News Analysis

Wednesday 17 September 2014

Fergus Black: 'My one regret is I never got to meet the great man in person'

Published 07/12/2013 | 02:30

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Striking Dunnes workers in 1985: Sandra Griffen, Alma Bonnie, Karen Gearon, "Nimrod", Mary Manning with anti apartheid activist Nimrod Sejake and Tommy Davis.
Mary Manning with Prof Kader Asmal at the unveiling of a plaque honouring strikers
Seamus Heaney joins the strikers

ALMOST three decades after striking a blow against South Africa's racist apartheid regime, Mary Manning's one big regret is that she never got to meet Nelson Mandela.

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The former Dunnes Stores checkout operator knew little about Mandela when, as a 21-year-old, she sparked one of the most influential strike actions every taken by a group of Irish workers.

It was July 1984 when Mary refused to handle two South African grapefruits that had been placed at her till by a customer in Dunnes' Henry Street, Dublin, store.

When she was suspended, 11 of her colleagues went on strike in a dispute that lasted for two and a half years and which reverberated around the world.

Their action continued until the Irish government introduced a ban in 1987 on the importation of South African produce.

But Mary never got to meet the great Mandela – she had emigrated to Australia by the time he visited Ireland in 1990 and only returned home to Ireland in 1993.

And the closest she got to setting foot on South African soil was when she arrived in Johannesburg with some of her striking colleagues only to be confronted by armed guards and sent back home on the next available flight.

"We thought at the time that the strike would only go on for a week or two.

"None of us had any idea it would go on for so long," recalled Mary at her home in Lusk, Co Dublin.

As part of union policy, workers at the store were told not to handle South African products as part of a stand against the country's apartheid regime.

"Our shop steward had explained union policy about the ban on South African goods and we had a look to see what South African produce was in the shop. There were outspan oranges and grapefruit – not really that much."

"When I took my stand I knew really nothing about South Africa and what was going on there. I would have heard Mandela's name but wouldn't have known anything about him at the time."

As the workers' stand captured headlines around the world, the group were presented with certificates and special Nelson Mandela medals by the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement to mark their contribution to the international opposition to apartheid.

Their action was later acknowledged by Mandela who revealed their stand help keep him going during his imprisonment.

Months after their strike began, Mary and several other workers met Archbishop Desmond Tutu in London when he was on his way to Oslo to collect the Nobel Peace Prize.

And the following year a group of them travelled to South Africa on the invitation of Tutu and the South African council of churches.

But when they arrived after their long flight in Johannesburg, the Irish group were confronted by armed guards and detained for hours in a room at the airport.

"They brought us up these flight of stairs and held us there for seven to eight hours before putting us back on the next flight to London."

Almost 30 years after the dispute began Mary said she was still surprised that people continued to ask her about the events of 1984.

"My one regret was I never got to meet Mandela when he was here. Looking back, we are all very proud of what we did and we would all do it again in a heartbeat."

Irish Independent

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