The Dunnes Stores Strike (1984-1987)
Part III: Gaining and Losing Independence

2016 marks important anniversaries for both Ireland and South Africa. On Easter Monday, 24 April 1916, armed Irish rebels attacked British forces, fighting against English rule in Ireland. On 16 June 1976, students in South Africa’s Soweto Township began protesting the government’s unequal education policies that had been formalised after the pro-apartheid Nationalist Party came to power in 1948. 

Parts I and II of this series are below and explored, respectively, Irish people in South Africa (Dr. James Barry, The Honourable William Porter, Major John MacBride, and Roger Casement) and a South African in Ireland (Nimrod Sejake). Now, in Part III, the discussion is broadened out and presents some historical information regarding each country during the twentieth century.

One noteworthy observation about Ireland and South Africa that as Irish people gained their independence, the independence of black South Africans was steadily eroded. Ireland’s 1916 Easter Rising precipitated a formalised pact with England in December 1921 that allowed self-rule. Under the terms of that agreement, referred to as the Anglo-Irish Treaty, Saorstat Éireann (the Irish Free State) came into being and was comprised of twenty-six of the island’s southern counties; the other six counties, now known as Northern Ireland, remained part of the United Kingdom. Anti-Treaty forces disagreed over the terms of the Treaty, which did not unify the island. This dispute escalated and in June 1922, when Pro- and Anti-Treaty powers began fighting in Dublin, the result was the Irish Civil War, which ended in May 1923 (see note 1). The country moved forward and in 1937 issued its first Constitution. It was not until 1948, however, that Ireland officially split from the British Commonwealth under the Republic of Ireland Act.

While 1948 may be considered a year of celebration for Irish citizens, the same cannot be said for black South Africans. In 1948, the pro-apartheid Nationalist Party won the General Election. Although blacks had previously experienced unfair treatment in South Africa, the Nationalist Party instituted and enforced strict racial segregation practices in all areas of life: housing, land ownership, education, marriage. The 1950s saw increased resistance to apartheid practices in South Africa and internationally; 1952 was a pivotal year that saw, separately, the Netherlands, Sweden, the United Kingdom, and the United States begin supporting the plight of black South Africans.

The mobilisation of black South African resistance culminated in the 1960 Sharpeville Massacre (see note 2). The event rallied blacks to demonstrate against pass books (identity cards they were required to carry). In opposition to the law, blacks were encouraged, in large groups, to leave home without their passes, travel to police stations, and turn themselves in for disobeying the pass law. On 21 March 1961, police opened fire on over 5000 blacks who had gathered at Sharpeville’s police station, leaving over sixty dead and nearly 200 seriously injured.  News of the deaths spread, triggering nationwide demonstrations, and garnering increased international attention on apartheid South Africa.

In the meantime, the 1960s saw increased political activity internationally as the oppressed fought against their oppressors—take, for example, the Civil Rights and Women’s Liberation Movements in America. Northern Ireland also experienced a Civil Rights Movement of its own against the unequal treatment of Catholics in the predominantly Protestant state. A 1968 Civil Rights march in Derry is often considered the tipping point of what is known as Northern Ireland’s “Troubles” (see note 3).

Eight years later, in June 1976, a student demonstration in South Africa against the government’s racist education policies, known as Bantu Education, proved to be a pivotal moment in South African history. The Soweto Uprising, as the event would become known, occurred on 16 June (Bloomsday in Ireland - see note 4) when over 10,000 students protested over the decree that some subjects be taught through Afrikaans, the language of white oppression.  Police violence ensued including the use of tear gas and bullets. Hundreds were arrested while the number of dead remains in dispute with some numbers reaching over 300 in Soweto alone as rioting spread countrywide. As Robert Ross observes, the photo of young schoolchild Hector Pieterson “became one of the icons of apartheid’s brutality”; the picture shows a young man carrying Pieterson, who is either dead or dying, as Pieterson’s sister runs along beside them.  Ross also notes that the Soweto Uprising, now known as National Youth Day, was “the beginning of the end of apartheid” (see note 5).
 
In 1979, just three years after the Soweto Uprising, the world experienced an international oil crisis and global recession. By 1984, the rate of Irish unemployment was over 15% and emigration was on the rise. 

On 19 July 1984, a warm and sunny day in Dublin, Mary Manning operated her cash register alongside Alma Russell and Karen Gearon, the union shop steward, at Dunnes Stores on Henry Street. In a bid to support the international anti-apartheid movement, Manning’s union, the Irish Distributive and Administrative Trade Union, had issued a directive mandating that union members were not to sell products of South African origin. A woman approached with South African grapefruit, which Manning refused to sell. Manning’s action that day precipitated her suspension and ten of her colleagues walked out with her, initiating what would become known as the Dunnes Stores Anti-Apartheid Strike.

It is unsurprising, given the bleak economic outlook, that having and keeping a job was extremely important at a time when employment was hard to find. This knowledge makes Mary Manning’s decision on 19 July 1984 seem unwise; by the same token, however, that decision made history for both Ireland and South Africa.

Join Ardent Theatre Company in 2016 for Tracy Ryan’s Strike!, which takes the audience through the tumultuous events of the industrial action that lasted until April 1987, two years and nine months after Manning first refused to sell South African produce.

Click here to visit the Strike! production page.

Notes

  1. For more information on the Anglo-Irish Treaty, including a timeline of events, visit the online exhibition hosted by the National Archives of Ireland.
  2. See Tom Lodge’s 2011 book Sharpeville: An Apartheid Massacre and Its Consequences (Oxford University Press) here on GoogleBooks. In particular, information here is culled from Chapter 6 “The Anti-Apartheid Movement”.  Also visit “Sharpeville Massacre, 21 March 1960” here at South African History Online.
  3. The socio-political conflict continued until 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was signed on 10 April. Officially, the document is called the Northern Ireland Peace Agreement.  Click here for access to a PDF version of the agreement, which is hosted by Ireland’s Department of the Taoiseach (Prime Minister).
  4. Bloomsday celebrates the life and work of Irish writer James Joyce. The day is named after Leopold Bloom, the central character in Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses, which follows Bloom’s exploits in Dublin from 8am on 16 June to the early hours of 17 June. For more information on Joyce and his work, visit the James Joyce Centre’s website here.
  5. Information on the Soweto Uprising was drawn from a number of sources including the BBC’s “On This Day: 1976: Soweto protest turns violent”, and Robert Ross’s A Concise History of South Africa, originally published by Cambridge University Press in 1999.  In particular, see Ross’s discussions in that edition of Bantu Education on pages 121 and 122 and the Soweto Uprising on pages 142 and 143.  See South African Tourism here for information on Soweto’s Hector Pieterson Museum.
     

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