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John Minto's Eulogy For Tom Newnham

John Minto's Eulogy for Tom Newnham QSO (1926 – 15 December 2010)

Tom Newnham QSO's funeral was held yesterday (Tuesday) at the Mt Eden War Memorial Hall on Dominion Rd, opposite his home. In honour of Tom, singer songwriter Don McGlashan performed his iconic song Dominion Road. And here, Scoop publishes a eulogy for Tom by fellow anti-apartheid campaigner John Minto.

E nga whanau Kath, Anne, Rewi, e nga reo, e nga hau e wha, kia ora koutou.

It’s a real privilege for me to be speaking here at this service for such a great New Zealander.

I arrived in Auckland in 1977 and was here no more than a week or so when late one afternoon I answered a knock at the door of my flat to find Tom Newnham standing on the doorstep. This man was a household name and a huge figure in New Zealand politics and I felt embarrassed and humbled at having him standing there inviting me to come to the next CARE committee meeting. I admired this man who was so often on TV and in the newspapers associated with controversy but always on the side of the angels.

If anti-apartheid organizing was challenging in the 1980s it was far more so in the 1960s and 70s when Tom was described more than once as the most hated man in New Zealand.

Those early days of anti-apartheid organizing in New Zealand are neatly summed up in a message Rob Murfitt sent through a couple of days ago: “Please convey my admiration for what Tom did at a time when the public awareness of the inequity of apartheid was barely appreciated in NZ and when it took a lion to stand up and declaim it”. Tom was that lion.

It’s a great irony that one of the arguments given for the formation of HART in 1969 was the need for a broad coalition to oppose apartheid in sport because CARE, under Tom’s leadership, had got such a bad name. It wasn’t Tom himself of course it was simply the nature of NZ at the time – insular, parochial and arrogant when it came to international issues. It was a country where many reacted viciously and vicerally to any attempt to stop the country playing sport with apartheid South Africa.

Tom was involved in these campaigns from the early days when the ‘no Maoris – no tour” issue took centre stage in 1960. It was just a few months back, 50 years on, when finally there came apologies from the South African and New Zealand rugby unions to Maori players and their families for their exclusion, on the basis of race, from All Black teams to South Africa.

Perhaps the greatest tribute to Tom’s campaigning was that he was personally attacked so often by Prime Minister Rob Muldoon through the 1970s.

Muldoon made sporting links with South Africa not just a political issue but an election issue and he launched frequent savage attacks against Tom, CARE and others in the anti-apartheid movement. If Tom had been an ineffectual campaigner he would have been ignored, but the fact he was so successful and frequently embarrassed the government over its hypocrisy – saying one thing at home in New Zealand and giving a very different message through our overseas diplomats – meant he was a target of the most thuggish and feared Prime Minister we’ve had the misfortune to experience.

Muldoon was looking backwards to a patronizingly-racist, socially-conservative New Zealand while Tom was looking ahead to a non-racist, bicultural country where international solidarity meant more than blind support for the US, apartheid South Africa and the old white Commonwealth.

Some of Muldoon’s verbal attacks were translated into action by others. Typical was the time Tom described finding a note put in his letterbox with the message “CARE members drop out of nigger-dog arses” and the time he found a can of petrol left by someone who raced off when disturbed outside the family home. They had the right address but it seems they hadn’t researched the fact it was a brick house with a brick fence and petrol just wasn’t going to do the job.

Tom, Kath, Anne and Rewi weathered one of the fiercest political storms a family has ever had to endure in New Zealand and for many years it was relentless. This country owes them all a debt of gratitude which will not be acknowledged by the establishment but which shows itself in changed political policies and changed social attitudes within New Zealanders themselves.

It’s important here to say an enormous thank you to Kath who weathered those storms with Tom and without whose support, encouragement and enormous tolerance it would not have been possible. Kath, we thank you dearly.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say Tom had a greater impact on New Zealand socially and culturally than any political figure of the same generation. Politicians notoriously follow public opinion in these areas. Tom however challenged public opinion and he was a leader in social, cultural and political change.

Throughout it all Tom was a determined figure of principled action and enormous energy. He never wavered and his infectious enthusiasm inspired those around him. So often when I visited across the road he’d be sitting at the small table in the living room bashing away – and I mean bashing - at the keys of his small portable typewriter as he wrote yet another media release and surrounded by piles of papers, documents, letters etc

Tom would have been in his mid-50s at the time of the 1981 Springbok tour but he was still on the front line. My abiding memory is of him walking around the assembled protestors on the field in Hamilton with his fist raised in triumph just before he was dragged from the field by police and dumped outside where he was further assaulted by rugby patrons only to be finally escorted to safety by police officer Inspector Huggard.

It wasn’t just the big protests – Tom was always there at any protest on the issue. A couple of days back Dick Cuthbert recounted to me a story of a protest outside the Remuera Squash Club back in the 1970s. It was a Sunday morning and Dick turned up to find Tom, the sole protestor, with a placard denouncing apartheid sport and weathering a stream of abuse from the good citizens of Remuera to which Tom was responding politely “Thank you sir for your opinion” and “No thanks Madam I don’t think the placard will fit”. Meanwhile behind the placard itself Tom had spread out the Sunday newspaper and was reading avidly between responding to abuse.

His numerous publications also helped drive the anti-apartheid struggle. “Apartheid is not a game” and “Cry of Treason” were two while the hugely popular and important “By Batons and Barbed Wire” on the 1981 Springbok tour was another. Not so well known is that earlier in 1981 he produced what was called the “Protestors’ Handbook” for the 1981 tour. He had collated detailed diagrams of each of the grounds where the Springboks would play, showing where the stands were and what type of fences surrounded the grounds. It also gave numerous other information such as transport options and contact details for local activists – in other words anything a civil disobedience protestor would need to know when following the Springboks.

Tom was frequently outraged and angered at injustice and it’s sad to say New Zealanders don’t get angry enough about the things that really matter. Tom did and in that he was an inspiration to a generation of activists. I’ve has numerous messages from many people asking for their messages to be passed on to the family. I will mention two here. Oliver Sutherland passes on the condolences of former members of ACORD (the Auckland Committee on Racism and Discrimination) and Saana Murray from Te Hapua, now living with family in Kaitaia and who taught with Tom at Hillary College and who enjoyed a long association with CARE) also passed greetings from her whanau to the Newnham whanau.

In Maori society when a leader dies they say a great totara has fallen in the forest of Tane. Tom was such a totara – a towering figure on New Zealand’s political and cultural landscape for several decades. He lived a big life in a small country.

Haere ra e hoa – haere, haere, haere…

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