Of all the international setbacks South Africa has suffered recently because of its policies of racial segregation, none hurt so much as the cancellation of the 16-match tour by New Zealand's national rugby team.
Barred from leaving for South Africa before a court challenge to the tour is settled, the New Zealand Rugby Football Union this week officially canceled the two-month trip, which had been scheduled to begin Friday.
The action slammed shut a door that South Africans thought they had finally managed to open. Two other rugby tours, arranged for next year, are now seen as unlikely, and South Africa feels itself an outcast in the only sport where it can claim, with New Zealand its chief rival, to be No. 1.
The impact of the tour's cancellation on white South Africans seemed greater than the three votes of condemnation in the U.N. Security Council last month, the prospect of American economic sanctions, the withdrawal of the U.S. ambassador from Pretoria last month and the threat last week by the Netherlands to do the same.
Cancellation a 'Tragedy'
"A major defeat," "a real tragedy," "a catastrophe for South Africa," South African commentators said of the cancellation of the tour by the New Zealand All Blacks, as the team is known from its distinctive uniforms.
"It's a tragedy," said Naas Botha, one of South Africa's top rugby players. "If they don't come, who will? I had hoped they could pull something off."
Since the agreement on the New Zealand tour was reached in April after months of discussion, South Africa had been preparing for what was going to be a major national event, something far more than a sports contest.
The tour had considerable political overtones--as a significant break in the international sports boycott of the country and as recognition by the world community, South Africans felt, that substantial racial progress has been made here in recent years.
Target of Activists
The tour promised to revive the sagging spirits of South African whites, particularly the Afrikaner descendants of Dutch, French and German settlers for whom rugby, the English forerunner of American football, has a mystical appeal that makes it almost a secular religion.
For those reasons, the tour quickly became the target of anti-apartheid activists here and in New Zealand. The United Democratic Front and the Azanian People's Organization threatened daily protests here throughout the tour, and anti-apartheid groups in New Zealand vowed that the team's plane would never get off the ground.
In the end, the tour was effectively halted by a lawsuit brought in Wellington by two rugby-playing lawyers who said the New Zealand Rugby Football Union had violated its own constitution in agreeing to tour South Africa. Although their arguments are still being heard, the judge ordered the 30-man team not to leave until the case is settled, perhaps in two or three weeks.