‘We kept going because of Nimrod,’ Dunnes group tell activist’s family

South African union leader Nimrod Sejake was a huge support to the Dublin strikers during their protest

The former  Dunnes Stores strikers with members of Nimrod Sejake’s family. Photograph: Bill Corcoran

The former Dunnes Stores strikers with members of Nimrod Sejake’s family. Photograph: Bill Corcoran

 

For the former Dunnes Stores strikers, yesterday’s emotional meeting with the family members of Nimrod Sejake was the most personal and fulfilling part of their journey to South Africa.

The group of 11 former supermarket workers, who made history in the mid-1980s by going on strike in protest against the apartheid regime, are officially in South Africa to attend events connected to the late Nelson Mandela and the union federation Cosatu.

But going to Soweto, a township on the edge of Johannesburg, to visit the late Sejake’s children and grandchildren was a far more poignant and meaningful experience than even Mandela’s memorial service on Tuesday, they said.

And here’s why: In the early days of their strike, Sejake, an elderly exiled anti-apartheid activist who had spent time in jail with Mandela, was their comrade-in-arms on the picket lines outside Dunnes Stores’ Henry Street branch in Dublin.

“Nearly every day he came to offer us encouragement and explain the nature of the apartheid system of governance,” recalled Theresa Mooney. “He explained why our stance against handling the South African produce was so special, unique and important.”

The strike, which began because Mary Manning was suspended for refusing to handle South African produce, lasted two years and nine months and led to Ireland being the first western country to ban goods from South Africa in 1987.

Veronica Monroe summed up her feelings about Sejake: “He was even more special to us than Nelson Mandela, because we spent so much time in his company. Mandela is a great man, but I don’t know him like I know Nimrod.”

As we snake our way through the streets of Soweto on the way to Sejake’s modest home, union official Weizmann Hamilton recalls that his old mentor, who died in 2004 at 83, never received the recognition he deserved from the African National Congress for his anti-apartheid activism.

“Nimrod shared a prison cell with Mandela in the 1950s, but he fell out with his ANC comrades over policy issues . . . But despite his contribution nobody of any note attended his funeral. This meeting today is special for the family – they have no idea what he did in Ireland while he was there,” he said.

Sejake’s three children –Violet, Daphne and Ephraim – and two grandchildren – Lerato and Porsha – are dressed in their Sunday best as we wait for the minibus carrying the Irish delegation. Their home in White City is small. Outside on the street children play football and men sit around in the twilight in groups.

The Sejakes appear a little nervous when the Irish party’s bus pulls up on the footpath outside their house, but when the two groups meet they hug and laugh, and the tension melts away. Once in the house, the Irish begin to reminisce about the man who took it upon himself to keep their spirits from flagging during the darkest days of their strike.

“We kept going because of Nimrod,” Karen Gearon explained. “He was an amazing man. It is an honour to meet you because he meant so much to all of us. Meeting Nimrod’s family was the most important thing for us to do here.”

Sejake’s children listened intently about his life in Ireland before explaining how difficult it was to reconnect with their father after he came home in 1992.

“He did not tell us a lot about his life in Ireland,” said Violet. “When he came back after decades in exile, we did not know him and it was hard for us to reconnect. Hearing you tell his story helps us understand a little more.”

After the conversation came to a conclusion, Porsha, the youngest granddaughter, said: “Thank you for keeping our grandfather in your hearts while he was in your country. I would like to come to Ireland and see what it is that he did there.”

As the darkness descended and the Irish delegation got ready to leave, Hamilton summed up his feelings about what had just occurred.

“In many ways Nimrod was today given the recognition he deserved [by the former Dunnes workers] for his activism that he was denied during his life. His family will never forget this moment,” he said.

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