Walking through Wellington the other week, I saw a message chalked on the footpath outside the offices of the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. It had clearly been written by one of the protesters (commonly, though not entirely accurately, described as ‘anti-vaccination mandate’) currently occupying the Parliament grounds and surrounding area. The message said ‘Culture of apartheid’, with a jagged line separating two faces, only one of which was smiling.
There’s been some commentary about the misuse of historical parallels by the protesters. New Zealand’s Jewish community has condemned the protesters for comparing the situation of unvaccinated New Zealanders to the treatment of Jews by the Nazis, even as anti-Semitic poison spews out of the protest camp. The RSA also felt compelled to repudiate slogans likening the protest to New Zealand involvement in the Gallipoli campaign during the First World War. (Because we all remember the stirring moment when the Anzacs, under heavy Turkish fire, ummm… refused to take a safe and effective vaccine. Actually, given the strong opposition to the protest from Wellington mana whenua and most Wellingtonians, perhaps the comparison with the Anzacs’ attempt to forcibly occupy the Gallipoli peninsula is apt after all.)
Likening vaccination mandates to the apartheid policy of the former white minority regime of South Africa is another spurious historical comparison made by the protesters. Protest signs say things like ‘End apartheid we go home’, while one I saw the other day wins the prize for combining Nazi and apartheid references: ‘Welcome to Fuhrer Ardern’s apartheid New Zealand’.
The rhetoric of the current protest is dominated by a vague but highly individualistic concept of ‘freedom’. Jehan Casinader recently wrote a good response to the protesters’ outlandish claims that New Zealanders’ freedoms are under threat from a dictatorial government. The individualist emphasis on ‘freedom’ unites the ‘alt right’ and the New Age ‘wellness’ movement, with protest rhetoric drawing freely from both of these ideological strands. However, it leaves the protesters with an impoverished language for talking about fairness or equality: which is where the idea of ‘apartheid’ (with the implication that the unvaccinated are suffering unfair segregation and discrimination) comes in.
South African apartheid has now passed into history, and with its passing the popular understanding in New Zealand of the nature of apartheid has been sanitised. If you ask New Zealanders today to define apartheid, many would probably say something like ‘treating people differently on the basis of race’ (or ‘based on the colour of their skin’). It’s this watered down understanding of apartheid that has allowed the political right to position itself as the leaders of the new anti-apartheid struggle.
For most of the time that South African apartheid was actually in existence, the right in New Zealand was generally opposed to the idea that New Zealand should put pressure on the South African government to end white minority rule. Anti-apartheid activism in New Zealand was largely confined to leftists and liberals. With the fall of the apartheid regime and the widespread acceptance that anti-apartheid movement had held the moral high ground, however, the right’s position shifted.
To be sure, some fringe right wingers in New Zealand display a barely concealed nostalgia for apartheid by perpetuating a myth of post-apartheid genocide against white South Africans which, as Ross Webb has described, has been promoted within New Zealand’s white South African community. But far more common is a strategy of claiming the anti-apartheid mantle for the right. Act Party leader David Seymour recently referred to people coming to New Zealand ‘from South Africa to escape apartheid’ when arguing that New Zealand history is marked by a quest for equal opportunity and freedom. (In fact, most South African New Zealanders arrived well after the end of apartheid.) And last year Seymour compared legislation making it easier to establish Māori wards in local government to the laws of apartheid South Africa.
Whether it’s Māori wards, the current government’s Three Waters proposals, the proposed establishment of a Māori Health Authority, or a range of other issues, any suggestion of specific arrangements to recognise Māori rights and interests is inevitably met with claims of apartheid from opponents, most of whom are on the political right. Sometimes it’s not even necessary to mention the ‘a’ word – it’s usually enough to attack ‘separatism‘ (as if colonisation was not itself a separatist project from the start). The current claims that vaccine mandates are a form of apartheid seem to draw on this existing right-wing rhetoric.
Such claims rely on forgetting the realities of life in apartheid South Africa. When apartheid is described as ‘treating people differently on the basis of race’, a lot is hidden in those words ‘treating people differently’. The official ideology of apartheid was one of separate development for different ‘races’, but separation was simply a tool for white racial domination. Under apartheid, millions of non-white South Africans were forcibly relocated; freedom of movement for black South Africans was severely curtailed; public services such as health and education were not simply segregated but grossly unequal, with whites accessing much better services than others; and non-white citizens had no voting or other political rights, while many black people had their citizenship revoked under the pretence that they were citizens of independent black ‘homelands’. Opponents of the apartheid regime were killed by police and security services, imprisoned and tortured.
Above all, apartheid was a system of white supremacy underpinned by economic exploitation. Apartheid cemented white ownership of productive land that had been taken from the black majority, and tight control of the lives of black people kept the wages of black workers low. Exploitation of the land and labour of black South Africans created wealth that the elite could share to some extent with the white working class, helping to maintain their support for the ruling National Party. Common interests in upholding white supremacy also helped to overcome pre-existing divisions between Afrikaners and British South Africans.
It should be clear from this brief description that vaccine mandates in New Zealand are not even remotely like apartheid (not to mention that this is a temporary policy created in response to a deadly pandemic). There is no resemblance, for example, between a vaccine passport and the infamous pass laws of apartheid South Africa – not only is the intent and enforcement of vaccine passports vastly different from the apartheid pass laws, but those laws were part of a much larger system of economic, political and social control that has no parallel in modern New Zealand.
If apartheid is understood as system of economic exploitation and racial control, it also becomes clear that policies designed to provide Māori with a political voice, to recognise their rights and interests, and to address injustices and overcome inequalities they experience, have nothing to do with apartheid. Here is a very incomplete list of things that are not apartheid:
- The establishment of separate health, education or social providers to deliver more effective and culturally appropriate services to those Māori who choose to use them.
- Provision for Māori representation on elected bodies to ensure that there is an independent Māori voice to advocate for Māori views and interests.
- Māori choosing to form their own structures to manage their own affairs and advocate for their distinct rights and interests.
- Recognition and protection of the unique status of Māori culture as the indigenous culture of Aotearoa, one which exists nowhere else in the world.
- Māori exercising control over access to their own lands and communities.
- Redress to Māori for historical injustices, and targeted funding or programmes to address unequal social, economic and health outcomes for Māori.
The irony of the right’s apartheid rhetoric is that, to the extent that anything resembling apartheid’s system of racial control has been experienced in New Zealand, it has been experienced by Māori. The connections between the histories of colonisation and racism in South Africa and Aotearoa were pointed out by Māori activists during and after the protests against the 1981 Springbok tour of New Zealand. Māori have, at different times in Aotearoa’s history, experienced forced removal from their lands, armed suppression of political protest, imprisonment without trial, discrimination and substandard government services. This history, too, is forgotten in glib comparisons of present-day policies to apartheid. It’s curious, to say the least, to see Pākehā – including some individuals with significant wealth and privilege – now positioning themselves as the victims of apartheid policies.