Former Dunnes Stores strikers begin ‘emotional’ journey back to South Africa
Workers went to South Africa in 1985 when on strike but were denied entry
(From left): Liz Deasy, Mary Manning and Karen Gearon , three of the Dunnes Stores workers who went on strike for almost three years over the importation of goods from apartheid South Africa, at Dublin Airport yesterday before they departed to attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral. Photograph: Eric Luke
All 11 of the former Dunnes Stores workers, whose almost three-year strike moved the Government to ban South African produce from Ireland in the 1980s, will attend Nelson Mandela’s funeral in South Africa next weekend.
Three of the women – Mary Manning, Karen Gearon and Liz Deasy – will also attend the memorial service in Johannesburg tomorrow. They flew from Dublin yesterday and will be followed by the other eight on Wednesday.
Their costs have been covered by Mandate trade union, Congress and the Government. They will have dinner with Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore in Johannesburg tomorrow night and will attend a number of events hosted by Cosatu (the Congress of South African Trade Unions).
At Dublin airport yesterday the women said they were “nervous and emotional”.
“It will be very emotional, it will be amazing, to be there as a group, to go back. And to be let in this time,” said Ms Deasy.
They went to South Africa in 1985 when on strike but were not allowed to enter the state.
They were members of Idatu (the Irish Distributive & Administrative Union) in July 1984 when they implemented a union instruction not to handle South African goods, in protest at the apartheid regime. Ms Manning, a check-out operator, was the first to refuse to handle goods and was suspended from her position at the Henry Street branch.
A picket was put on the store and 10 of Ms Manning’s colleagues went on strike with her. The strike lasted two years and nine months and lead to Ireland being the first country to ban goods from South Africa in 1987.
The women heard on Saturday evening that they would attend the funeral.
“It started to be mentioned on Friday evening that we might be going,” said Ms Manning. “I have two daughters, aged 19 and 17. The younger girl has special needs, so she is going to be with her grandmother for the week. When I asked my work, the manager just said, ‘Go, of course, you have to go’.”
She works with ACE Express in Lucan, Co Dublin.
Ms Gearon, who works with the Carers Association in Kerry, said her employer too had no hesitation about giving her the week off.
Ms Deasy, now a receptionist at Ibis Hotels, said her employer was “very supportive” of her travelling.
They said there had been numerous offers from the public over the weekend to contribute towards the cost of sending them to the funeral.
John Douglas, the general secretary of Mandate and the president of Congress, who booked the flights over the weekend, but is not going himself, said he was “thrilled” the women were going.
“It’s recognition of what these women, who were girls at the time, did for South Africa, on all our behalf. It’s recognition that’s long overdue.”