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Shaking the hand of Madiba

Date Released: 27 June 2013

Former trade union official Brendan Archbold, who represented the Dunnes Stores strikers in their stand against apartheid South Africa recalls that struggle and meeting Mandela.

“It will always be crucial for the trade union movement to play the role of a critical extra-parliamentary force”

(Nelson Mandela in his address to the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) conference on 7th September 1994.)

I was at home in Bayside, Dublin on 11th February 1990 when Nelson Mandela (or Madiba as they call him in South Africa) was released from prison. I couldn’t hold back the tears as I shouted my delight at the television. Political campaigners don’t always live long enough to see the fruits of their efforts but I suspect there were quite a few old anti-apartheid activists shedding a quiet tear that day. I never dreamed that I would be shaking the hand of Madiba some 18 years later in the Nelson Mandela Foundation in Johannesburg and introducing him to my wife Roseleen and our two sons, Michael and Dylan. It was a memorable occasion and one that we still recall with a mixture of elation and sadness as we await news from his hospital bed in Pretoria.

But the legacy of Mandela will live long after my sons and I have departed this world, a legacy of quiet strength, integrity, sacrifice and incredible personal warmth. As we departed the Nelson Mandela Foundation that day in 2008 I told my wife that I felt that I had given the boys a great gift in arranging for them to meet Madiba. Roseleen agreed and reminded me that she was now one of a very select band of women who had kissed Nelson Mandela, not once but twice.

In the course of my anti-apartheid activities I had occasion to take part in a number of demonstrations outside the South African embassy in London (we didn’t have a South African embassy in Ireland in those days). It was with a strong sense of irony that I took part in an official Mandate picket on the South African Embassy in Dublin in the nineties as we sought union recognition for the Irish employees in the embassy. We succeeded eventually but I couldn’t help wondering why the spirit of solidarity that had inspired the Dunnes Strike in the 1980s had not been reciprocated by South Africa some ten short years later in Dublin.

I found myself carrying a placard of a different kind outside the South African embassy in Dublin in 2012 to protest at the killing of 34 miners in the Lonmin Mine in Marikana on 16th August 2012. The shootings became known as the Marikana massacre and they bore a very disturbing resemblance to Sharpville and the many other massacres of the Apartheid era. South Africa under the ANC appeared to have a very short memory and the Mandela legacy has been under severe strain in recent years.

That legacy however is not the sole property of South Africa. Irish trade unionists have a responsibility to live up to the example shown by IDATU and the Dunnes Strikers back in 1984. We didn’t have an official ICTU policy of boycotting South African goods in place when the strike in Henry Street started. We do have one now in relation to Israeli goods and the Irish trade union movement has succeeded in side-stepping it for the best part of six years.

There are plenty of Mary Manning’s out there ready to step up to the plate but they are looking to us for leadership. Every delay on our part prolongs the suffering of the Palestinian people. If the slogan of ‘An injury to One is an Injury to All’ means anything, then we must act now.

 



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