By Paul Simao
JOHANNESBURG, Jan 29 (Reuters) - South Africa on Tuesday denied a prominent anti-apartheid activist had ever been nominated for a national award after he asked for his nomination to be withdrawn in a snub to the government.
John Minto, who organised protests in New Zealand during a tour by South Africa’s rugby team in 1981, had asked President Thabo Mbeki to withdraw his nomination for the Companion of O R Tambo award, one of South Africa’s highest awards.
In a letter to Mbeki on his Web site www.johnminto.org.nz, the New Zealand union organiser and columnist said he could not accept the award because the changes in South Africa since the end of white minority rule had only benefited an elite.
"In this regard, the Presidency wishes to place it on record that Mr. Minto has not, as a matter of fact, been nominated as a candidate for any of our national orders," the presidency said in a statement. It noted that members of the public make such nominations after a public invitation.
Minto did not say who had nominated him for the award, which has previously been conferred on U.S. civil rights icon Martin Luther King Jr., Mohandas (Mahatma) Gandhi, the father of Indian independence, and other notable leaders.
The presidency added that the government held Minto in "high esteem," appreciated his role in the anti-apartheid struggle and remained open to engaging with him, especially over its efforts to improve the lives of South Africans.
Thousands of New Zealanders, known for their devotion to their national sport, responded to Minto’s Halt All Racist Tours campaign by taking to the streets during the 1981 tour by the Springboks rugby team.
The protests, some of which turned violent when police confronted the crowds, shocked white South Africans, who had viewed New Zealand as a friendly nation, and helped to galvanise the worldwide anti-apartheid movement.
Mbeki has led South Africa since 1999, implementing centrist, pro-business policies that his supporters say have ushered in years of economic growth and the development of a black middle class.
But labour unions, communists and other critics accuse his government of neglecting millions of poor, mostly black South Africans living on the margins of Africa’s largest economy 14 years after the end of apartheid. (Editing by Matthew Tostevin)