MICHAEL CLIFFORD: Striking back to an uncomfortable past

The protest against South Africa’s apartheid regime was one of the most compelling stories of 1985. Workers were arrested during the strike outside Dunnes on Henry St, Dublin, says Michael Clifford.

The excavation of the past has not been a comfortable exercise for the nation. So much has been discovered that remained hidden for decades. The potential of so many lives was buried under stifling mores and warped power structures. So many were effectively sacrificed because they represented an uncomfortable truth that was publicly denied.

But what of the past that was lived out in plain sight? How do some events from 30 years ago look through the lens of hindsight? And more to the point, how would events unfold today if similar circumstances arose?

The strike by 10 Dunnes Stores workers over handling goods from South Africa during the apartheid regime is one such case.

Mary Manning, who was among the 10, has written an account that is searing in its honesty about the strike and the Ireland of its day.

Mary was just 21 on July, 19, 1984 when she refused to handle South African fruit at the check-out counter in Dunnes on Henry St in Dublin. The management was on alert for resistance, and Mary found herself suspended. Nine co-workers joined her on the picket line. Some of them were friends, others barely known to her.

Mary wasn’t even sure what apartheid was at the time. She was more interested in hair and holidays than life in a faraway country where millions were degraded based on the colour of their skin.

A motion to refuse to handle South African goods had been passed by her union IDATU (later renamed Mandate), but, in reality, few took it seriously. Mary recounts that the general attitude in the retail sector at the time by both employers and workers would have been to pay lip service to the policy and drive on.

The difference in the Henry St store was a prevailing animosity between management and staff. As Mary and her colleagues saw it, management was treating them in a highly disrespectful manner, in which issues as trivial as toilet breaks were regarded by management as a battlefield where staff must be defeated.

As such, the Dunnes Stores strike could be said to have started as a result of poor industrial relations rather than any great affinity with the struggles of black South Africans.

However, once thrust onto the frontline, Mary and her colleagues became educated on apartheid and discovered an inner strength and moral foundation that surprised themselves as much as anybody else.

South African goods continued to flow into the country and through all other unionised retail outlets with nary a peep out of anybody else.

As Mary writes: “One letter after another arrived from other unions and companies that supplied Dunnes Stores, stating that while our action was a courageous one it could not be supported for various reasons.”

The attitude was mirrored in government, where the economic ties with South Africa were prioritised over any stance against a morally corrupt regime.

The sense of isolation felt by the strikers is well documented, but it also highlights a general attitude that prevailed to actions against apartheid.

Everybody favoured anything that drew attention to the appalling treatment of black South Africans as long as there was no personal cost in doing so. For the 10 strikers the personal cost was enormous.

Support was forthcoming from various quarters, but most of it was qualified. This was even the case from Kadal Asmal, the South African figure who was the head of the Anti Apartheid Movement in Ireland at the time. His initial warm support cooled somewhat as the strike went on. Mary believes he, like others, didn’t want to discommode the Irish establishment on which he relied for support for the cause.

The unions and the Catholic Church, including Eamon Casey who was head of Trócaire, trod warily around the strikers.

To some extent, Mary and her colleagues disrupted a comfortable order that made all the right noises from a safe distance.

She writes: “Who were we? Ten working class shopworkers, nine women and one man, in a recession-hit country, where most felt lucky even to have a job, striking about an issue that affected people in a country thousands of miles away.”

For Ben Dunne, then chief of the retail chain, the strike was an affront to his power. (In 2008, he apologised on RTÉ to the strikers for how he handled the whole affair.) His position certainly received support from all the people who mattered. Mary Manning recounts how she was visited at home by members of the special branch, a unit which at the time was largely engaged in battling with the IRA. Why the government of the day would regard a group of innocent shop workers as a threat to the State remains baffling.

The tide did turn after the strikers were invited to London to meet Bishop Desmond Tutu in 1985.

He publicly endorsed the campaign but the strike continued until April 1987. By then apartheid was crumbling under its own weight and everybody rushing to be on the side of the angels.

Mary Manning’s awakening to the ways of the world at the time also included the discovery that her mother had been one of the thousands who began life in a mother and baby home and had been separated from her own mother soon after birth. While Mary struggled with the world as it was, she recounts the heartbreaking battle her own mother endured in tackling her abandonment as a baby, and all that flowed from it.

What if circumstances similar to those faced by the Dunnes Stores strikers arose today? Would any group of otherwise disengaged people make a stand on behalf of others who live in a faraway world far less developed than ours?

There would be more vocal support particularly through social media. The fracturing of the body politic means that considerable support would also be forthcoming from Leinster House.

But has society, in this age of mass communication, moved on to a point where there is greater empathy with the most oppressed? For sure, masses are moved by emotional stories about individual cases, such as that of three-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy washed up on a beach in Turkey in 2015. But these pangs of anger, guilt or empathy appear to be fleeting, crowded out within days by the next story to emerge.

The unfortunate reality is that where there is a personal cost to consider, we are no more likely today to see a group making a stand on behalf of another people in a faraway land. That in itself puts in context the actions of 10 shop workers more than 30 years ago who decided that sometimes principles really do need to be acted upon.

Striking Back – The Untold Story Of an Anti-Apartheid striker by Mary Manning is published by the Collins Press


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