Honouring the Prophets: Tom Newnham

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 30, Spring 2004

Tom Newnham is a Kiwi icon. Long before most of the current crop of ‘celebrity’ New Zealanders was born, Tom Newnham was the major national voice opposing racism and promoting racial and economic justice.

Born in Christchurch and educated at Villa Maria Convent and Christchurch Technical College, Tom launched himself on the world of the 1940s and 1950s with the enthusiasm and zeal that has remained his trademark all his life. A born educator, he trained as a teacher before travelling with friends overseas, working his passage to Europe via Australia and Indonesia. Subsequent early visits to Hong Kong, China and South Africa were crucial in developing his interests in racial and economic justice, passions which have dominated his life ever since. Back home, married to lifelong partner Kath and a father of two, Tom spent his years as a high school teacher in Auckland where he lives now in active retirement.

It is as the national secretary of CARE, the Citizens Association for Racial equality, that Tom Newnham is best remembered. Formed in the 1960s to combat racism at home against minorities especially Maori, CARE spawned HART (the Halt All Racist Tours movement). Together, CARE and HART sought to ban all racial contact with the apartheid regime in South Africa. Arrested and jailed on numerous occasions, vilified in the media as a troublemaker and in Parliament as a traitor, Tom was never far from the headlines during those turbulent two decades between 1965-85. By the mid 1980s, sporting, cultural and economic support for apartheid was banned internationally and Maori were again taking pride in their history and place in this country. Tom Newnham played a pivotal role in both developments.

Tom became one of the major faces on TV promoting the rights of black South Africans and Maori in cultures both dominated by white colonial immigration. He was an excellent public speaker, articulate and clear in what he saw racism to be, an evil upon the blot of the human landscape. He would take to the streets at the drop of a hat if letters and other forms of lobbying were being ignored. Ever one to quickly put pen to paper, he wrote three books on relations with South Africa during this period – Apartheid is not a Game (1975), A Cry of Treason (1978) and By Batons and Barbed Wire (1981), his account of the Springbok rugby tour that year. Only the latter is still in print.

Tom’s social activism has led him to oppose nuclear ship visits to New Zealand and to become a leading anti-war campaigner. For a time, he was secretary of CND in Auckland and an active member of the Peace Squadron, convened by George Armstrong to oppose the entry of nuclear armed or powered ships into New Zealand harbours.

In addition, he wrote many school texts on cultural issues which became widely used in New Zealand schools. His influence through his writings have had a significant impact on successive generations of school pupils.

Tom never lost his enthusiasm for the work at hand nor his sense of fair play in seeing the ‘good’ side of an opponent. He was never stuck in an ideology. For him, social justice was a way of life, a movement continually to be sought and perfected but never locked into a narrow ideology. Not for him the name-calling and character assassination so characteristic of many of his opponents. He always recognised the potential in an adversary for change and the possibility of winning over an opponent.

Toms other great passion was China. An early member of the New Zealand China Society in the days when China was as far away from Kiwi consciousness as Siberia is today, Tom sought to travel to China and learn about and understand this huge segment of human society. He learnt both Mandarin and Cantonese so as to be better equipped to teach both in Hong Kong (where he taught for two years) and in China. Eventually he did make a visit there in 1966, where he was able to link up with Rewi Alley and see the work being done to bring education into the modern arena. He was to visit many times once visiting restrictions were lifted.

Tom’s faith in institutional Catholicism died in his teenage years but he ever remained open to goodness wherever he found it. On one famous occasion he wrote to a New Zealand priest friend to say he had found a remote village in north China which appeared to be still very Catholic in its devotions, despite the fact that Christianity was persecuted in Mao’s China. Tom wanted some Catholic literature and symbols sent there, for him to give as a gift to the people of the village. His Villa Maria training had stood him in good stead!

His interest in China led to his interest in the life of Kathleen Hall, an Anglican lay missionary from Auckland and another unsung New Zealand hero, who became very involved with the Long March led by Mao and gave her adult life to nursing in China. Tom eventually wrote two books from his research, one on New Zealand women in China and the other a biography of Kathleen Hall.

Tom would be the first to say that his relationship with his wife Kath has been a rock upon which he has not only built his social involvement but been able to sustain it for so long. Her support for him in his struggles is the stuff of legend for those who know them well.

Now 77 and a little slower, Tom remains much the same today as he always was. Passionate, convincing, never sitting still while work remains undone, as honest and forthright as the day is long, he is as socially conscious as ever, a much loved and respected elder to all New Zealanders seeking justice and a better world.

Tom Newnham’s autobiography was reviewed on page 11 of this issue.

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