I cannot say that I was too active in the Anti-Apartheid movement – I was a member. I can remember letter requests coming through the Trades Council (Brighton and Hove TUC), and it was one of the few non-contentious issues that met with total approval. The mass movement activists like myself, the Trots and even Right-Wing Labour were all supportive of the AAM.
My proudest mass movement memory was an International Trade Union Solidarity conference I organised, and I say I organised from a Mandela-sense in a partly derogatory way. At that time I was deeply fervent. I was wearing several hats. I was international officer of the Trades Council, I was national secretary of the Labour Aid and Development Committee, I was a member of the non-political World Development Movement (BDM for the sake of this blog) and I was also liaising with the local Oxfam through the Brighton Labour Aid and Development Committee (BALADC). To be honest I was held back by BALADC and BDM, but between meetings I would forge ahead in developing the conference. When I reported to the meeting it was a shock to them what I had done but they were not a part of it. I was creating the same alienation I am now so critical of. One member of either BALADC or the BDM spoke to Oxfam, and I had a long and heated argument with the Oxfam Development Officer at the time. He claimed he had no political differences with me but that Oxfam’s charity status was always under question. But in this case his condemnation was that I was acting individually. My argument was that I welcomed anyone in the organisations to do more as they had all agreed support for the conference, but they were unwilling to be more active. The Oxfam guy claimed I alienated them, I probably did, but they weren’t active anyway; my alienating them was an excuse. But I was bulldozing, using democratic process and agreed motions to bulldoze; definitely NOT Occupy.
So locally I had little support but I was international officer of the local TUC, and this Trades Council was important in terms of local grass roots activism so alienating members of such token groups was not significant – discussed later. As national secretary I had access to a national database – 300 people interested in aid and development. As a result Brighton held an education conference on international trade unionism with 30 attendees including, I think, most of the local groups – in total 10 people.
The AAM was one of the education sessions as support for COSATU was very significant in terms of International Trade Union Solidarity. Most people congratulated me on the success of the conference – I will again discuss that in a bit, but what always comes to my mind was the plenary session. This was held in the largest room, but only needing to hold 30 people. Dry stuff was happening when out of the audience came 5/6 black South African women dressed in traditional clothes, and began dancing at the front of the conference room. They were the Sisters of the Long March, part of the Moses Mayekiso campaign. This was a complete wow for me – as organiser I had no idea they were going to do this; they were the main act of a dance the organisation (me) had arranged that evening – because I was busy with the conference I didn’t know they had arrived. When I later worked in Botswana I got to know that women getting up in traditional clothes and dancing was common-place, but to see it for the first time in a dry meeting room in middle-class Brighton was mind-blowing. When I think of Mandela I think of this.
I was in Southern Africa during the first election but before I reflect on that I want to discuss the alienation I caused. Firstly the international trade union event was a one-off, because there was only one organiser and activist – me. It was after this event that I decided that it was pointless for me working with half-hearted middle-class Christian and development groups. People must be as active as they are willing to be, that is between them and their consciences, but at the time I was a bull in a china shop to them. It was a learning point, and I then decided to devote myself to the Labour Movement. I suspect a significant aspect of my involvement with the group member, the Oxfam guy, and myself was guilt. The Oxfam guy had a cushy number satisfying his conscience so politically he didn’t rock the boat, the member felt guilty watching what I was prepared to do, and I was guilty because I hadn’t done enough up to that stage in my life.
This was in the second half of the 80s. I left the Brighton groups, and was voted secretary of the Trades Council where all my hard work and organisation was used to keep together a dying organisation – Thatcher’s heyday. My activity reached a crescendo in the first Gulf War where a typical week was a coach trip to Trafalgar Square, and then my workweek was a vigil and or meeting after school, and marking when I got home at 11.00pm. Needless to say I burned out, and when the war ended so did I – exhausted. My activities continued minimally, and then personal issues took me to Southern Africa.
On reflection my activity neither helped nor hindered the Brighton groups, they continued in their way – they were probably relieved when I moved on. Once my activity was part of larger organisations it was less personal the structure took over – it shouldn’t be personal. Brighton was very important to me as a time of activity, what I learned politically there through activism I carry with me now, but it was also a time of personal issues that eventually took me to leaving for Southern Africa.
So at the time of the first election I was in Botswana watching on TV. I keep recalling Mandela and Winnie walking along a lined route from a car – that was his release, but it must have been shown so often when I was in Botswana I got the feeling I was there for it; at the time, 2/11/90, I was active on the Gulf War and would not have been watching. Amongst 3 of us his release sparked an interest in teaching in South Africa so August 1994 we trapsed down to Pietermaritsburg on a fateful trip. It was this trip that I learned what racial division in South Africa meant. It was as if the pavement was divided in lanes, the white lane was wide and spacious, and then there was the lane for Indians and Coloureds, and the black lane – the Indian and Coloureds was marginally better but compared nothing to the white lane.
There were 3 separate education departments, and we walked into the black education department. I don’t know whether they had met liberals walking in before, but immediately they saw us they sent us to the white department. We said we wanted to work with black kids but we were dismissed. Hearing later of the troubles in the black schools I am now grateful. None of us wanted to work in white schools. I returned to Botswana, was more settled, and renewed my contract – I worked in Botswana just over 6 years. My friends went back to the UK after their two-year contract where I met them a couple of times and we drifted apart.
As a further indication of the racial prevalence in South Africa I got a train back to Johannesburg. I had heard this train was dangerous so I sought out a compartment with a white person in it. We got talking eventually and it turned out that he was senior in the Volksfront attending a national conference in Jo’Burg – the Volksfront were an apartheid organisation that stood for everything I didn’t believe in. Once the introductions were over we accepted each others’ differences – presumably my disparagingly being a British white liberal. The journey passed in safety, and I will always remember the journey where I genuinely felt safer with such a fascist – this taught me about apartheid in South Africa.
Over my time in Southern Africa I had much dealings with South Africa – South Africa had the infrastructure and finance in the region. There were a couple of trips to Jo’Burg to get computer stuff and fix my computer, at the time no chance of getting it in Botswana. South Africans travelled around the game parks, and I often got to meet them. One time in the Great Zimbabwe game park I met a guy who had been to a school I taught in – before I taught there, and he had emigrated 20 years before. He was a South London racist, his attitudes fitted in the white lane but he was just living his life. One time in Chimanimani, Zimbabwe I met some other guys. They were very pleasant, and described how they had grown up believing black South Africans were the scum of the earth. They needed to believe that because there was conscription and they had to take tanks into the townships to kill blacks; even at that time 96? they were apologetic. But these were just ordinary guys living in a country looking after their families – they were the same mould as my father – wage-slave, life and family. Before I left the UK for Botswana I hated the white South African accent but after meeting them they were just typical wage-slaves, the same the world over. I didn’t agree but empathised. A black friend came to visit me, and was horrified by their attitudes in one game park. I was watching them, the white South Africans were making a real effort to be friendly but for them there was years of conditioning to fight. One confided that British blacks must be different – better; of course my friend was different but not in the way he meant.
My memory of South Africa. It was the most beautiful country in the world with perhaps the worst people. This is what Mandela came out of.
PS I had just watched this Democracy Now tribute, and it sparked the above:-