worked for the United Nations Centre Against Apartheid in New York, assisting in drawing up the UN International Declaration Against Apartheid in Sport. His account of New Zealand’s long campaign against apartheid sport, Dancing On Our Bones: New Zealand, South Africa, rugby and racism was published in 1999.

© E-Tangata, 2020

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