In January this year the African National Congress celebrated its Centenary at a star-studded ceremony in Bloemfontein, South Africa. I was one of only seven Australians invited to attend and it was a pretty thrilling experience.
The ANC has an extraordinary story. More than any other party in history, the Congress has shared its struggle with the rest of the world. We all know Nelson Mandela and the Rivonia Treason Trial, Robben Island, Walter Sisulu, Oliver Tambo, Sharpeville – details that we would never know about other world parties.
I was invited because of my history of involvement with South Africa and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, particularly my activities with the ‘Stop the Tours’ campaign of the 1970s.
At midnight the ceremonial part of the festivities began with a quiet ceremony in the tiny church hall in Mangaung, just outside Bloemfontein, where, exactly 100 years before, John Dube and other African nationalists formed the organisation which was to become known throughout the world as the torchbearer for the struggle against apartheid. Nelson Mandela was too frail to attend and in fact has not appeared in public since his surprise appearance at half time of the World Cup Final in July 2010.
The next day, in the Free State Stadium in Mangaung, Jacob Zuma, the 12th President of the ANC, and other leaders sang, danced, made speeches and cut cakes in front of a crowd of 50,000 cheering and dancing supporters. It was spectacular!
It is really nice to remember that the ALP and the ANC have had an extensive history of friendship and co-operation. This was especially so in 1994 when ALP officials spent time in South Africa helping the ANC with their historic victory in South Africa’s first democratic election.
Further back in the 70s, Labor Party activists, mainly from the Left, were very prominent in the anti-Springbok campaign. ALP activist Bob Pringle, the President of the NSW Builders Labourers’ Federation during the Green Ban years, was arrested the night before the first Springbok match in Sydney and charged with cutting down the goal posts.
Four students managed to get on to the field and stop the game: the only game stoppage in NSW. Three of us were from the Glebe North Branch of the Party. We were heavily disguised in ‘Afrikaner’ outfits in order to avoid detection. All of us were arrested and received heavy penalties. As the oldest, I was considered to be the ringleader and given a two month jail sentence.
Forty years on, it was strange to be sitting among the VIPs of the world as we watched the leadership of the new South Africa celebrate their courageous history. I got to sit next to Jesse Jackson for a short while and even had a conversation with him, although I’m not sure he had one with me. I met US Congressman Walter Fauntroy, one of the founders of the Black Caucus who had initiated the South Africa divestment legislation in Congress in the 1980s. Helen Clark and Olof Palme’s son were also there in their roles as old anti-apartheid activists.
Although the Left of the Labor Party, particularly the Left unions, has a fine history of support for the oppressed peoples of the world, it is important that we don’t rest on our laurels. It is easy to get so involved in struggles within the party that we don’t have enough time to look outwards. After all, we are in the Party in order to change the world, not just change the standing orders.
We worry these days about being under attack electorally from both the Left and the Right. We can certainly solve the problem of attack from the Left if we are the ones filling the space. Get out there and get involved with the struggles in the rest of the world. In 40 years time you might find yourself sitting in a strange country wondering about what happened and your small role in it. It’s sometimes better than wondering about the numbers.
Author: Meredith Burgmann
Member of Glebe Branch (formerly Glebe North)