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New Zealand's Leader Questioned Over Apartheid Amnesia

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Many of the world dignitaries heading to the village Qunua to join South African people for the funeral of funerals have dubious track records on the anti-apartheid struggle.

As a 23-year-old, while Mandela languished in prison, David Cameron, now British Prime Minister, accepted an all-expenses paid trip from a company lobbying against economic sanctions on the apartheid government.

It took Cameron until 2006, but he finally distanced himself from the Conservative Party's support for the apartheid regime, criticising Margaret Thatcher for having labelled Mandela a "terrorist".

Former US President Bill Clinton calls Mandela a "true friend," and undoubtedly shared a bond with the South African icon. But he still failed to have Mandela and the African National Congress Party removed from the US terrorism list on which Ronald Regan had placed them.

Mandela, unsurprisingly, differed with the Bush administration over the War on Terror and the invasion of Iraq. Vice president Dick Cheney had been the senator who had presented the terrorist motion in 1987. It was, nonetheless, George W Bush who finally removed the Nobel Peace Prize laureate from the terrorist list.

That wasn't until in 2008, at the tail end of his presidency.

Hypocritical and revisionist, perhaps. In an entirely different category, however, is the apparent indifference demonstrated by the New Zealand prime minister, who refuses to even discuss with the media his stance on apartheid at the time of Mandela's imprisonment.

Prime Minister John Key of the conservative National Party will be attending the funeral as the leader of the NZ delegation. Yet Key is irritated by the fact that media continues to ask him about the issue.

"I'm not going to bother going into it," he told TVNZ's Breakfast, a morning news show, after being pressed on Monday once again about his attitude towards apartheid in the early 1980s.

"I was about 20 years of age, I had a whole lot of other things to do at the time."

When he took over the National Party in 2006, Key was asked for the first time about whether he had been for or against the notorious 1981 Springbok rugby tour of NZ. He replied simply that he couldn't remember.

He maintained this same amnesic position during the 2008 election debate.

This indifference is inconceivable to many New Zealanders, who recall the 1981 Springbok tour as one of the most divisive periods in the nation's contemporary history.

South Africa was an international pariah at the time, and NZ was one of the few countries to break the international ban on sporting ties. Roughly half of the population of the rugby-loving country were adamant that politics wouldn't get in the way of a good match, while the other half were committed to stopping what they considered to be a national disgrace.

Leading up to the tour, Kiwi riot police were armed with long batons and training. The country hadn't experience such widespread brutality in decades, as protesters were arrested en mass and took to wearing helmets to protect themselves from the blows dealt by police and angry rugby fans.

Key's evasiveness some thirty years after the tour might indeed be, as many suspect, a shrewd political calculation: his conservative political base largely was in favour of the tour.

After all, Robert Muldoon, the National prime minister who condemned Mandela as a terrorist and let the tour happen, was voted back into office when elections were held a few months after the 1981 tour.

There has been loud criticism in NZ over the delegation that will be representing our country at the funeral, and its failure to include any of the leading voices who argued we should show solidarity with the victims of the apartheid regime rather than kicking a ball around with the representatives of their white oppressors.

The inclusion on the NZ delegation of two senior figures from the pro-tour Muldoon government, Jim Bolger and Don McKinnon, has also stirred anger.

"The current delegation is heavily weighted with those who supported the 1981 tour, were apologists for South Africa's apartheid regime and strongly opposed New Zealand's anti-apartheid movement," John Minto, a leading figure of NZ's anti-apartheid movement, told me by email.

There's also the distinct possibility that Key might actually be telling the truth: that he really didn't care, either way. If so, this is arguably more disquieting.

Key has said that he became interested in politics in the 1970s, but the politics that caught his attention, this suggests, were not the same ones that captured the passions of the majority of the NZ public in the 1980s.

For if he was indifferent to Mandela's plight, and to the passions the pro-Tour movement provoked in many of his fellow conservatives, it clearly was the economic politics of the day that got Key excited.

The cause of great pain and spiralling unemployment for many, the dramatic economic changes of the 1980s paved the way for aspiring stockbrokers like the young Key to embark on a career as a trader.

He might have no memory of Mandela's imprisonment, but he vividly remembers the day the Lange government floated the NZ dollar in 1985. He became one of the country's first foreign currency traders that same year.

His colleagues were later convicted for launching the most spectacular and destabilising attack on the national currency in NZ's history.

Trading on the newly open markets paid off, and by the time he was voted into office in 2008, Key had accumulated an estimated personal wealth of NZ$50 million - the richest member of NZ's parliament.

During the period when Key and others in the banking industry were making their fortunes, NZ went from being one of the most equal countries in the developed world to being one of the most unequal, a trend that is continuing under Key's government. The OECD credits changes in taxation and labour law for the dramatic changes in the distribution of wealth.

Nelson Mandela represents a life of sacrifice and devotion to an ethically-charged political cause. There were those who opposed that same cause, and who subsequently found themselves on the wrong side of history.

And then there exists that increasingly common brand of politician of the 21st century: the technocrat who is devoid of any sincere political passion either way.

Key might never have called Mandela a terrorist, but his 1980s apathy over apartheid is arguably more troubling for what it reveals about the shallow nature of his politics, and his very motivations for going into public service.

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