Striking Back: The Untold Story of an Anti-Apartheid Striker

Review: captivating account of 1980s protest has major relevance for today

Sat, Dec 23, 2017, 06:00

   
 

Book Title:
Striking Back: The Untold Story of an Anti-Apartheid Striker

ISBN-13:
978-1-8488932-4-5

Author:
Mary Manning with Sinéad O’Brien

Publisher:
Collins Press

Guideline Price:
€14.99

In the dark days of the mid 1980s, when unemployment was rife, the country obsessed with women’s reproductive issues (the abortion referendum of 1983, poor Ann Lovett’s death in childbirth, the Kerry Babies case), and statues were about to start moving everywhere, nine young women and one young man did something extraordinary. They went on strike for over two years to win the right, as Dunnes Stores employees, not to handle South African fruit, as instructed by their trade union, Idatu (the Irish Distributive & Administrative Union).

In a country where lip service had been brought to a fine art (and remains so today), these young, innocent working-class people did what they thought they were supposed to do; they carried out the instructions of their union, based on a resolution passed at its annual conference.

Mary Manning, who has now written a moving and inspirational memoir about her life, refused to register two Outspan grapefruit at her till on July 19th, 1984, and was promptly suspended. As she left the building, she was joined by her shop steward Karen Gearon and eventually by eight other women and one man, Tommy Davis.

Foreign injustice

As they began a picket outside the Henry Street store, they found themselves abused by their fellow workers and the public, spat upon and bombarded with rotten food, called “nigger-lovers”, accused of protesting foreign injustice when there was plenty at home, all while attempting to survive on £21 strike pay per week.

The general secretary of IDATU, John Mitchell, and their servicing official, Brendan Archbold, were totally supportive (Mitchell changed later in the strike. Archbold was their champion right through), but the executive of the union took a dim view, as did the coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour.

Their treatment by the gardaí makes chilling reading. They were assaulted, harassed and subjected to appalling racist abuse by those who were supposed to protect their right to peaceful protest. Given the current troubles with the gardaí, it is deeply depressing to be reminded of how long this kind of behaviour has been going on.

However, public support grew steadily, with people coming to support the picket, benefit concerts by sympathetic musicians, and fundraising for expensive items like their trip to South Africa to meet Bishop Desmond Tutu, who had just won the Nobel Peace Prize and was a vocal supporter of the strikers, putting them firmly on the international stage.

Whatever about the lack of enthusiasm from the government, their own union executive and the broader trade union movement, as well as patchy support (and sometimes downright hostility) from the Irish Anti-Apartheid Movement, Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu understood the power of their protest, and their support and public statements were hugely important to the strikers.

One of the most inspirational figures from this story is Nimrod Sejake, a black South African exiled for political activity, who joined the picket every day and educated the strikers about conditions in his homeland. His eventual reunion with his family when apartheid ended gave them great joy.

Reunion

The strike continued for over two years. In the end, the government used an international labour resolution, which had been in existence for years, to completely ban South African produce from Ireland. The strike had achieved far more than it had sought, but of course there was no gratitude for the people who had first begun the struggle.

Dunnes Stores were allowed to keep them from returning to work until the very last minute, and then bullied them when they came back. Manning eventually emigrated to Australia.

She also tells us the story of her mother’s birth to an unmarried mother, her childhood in Goldenbridge industrial achool and various foster homes, including one which she cherished, and her reunion with her birth mother which had to be kept secret.

This story is a unique and poignant reminder of what it was like for the children of the mothers who gave birth in our archipelago of mother and baby homes. It’s a story we don’t hear very often, and it is sensitively and sympathetically told here. Manning’s love for her family is beautifully expressed, and her understanding of her mother’s complex responses to the events of her life is remarkable.

This is a captivating account of a hugely important action taken by young working-class people. It is written in an easy, expressive style, without sacrificing any of the many nuances in Manning’s story. She and Sinéad O’Brien have given us an accessible and inspiring story which has major relevance for today.