Susan Devoy: I seriously considered playing in apartheid South Africa

by Toby Manhire / 04 April, 2013
In autobiography, future NZ race relations commissioner said she "did not think boycotting sporting contacts helped the situation over there".
Devoy's 1993 autobiography.

The surprise appointment of Susan Devoy as New Zealand’s race relations commissioner must have done wonders for the web traffic at the Bay of Plenty Times.

Journalists and others trawled through her archived columns for the paper, highlighting a number that cast doubt on the former world squash champion's suitability for the new role – especially the one on Waitangi Day and the shining example of Australia’s national day.

But no one, as far as I can tell, has yet dusted off her autobiography, Out On Top.

Published in 1993, the book includes a chapter entitled “South Africa and other Things”. Here’s the passage on the question of touring South Africa under apartheid in the mid-80s – which I’ll excerpt without edits:

Many girls would head to the sunshine circuit in South Africa where tournament organisers were renowned for their hospitality and good times.

It could well have been called the goldmine circuit. There, in my early days anyhow, the biggest sums of money were to be made. It is one place, however, that I never visited. I couldn’t afford to, politically speaking of course. The squash association didn’t want me to go, because they had no idea what the repercussions would be. HART (Halt All Racist Tours) was very active in New Zealand in those days, and the anti-apartheid feeling so strong that any attempt to play there would have become a big issue. We knew I’d be blacklisted and the media coverage could damage my reputation in this country.

As an individual, I would have been singled out. It would have been remembered and there was the chance my sponsors may have pulled out to avoid adverse publicity as well. Furthermore, my Sports Foundation grant was given with the unwritten understanding that, if at all possible, I would avoid sporting contact with South Africa. The offers were incredibly attractive, however, and it took some strength to hang back, watching, while others went over and took advantage of the situation.

There was talk of being able to make upwards of $100,000 for a six to eight week trip. In those days that was big money, especially since it was also all-expenses-paid and absolutely the best of everything while you were there. Each year [husband] John and I would sit down and write out the pros and cons, trying to decide whether or not I should go. The cons always came out on top. As threatened by the United Nations, the girls who did go to South Africa would be put on a blacklist. It was seen as a bit of a joke, however, because all they had to do was write a letter saying they would never do it again – then they’d go back the next year. The English girls never had any trouble, the Aussies didn’t seem to worry, but as a Kiwi, and number one, it would have been seen as more significant had I played there.

It would be easy to say it was political convictions that stopped me, but that just isn’t true. I do not condone apartheid, but I don’t think boycotting sporting contacts helped the situation over there. If it was going to help, I could have seen the justification in it. As it was, people simply found ways of getting around the ban.

The girls always came back with such wonderful tales of the cities they visited – Johannesburg, Capetown, Pretoria and Durban. It was considered quite a challenge to play there, because of the altitude. It is a country I would really love to have visited and I felt we sportspeople were the scapegoats.


Full credit, as they say, to Devoy for her honesty in admitting that it was financial and reputational hazard rather than “political convictions” that made the (literal) cons list longer than the pros. And it was all a long time ago.

But this can only add to alarm about her professed belief that race relations is not complicated.

The final chapter of the book, by the way, begins, “I always rise to the occasion when the stakes are greatest.”

And it ends: “This is not the final chapter in the Susan Devoy story.”

On that, at least, she was unquestionably right.

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