Wellington, New Zealand — While the Reagan adminstration has hardened its attitude toward South Africa and demonstrations against Pretoria's racial policies have cropped up in the United States, New Zealand is bitterly divided over a singular aspect of contact with the Pretoria regime. The issue is a bizarre one to the eyes of many foreigners: Should New Zealand's national rugby team make a playing tour of South Africa this year?
Only four years ago, the South African rugby team came here for a two-month tour. It was marked by the biggest civil disturbances ever seen in New Zealand, with an estimated 275,000 New Zealanders taking to the streets in protest.
Police made baton charges on demonstrating crowds for the first time in 30 years and nearly 2,000 people were arrested. The row divided families and friends and the bitter feelings linger.
Sociologists have attributed an upsurge in anti-police and anti-authority attitudes by young people in recent years directly to hatred fostered by violent confrontations.
The US had a taste of it. When the South Africans played in the US on their way home in September 1981, one game was held in secret (at an undisclosed location) to avoid demonstrations, Eastern Rugby Union offices in Schenectady were bombed, and some municipal authorities in New York state refused facilities for fear of riots.
Many fear a tour to South Africa this year will provoke similar clashes throughout the country, and police officials have already appealed to rugby authorities to abandon it.
Anticipating widespread protests, Minister of Police Anne Hercus told Parliament: ``It is my considered assessment that the cost of the tour, should it go ahead, would be as high in human terms as the 1981 tour, and that community-police relationships would be stretched well into breaking point and perhaps behond what a democracy is able to stand.''
The government of Prime Minister David Lange, elected last July, has said visas would not be granted for any South African team to come to New Zealand in future. Individual South Africans, such as tennis players, must make an official declaration that they are not representing their country before being admitted.
But Mr. Lange has said his government will not stop the New Zealand rugby team -- ironically known as the All Blacks -- going to South Africa because that would infringe their democratic rights to travel freely overseas.
He has urged the New Zealand Rugby Football Union to call off the tour for the sake of domestic harmony and New Zealand's image overseas.
Lange has moved to improve New Zealand's relations with black Africa, harmed by the 1981 tour, since taking office.
He forced the closure of South Africa's diplomatic mission in Wellington, saying it could not reopen until apartheid (racial segregation) was ended, and will become the first New Zealand leader to tour black Africa when he visits Kenya, Tanzania, Zambia, Botswana, and Zimbabwe next month.
He hopes the the rugby union, which has an official invitation from the South Africans but has made no decision yet, will abandon the tour before he goes.
According to opinion polls, New Zealanders remain divided on the issue, with 45 percent in favor of the tour, 42 percent against, and 13 percent undivided.
The reason is that rugby is the national sport, played and followed with religious zeal, and New Zealand and South Africa are the world's leading exponents. The two nations have played each other since 1921, with each encounter akin to a world series.
Even Maoris, New Zealand's brown-skinned native people who comprise 10 percent of the population, are divided on the question.