The Dunnes Stores Strike (1984-1987)
Part II: A South African in Ireland

Part I of this series highlighted some interconnections between Ireland and South Africa by providing snapshots of Irish people who were active in South Africa during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Those brief overviews provide a broad historical context for the relationship between the two countries.

Part II continues this examination but concentrates on a particular South African in Ireland by taking as its focus Nimrod Sejake who joined the Dunnes strikers on the picket line in the early days of the strike.  Sejake’s knowledge and experience as a black South African trade union organiser not only educated the strikers about the plight of black South Africans but galvanised the strikers’ efforts.  In 2013, the strikers visited Sejake’s family for the first time while they were in South Africa for Nelson Mandela’s funeral.  The Irish Times reported their visit, and striker Karen Gearon summed up Sejake’s importance to their cause: “We kept going because of Nimrod” (see note 1).

Born in 1920, Nimrod Sejake worked first as a teacher and then as a labour organiser of South Africa’s working classes.  He served as a leader of the Non-European Irish and Steel Workers’ Union, was a founding member of the South African Congress of Trade Unions (SACTU), and was active in the African National Congress (ANC). On the back of the Freedom Charter, drawn up during the Congress of the People in 1955, the apartheid government instigated a pre-dawn, nationwide raid on the homes of activists and their supporters in December 1956. Sejake was one of over 150 people arrested for high treason, including Nelson Mandela with whom he shared a cell.  After what would become known as the Treason Trial, 1956-1961, Sejake was forced to leave South Africa in 1962, precipitating a thirty year exile from his homeland.  He spent periods of time in Zambia, China, Albania, and Egypt.  In the latter, Sejake lived in poverty while he sought asylum in Europe and, eventually, found it in Ireland (see note 2). Writing just months before the Dunnes Stores strikers walked out, Nimrod Sejake noted that “from my organising work…I can to see the enormous power of the working class….Today it is more clear than ever that the working class can change society…” (see note 3).   Sejake’s words prefigure the eventual, but hard-earned, success of the strikers.

In the same article, Sejake credits James Connolly, co-founder of Ireland’s Labour Party, as an inspiration for South African politics:

Everywhere the working class movement has—must have—two arms: ‘an industrial arm and a political arm’ as the great Irish Marxist…once said. Both these arms are necessary. They go together. The one without the other will not succeed (see note 4).

Sejake refers here to Ireland’s Labour Party (Labour), launched in 1912 by Connolly, James Larkin, and William O’Brien as the political “arm” of the Irish Trade Union Congress.  Labour is historically significant in Ireland for a number of reasons including the fact that it is Ireland’s oldest political party and the only one organised before the formation of the Irish State. James Connolly was a signatory of the 1916 Proclamation of the Irish Republic and one of the rebels executed in the aftermath of that year’s Easter Rising.  Bringing us forward in time, Labour was in a coalition government with Fine Gael from December 1982 to March 1987, nearly the entire length of the Dunnes Stores strike (see note 5).
 
The importance of Nimrod Sejake to the strikers’ cause is eloquently expressed during a fictionalised exchange between Sejake and Shop Steward Karen Gearon in Tracy Ryan’s 2010 play Strike!  The scene is set well over a year after the strike began at a time when the strikers are experiencing a level of demoralisation and fatigue:

Karen:  We are still here picketing, the supermarkets have withdrawn their voluntary ban and it’s like we’re in stalemate.
Nimrod:  I know. Often we see change as big laws and policies but the greatest change is in how you commit to live your life day to day. Start with yourself, live how you wish the world to be and let it catch up.
Karen:  Yeah.
Nimrod:  My friend, Nelson Mandela and many other comrades have been in prison for years. Nelson, twenty-one years. I have been told whenever one of the prisoners is ill, Mandela and the others will go quietly to their cells and care for them, empty latrine buckets, bring water and food. I’ve seen that unity here.
Karen:  Yeah, that’s what keeps me going.

This brief excerpt exemplifies the cohesiveness of the strikers (in present-day interviews and public addresses individual strikers will refer to “our heart”, “our throat”, illustrating their continued solidarity) and their connection to Sejake. As Veronica (Vonnie) Monroe observed in 2013: “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.” (see note 6)

After the strike ended in April 1987, two more years passed before the fall of apartheid in South Africa.  In 1989, Nimrod Sejake spoke to his family by phone for the first time since his exile in 1962.  In 1991, Sejake returned to a South Africa that was, technically, free from apartheid.  However, his life of activism continued as he sought justice for those whose land had been illegally seized under the apartheid regime.  While there was an overwhelming amount of international press dedicated to Nelson Mandela’s death in 2013, Nimrod Sejake died in relative obscurity in 2004.

…[T]hrough the power of the working class it is possible to bring SA to a standstill, and overthrow that powerful regime. What we have to do first is to organise the workers. Then we shall be facing battle from a position of power, where we can tell the employers there are two things existing here - you own the means of production, but we own the labour-power, and if you don't agree, we fold our hands and your industry will be paralysed. (see note 7)
                        —Nimrod Sejake, 1983-1984

Click here to visit the Strike! production page.

Notes

  1. Read the 13 December 2013 Irish Times article “‘We kept going because of Nimrod,’ Dunnes group tell activist’s family” here in its entirety.
  2. Sources: Treason Trial: Jabulani C. Buthelzi’s Rolihlahla Dalibhunga Nelson Mandela: An Ecological Study for more information on those arrested as part of the Treason Trials, including a complete list of those arrested, their affiliations, and ages. Biography: (1) Laurence Coates’s 2000 interview with Sejake “South Africa: Interview with Nimrod Sejake ‘The ANC has sold out’ for more information on Sejake’s biography. (2) “Tireless activist who spent thirty years in exile” Irish Times obituary published 19 June 2004
  3. Nimrod Sejake, “Workers’ Power and the crisis of leadership” Inqaba ya Basebenzi: The Journal of the Marxist Workers’s Tendency of the African National Congress. No. 12, Nov. 1983-Feb.1984.
  4. Sejake, “Workers’ Power”
  5. For more detailed information on Ireland’ Labour Party, click here.
  6. Irish Times article “‘We kept going because of Nimrod,’ Dunnes group tell activist’s family”
  7. Sejake, “Workers’ Power”.

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