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The Late Anti-apartheid Activist Tom Newnham Receives Posthumous Award From The South African Government

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Tom Newnham was awarded the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo in a ceremony in Pretoria.

Tom Newnham’s involvement in the Anti-apartheid Movement spanned more than three decades from the 1960s to the dawn of democracy in South Africa 1994. Tom was an outstanding New Zealander and a unique human being. He attacked institutional racism in and NZ and around the world with an intellectual ferocity without equal.

He was the major national voice opposing racism and promoting racial and economic justice on the national and international stage. No public voice at the time gave a greater challenge as to the immorality of sporting ties with apartheid South Africa than Tom’s. His efforts played a huge role in turning the tide against such an abhorrent regime.

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. And the awarding of the Order of the Companions of OR Tambo acknowledges his effect in South Africa itself.

This award is in recognition of his decades of anti-apartheid campaigning to cut New Zealand ties with apartheid South Africa. To quote the Awards Committee:

“Tom was particularly instrumental in shaming apartheid South Africa, and stopping rugby tours between South Africa and New Zealand."

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Tom’s son Rewi, and Tom’s granddaughter Maia, were in Pretoria at the ceremony on Tuesday 30 April 2024 to accept the award on Tom’s behalf.

This link explains what the award (The Order of the Companions of O.R. Tambo) is about:


  • Tom’s relentless application of his organisational and communication skills over 40 years raised awareness of racial inequalities in NZ and South Africa. In John Minto’s opinion “Tom had a greater impact on New Zealand socially and culturally than any political figure of the same generation.”
  • As Secretary of Citizens’ Association for Racial Equality from the mid-1960s he:

-Organised Homework centres, Maori language classes, English language classes for new citizens, Inquiry centres for new arrivals (which later developed into the local government funded Citizens Advice Bureaux).

-Supported the Polynesian Panthers in their protests against the so-called “Dawn Raids” by police on alleged overstayers.

-Organised numerous campaigns and demonstrations opposing New Zealand sporting contact with South Africa, including:

1965 Springboks tour of New Zealand

1970 All Blacks tour of South Africa

1971 International Surf lifesaving competition

1973 Springboks tour of New Zealand (succeeded in getting it cancelled)

1976 International Softball competition

1976 All Blacks tour of South Africa

1981 Springboks tour of New Zealand

  • In 1972 he was invited to address the UN Special Committee Against Apartheid in New York regarding the NZ government’s failure to stop sporting contact with South Africa.
  • While there he developed a good working relationship with Abraham Ordia (President of the Supreme Council for Sport in Africa), and with other anti-apartheid organisations. He would always make sure they were well informed on the NZ government’s position.
  • He organised speaking tours of NZ by several activists, including Dennis Brutus and Judith Todd.
  • Montreal Olympics 1976
    Tom’s strategy was, as always, to make sure positions/attitudes on all sides were known on all sides around the world. Muldoon referred to this as “bordering on treason”.

When many African countries walked out of the Olympics due to New Zealand’s presence he sent them all a telegram: “The greatest honour today lies with you who are sacrificing so much for human dignity. It will not be in vain”.

  • Although he always advocated non-violent protest and civil disobedience, being in the public eye over the years brought with it endless death threats, bullets in the post, being beaten up by rugby supporters in 1981, and an attempted arson of his home. He was arrested several times at demonstrations. He became known as “the most hated man in NZ”.
  • But in 1988, he was made a Companion of the Queen’s Service Order (QSO) for his services to the community. This surely reflected the change in NZ’s social attitudes that he was instrumental in bringing about.
  • In 1982, Tom received a personal letter of thanks from Winnie Mandela “on behalf of my people, my husband and our fellow freedom fighters”, looking forward to the day “our leaders will invite you to our country to meet you in free and democratic S.A. to which you shall have contributed so much”.
  • In 2012, he was posthumously honoured by Ambassador Stofile at a ceremony in Wellington.

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