Mandela Day 2018: Trade Unions & the Anti-Apartheid Movement

On Nelson Mandela Day (18 July), we are sharing the full text of our interview with Brian Filling, Chair of the Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation and Honorary Consul for South Africa in Scotland. We interviewed Brian for our Congress Programme 2018. 

Can you tell us about the role of trade unions in the anti-apartheid struggle?

Trade Unions in Britain were great supporters of the anti-apartheid movement. The STUC was ahead of the TUC in many ways because they recognised the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU) and the ANC years before the TUC. In comparison, the TUC tried to work with the “Uncle Tom” trade unions – the white dominated Trade Union Council of South Africa, but the STUC never did. It wasn’t until 1981 that the TUC changed its policy.

NALGO (now UNISON) Glasgow City Branch gave the Anti-Apartheid Movement Scottish Committee an office to use. Another notable example was the RMT – at that time the National Seamen Union – who staged an extremely successful boycott of shipping North Sea oil to South Africa. USDAW members in Dunnes Stores in Ireland held a very successful boycott of South African goods.

BIFU, the banking union, now part of UNITE the Union, and many others like the Civil Service unions, Transport & General Workers Union and the AEUW, the engineers’ union, also did a lot of important work. And of course, so many individual branches across Scotland invited speakers from the campaign to meetings, they raised funds, they hosted exiled South African trade unionists; it really did spread rapidly, and the trade unions were the bed rock of the support for the campaign, and often dug it out of financial trouble.

In later years, the STUC invited speakers from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and South African TUC (SATUC) to Congress, and Scottish affiliates would invite delegates from their sister South African unions, so there was always a lot of support and activity. In 1994, six months after the first election and the end of apartheid, we took a 30-strong delegation to South Africa, including six STUC General Council members. It was a fantastic experience for everyone – we were hosted in Parliament by the Deputy Foreign Minister, who had previously been in exile.  We were invited to visit a hospital and over 300 stewards were there to welcome us. Even though they were poor and didn’t have very much, they put on a party that lasted well into the night. It was unforgettable.

Can you tell us about the South African trade union movement during the apartheid period and its role in the struggle?

In the early 1960s, when Mandela was arrested along with the others in the Rivonia trial, it really decapitated the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. Many leading people had been sent out of SA, like Oliver Tambo who moved to London in 1960, because it was so dangerous, they knew they were going to be caught and imprisoned.

This was the time of the Sharpesville massacre (March 1960), a watershed moment in the struggle, marking a move to a more violent, more intense period of state repression. In response, the ANC took up the armed struggle. Mandela became commander-in-chief of Umkhonto weSizwe (“Spear of the Nation”) or ‘MK’.  They were still organising underground, but they kept getting arrested, being killed in prison. It really was a particularly hard time for the struggle after Rivonia, but eventually a new generation emerged. A key date was 1976 with the Soweto uprising, a lot of students were killed, and it acted as a recruiting aid, a lot of people left to join the armed struggle, literally 1000s joined the armed struggle.

There had always been trade unions in SA but they were banned, of course, for much of this time, and trade union members suffered harassment, imprisonment, torture and assassination. A contradiction in apartheid was that you would get some groups of workers coming together and forming a union, and the employer would negotiate with them, even though they were banned. The Apartheid government was left in a difficult position, and of course they tried to clamp down, they could see that trade unions were a way in which South Africans could join together and claim some power. It was particularly common in mining – Cyril Ramaphosa formed the National Union of Mineworkers in 1982 and successfully fought for an end to the job reservation system, which ensured that the best paid jobs went to white people. The NUM became the largest union in South Africa. Of course, Ramaphosa is now the President of South Africa.

The SATUC was banned, but COSATU was formed and it really took off. In the mid-80s, it was very well organised, with literally thousands of people joining trade unions. It was formed by 33 anti-apartheid unions who were committed to a non-racial, non-sexist and democratic South Africa. It was one of the big elements that put pressure on the apartheid government in the 80s, that and sanctions.

What was the British state’s involvement at this time?

A number of countries imposed sanctions on the South African regime, but Britain – led then by Thatcher – was one of the last countries to take these measures. Thatcher was completely isolated in her position – every country in the Commonwealth was for sanctions on SA. Thatcher was, of course, close to Regan and they shared a similar view of South Africa, but even the US moved quicker than Britain.

 Once Mandela was elected in 1994 was that the end, or has there been a continued relationship between Scotland and South Africa?

The Anti-Apartheid movement discussed what would happen after the elections, and it was agreed that Action for South Africa (ACTSA) would be formed. Although there had a been an election, the country still had suffered under 300 years of colonialism and apartheid, and it was recognised that South Africans were still going to need international solidarity, albeit of a different kind.

Prior to the end of apartheid, we had twinned Anti-Apartheid Movement regions of the UK with ANC regions in South Africa: Scotland was linked with the Transkei for historical reasons. Scots missionaries had established the Lovelace Institute there, which was the longest lasting non-racial high schools in South Africa and a lot of leading South Africans had been educated there. The first principle was William Govan – Govan Mkbeki was named after him and went to school there. He was later jailed at Rivonia. Forthare University was also formed by Scots missionaries in this area, and still to this day is one of the leading universities for Black Africans. Mandela studied there along with many leaders from other African countries. So because of these connections, we were twinned with the Transkei ANC; it later became the Eastern Cape Province.

We encouraged local branches to link up with each other too. We had educational institutions, local authorities, churches all linked up. So, for example we twinned Glasgow City Council with Amathole District Municipality. They used Commonwealth monies to fund the exchange of good practice; staff would visit from each country to learn from each other and it went on for many years. We were keen to promote very practical support, not just symbolic actions.

Do you think that’s why the links are so strong, because it’s about practical solidarity not just protests and rallies?

ACTSA at a national level became very different from the anti-apartheid movement. It became about lobbying Brussels and London and had no interest in local groups so they unfortunately died. But we continued with this in Scotland and we tried to continue these people to people links, but often they are hard to maintain as people move on and connections are lost, but some very good things happened and still do. For example, Glasgow Caledonian University offered to give Mandela an honorary doctorate, but he would only accept it if they committed themselves to offering support to rebuild South Africa. Glasgow Caledonian University twinned with the University of Transkei and nursing staff were sent out on three-month secondments; over a couple of years they worked with South African nurses to develop a whole new curriculum for nursing students and this was eventually taken up across the whole country.

They then began to send over physiotherapists, podiatrists, and visual science specialists to help train people to work in public institutions. During apartheid, these specialists often only treated white middle class patients so there was a lack of skills and experience in the black African medical profession. GCU students continue to volunteer in South Africa on the Phelophepa Health Train which brings health care to millions of people who live in rural areas of the country. Visual science students have told me they often see 40-50 patients a day on the train, with some carrying out cataract removal procedures, just wonderful stories of people leaving the train dancing into the night with their sight fully restored. There are 55 students going out to work on the train soon and by the end of this year 400 students will have worked on the train. It’s known in GCU but probably not widely, it’s great example of the continued way we continue to provide practical solidarity to South Africans.

That brings us on to now and the campaign for the Nelson Mandela statue. Why do you think we need a statue?

Naturally, if people didn’t live through things, it just becomes history. History is often written by the victors, but in this case the state doesn’t want us to remember the role they played in apartheid. It’s the same people in power in the UK and America now, so they are rewriting history to suit their own agenda. Thatcher’s ambassador to the UK wrote in his memoir that she was the one who secured Mandela’s release, so they are attempting to rewrite this period in history, so that’s part of it.

But also, today, if you stop fighting racism it comes back, it never goes away. There are those who it is in their interest to keep racism alive because it divides people, and there are others who are just ignorant and don’t understand. The statue is just one part of it, but it also about education and the activity around the statue that we are planning.

The statue is a physical marker of the need to continue to fight racism, to remind us that people can fight for change in the world and win it, and to commemorate the role that Scotland and Glasgow played in the anti-apartheid struggle. When Mandela addressed the crowds in George Square in 1993 he said, “While we were physically denied our freedom, a city 6,000 miles away, and as renowned as Glasgow, refused to accept the legitimacy of the apartheid system.”

Glasgow was the first city in the world to give Mandela freedom when he was still in prison on Robben Island. We approached the Lord Provost Michael Kelly to launch a worldwide Lord Mayors’ petition calling for the release of Mandela. This was followed by the renaming of Nelson Mandela Place in 1986. In 1988, we began a march from Glasgow to London, with 24 marchers to represent each year Mandela has been imprisoned. It left from Glasgow Green and a crowd of 30,000. So that connection with Glasgow is worth commemorating. Freedom of the City is ephemeral, you can’t see it, but you can see a statue.

What can trade unions do to support the campaign now?

Donations are extremely important, not just for the statue but all the planning and legal processes involved, and all the educational activities we have planned. Branches can invite speakers to meetings and events, and we have lots of materials and information that can be shared on our website.

We think it is especially important for younger generations to learn about this period of history. It’s not just about the anti-apartheid struggle in SA, but the effects that were felt across the continent, the problems caused by colonialism. People need to understand the root causes of the problems we see now. Apartheid has been defeated but the capitalist rulers are still exploiting South Africa and other countries in the region. Look at the Bell Potinger case, he was Thatcher’s head strategist during the miners’ strikes, and he was brought into South Africa by the Guptas. Their undoing was attempting to stir up racial tensions to justify their exploitation of the South African working classes, to attempt to divide people further.

There is a big responsibility on us to remind people of the role of British capitalism in supporting colonialism and apartheid but we also need to record the role of trade unions taking action in solidarity with their brothers and sisters in South Africa. I have no doubt that the trade unions will wish to support our campaign to create a statue of Nelson Mandela as a commemoration of the struggle against apartheid and their role in solidarity.

The Nelson Mandela Scottish Memorial Foundation is holding a fundraising gala dinner, on 24th August 2018, to celebrate the life and legacy of Nelson Mandela in this centenary year of his birth, and to raise funds both for a permanent memorial in Nelson Mandela Place, Glasgow and for the educational activities which the statue is designed to promote. You can find out more about this, and other ways you can support the campaign, here.

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