Monday 21 October 2019

Striking back against apartheid South Africa

Our reporter meets Mary Manning, the young Dunnes Stores worker who started a strike when she refused to handle the sale of South African fruit in 1984

On the picket line: (l–r) Mary Manning, Michelle Gavin, Sandra Griffin and Alma Russell. Photo: Derek Speirs
On the picket line: (l–r) Mary Manning, Michelle Gavin, Sandra Griffin and Alma Russell. Photo: Derek Speirs
Former Dunnes Stores worker Mary Manning. Photo: Mark Condren
Striking Back is published by Collins Press
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

Two large yellow grapefruits changed the life of shopworker Mary Manning forever. When she refused to ring the South African fruit through the till at Dunnes Stores on Dublin's Henry Street on a summer day in 1984, Mary immediately found herself suspended from her job.

The 21-year-old was propelled to the forefront of a strike that attracted headlines across the world. She had nothing to gain by refusing to sell goods from South Africa, and she had everything to lose.

But the young working-class woman from Kilmainham stood firm on her principles.

She faced tough opposition - from the obdurate Dunnes management led by Ben Dunne, elements in the government including John Bruton and the Catholic church, and some of her own colleagues.

Former Dunnes Stores worker Mary Manning. Photo: Mark Condren
Former Dunnes Stores worker Mary Manning. Photo: Mark Condren

The strikers - nine women and one man - were sometimes abused on the street as "nigger lovers". They were even spat at and on one occasion pelted with tomatoes by fellow workers.

But ultimately, as their cause attracted global attention, the government was cajoled and persuaded to ban the import of South African goods. This prohibition lasted until the end of the apartheid regime.

It was a mark of the strikers' success that they were invited to Nelson Mandela's funeral, moving among such luminaries as ex-President Mary Robinson and Barack Obama.

On a visit to Dublin after his release from prison, Mandela met a group of the strikers (although Mary could not be there, as she had emigrated to Australia).

Mandela's speech showed how influential the action had been: "Young shopworkers on Henry Street in Dublin, who in 1984 refused to handle the fruits of apartheid, provided me with great hope during my years of imprisonment, and inspiration to millions of South Africans that ordinary people, far away from the crucible of apartheid, cared for our freedom."

Mary Manning has written a new memoir about the strike and its aftermath.

When we meet up in the Harbourmaster Bar in Dublin's International Financial Services Centre, she comes across as a quiet and unassuming woman.

But she must have had considerable moral strength to continue with the strike, amid pressure from all sides to stop it.

Although she is happy that the cause for which she fought came to be accepted and validated, she says she never enjoyed the limelight.

And she has never forgiven Ben Dunne, who apologised to her and the strikers on Joe Duffy's Liveline in 2008.

"If he was genuine about his apology, let him donate the money that I lost for two-and-a-half years to charity."

Having melted into the background again decades after the dispute, she now works in an office job in the IFSC, and says half-jokingly: "I don't put Dunnes on my CV."

Mary admits now that she knew little about South Africa and apartheid on the day the strike started 33 years ago.

She says that at the time, the two great loves in her life were her dog Patch and Bruce Springsteen, whose poster hung from her bedroom wall.

Mary's union, the Irish Distributive Administrative Trade Union (IDATU), had issued instructions to members not to handle the sale of South African produce.

Trouble began to brew when Ben Dunne insisted that all staff had to handle these goods.

It was only by chance that Mary found herself at the centre of the dispute.

After opening her cash register that morning, she spotted a middle-aged woman coming towards her with the two Outspan grapefruits in her basket. "At the time I hoped that she would have gone to someone else, but she came to me."

Mary informed the customer that because of an instruction from her union she could not register the sale of South African goods.

A Dunnes manager was waiting, and immediately instructed Mary to go ahead with the sale.

The customer offered to put the grapefruits aside, and that could have been that.

But again the manager insisted on the sale and Mary refused.

The manager told her to close her register, and report to the management office.

"I was told that nobody else would support me, and that I would not never get another job in Ireland. I was given five minutes to reconsider - and when I said I would continue to refuse to handle the goods, I was suspended."

There a tense moment for Mary when she came back downstairs to the shop floor. She wondered if colleagues would support her.

Suddenly the shop steward Karen Gearon, a key figure in the dispute, instructed everyone to stop working.

Tills were abandoned and half-emptied boxes left discarded as up to 25 workers left in unison.

This group was eventually whittled down to nine women and a single man, Tommy Davis, who stuck with the strike through and through.

The strike was quickly supported by Kader Asmal, the charismatic South African head of the Irish Anti Apartheid Movement, who went on to be a minister in Nelson Mandela's government.

At the picket line, he said: "We have waited for 20 years for this kind of action against the South African regime… I commend Mary Manning and all her colleagues."

Mary's memoir reveals that Bishop Eamonn Casey was among those in the Catholic church who initially opposed the strike.

In a private letter to the boss of Mary's union, John Mitchell, Bishop Casey described the action as "economically harmful to the already impoverished black South Africans".

Bishop Casey was renowned at the time as an affable humanitarian campaigner, but the letter revealed a certain arrogance: he described the request for support from the Catholic church as "impertinent".

Casey said workers should have consulted him and his charity Trócaire before starting the strike.

"We thought he would have been supportive of us," says Mary.

Later on, as the strike attracted international headlines, Casey came out in support of the strikers.

At the time Labour was in government in coalition with Fine Gael, but Mary says few members of the governing parties supported the strike. Among those who did was Michael D Higgins.

Although Ruairí Quinn eventually moved to ban the import of South African goods, he was initially reluctant to intervene as Minister for Labour, according to Mary.

"I don't think he knew how to handle us at all," she says.

There was more steadfast opposition to any trade sanctions against South Africa from John Bruton, the future Taoiseach who was then Minister for Trade and Commerce.

In a letter to Quinn, he wrote: "I am afraid all my instincts tell me that the Government should not become involved in any activity which is designed to restrict imports from South Africa."

If Mary's knowledge of the oppressive South African regime was limited at the start, that information gap was quickly filled.

The strikers were joined on the picket line by Nimrod Sejake, an exiled former ANC leader who had shared a prison cell with Nelson Mandela.

He told the strikers how, as a black man, he was seen by the regime as a substandard being.

One image conjured up by Sejake impressed on Mary the evils of white South Africa more than anything else.

Sejake held up his right hand as though there were a glass in it and said: "You have to imagine South Africa as a pint of Guinness: the vast majority of it is black and a tiny minority is white - and just like a freshly poured pint, the white sits firmly on top of the black."

The book describes confrontations with gardaí as the strikers tried to block deliveries of South African goods.

Two of the strikers were even visited by members of the garda special branch at home.

According to the book, an officer told one of them, Theresa Mooney, she should go back to work because she could never win.

Fears were expressed during the dispute that the strikers were being manipulated by unions and sinister left-wing forces.

But in fact, the strikers showed that they were prepared to act independently, even facing down their own union leadership in continuing their action.

Two events proved to be decisive in swinging influential opinion behind the strike.

They won the support of the South African Nobel Peace Prize winner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who introduced them to the world's media at a press conference in London.

He later invited them to South Africa. When they travelled there in 1985, they were immediately held captive by armed guards in Jan Smuts airport.

Amid an international outcry, Mary and her colleagues were put on a flight out of South Africa.

As they were boarding, one of them, Karen Gearon, put her fist in the air and called out: "We will be back when South Africa is free."

Mary and some of her striking colleagues eventually returned to work after there was a ban on the imports of South African produce.

She found the atmosphere back at Dunnes oppressive and later emigrated to Australia. She married her partner Ciarán after their return from Australia to Dublin, but they later separated. She has two grown-up daughters, Niamh and Siobhán.

Mary says she has no regrets about her action and likes to think now that she would do the same again.

A quote from Martin Luther King springs to mind: "Your life begins to end the moment you start being silent about the things that matter."


Striking Back is published by Collins Press

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