Fighting apartheid: how a movement became a coalition
The theme for the 40th anniversary of the Launch of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Bermuda — “Thinking Globally, Acting Locally” — includes layers of meaning. This theme is most appropriate given the unprecedented challenges facing our entire planet today.
This two-part opinion is geared to promote a community-wide conversation reflecting that legacy. The Corporation of Hamilton collaborated by flying the symbol of the democratic fruit of that global effort — the flag of South Africa — at City Hall last Friday and Saturday.
The international anti-apartheid movement was key for South Africa, but also had a positive impact in the overall global community during the last quarter of the 20th century. Accessing lessons from that era, could help in 2021.
If considered metaphorically, “Thinking Globally” also speaks to reflecting on the “Big Picture”.
The launch of the local anti-apartheid movement occurred as the result of action taken by a small group of younger residents — the Bermuda Workers’ Socialist Party. We had been approached by Alvin Williams, a union activist and avid writer, who had received documents from a visitor to the island that as working at the United Nations.
The UN document listed the Bank of Bermuda, along with other global financial institutions, as having been involved in bank loans to South African companies. Our concern was piqued given the circumstances taking place in South Africa at the time, subsequent to the Soweto tragedy.
Concern for high school students facing the brutality of apartheid would explain why the overwhelming majority of the 20 or so picketers at the Front Street bank on that Friday, June 26, 1981, were teachers.
As a result of that solidarity protest, which included the Bermuda Union of Teachers’ president and past president, the union executive divested its shares in that bank and sought alternative options. This was in line with the global campaign to champion social and corporate responsibility.
After the dust settled on the unprecedented action of solidarity on that South African Freedom Day — 26/06/81 — the movement began to take root. Key in that regard was that Canon Thomas Nisbett agreed to serve as the honorary chairman of the newly formed anti-apartheid group. In addition, Ronald Lightbourne, along with close confidante Margaret Carter, joined the campaign by that late summer.
Highlights of the following several months include:
• In January 1982, a South Africa Fund was started with the view of providing a tangible act of solidarity. There was very slow progress made on this initiative over that year
• In September 1982, Margaret Carter inspired a group of the younger members of the Bermuda Physically Handicapped Association, which she chaired, to stage a Wheel-A-Thon from St George’s to Hamilton to raise money towards the South Africa Fund. That Sunday of the event was so inclement that most of us assumed that it had been postponed. However, that group of five wheelchairs made their way all the way to Hamilton
• The inspiration generated by the Wheel-A-Thon was palpable. By October, it was decided to stage a telethon. Through the assistance of the late senator Charles Bean, contact was made with US congresswoman Shirley Chisholm.
• Ms Chisholm arrived in Bermuda on December 10, 1982 — UN Human Rights Day. She shared with the media that she had recently travelled to South Africa as a part of a congressional inquiry into the apartheid regime.
• The telethon took place at Capital Broadcasting’s ZFB-TV studio on the evening of December 11. It proved so successful that the total fund was $30,000 by the beginning of 1983. The Bermuda Government had given an undertaking to follow a precedent and match the funds collected. This resulted in the fund eventually totalling $60,000
•On December 12, 1982, Ms Chisholm spoke at the morning service of St Paul AME Church. That afternoon she was involved in a forum at the Bermuda Public Services Union headquarters
• In the spring of 1983, the Treasure of the World Council of Churches, an organisation representing several million congregants, visited Bermuda to receive the $60,000 cheque. That body had a track record of leveraging its funds for social justice and progress. It is noteworthy that some years later, a Bermudian — Bishop Vinton Anderson — was elected president of the WCC.
• At a United Nations conference on Apartheid for Non-Governmental Organisations, in June 1983, to which the local movement was invited, we were able to share the idea of setting a goal of “raising $1 per person”, as Bermuda had raised the equivalent of its population
Through the 1980s, the movement strengthened and emerged as the Anti-Apartheid Coalition, which involved a number of community organisations. It is notable that as we acted in solidarity with others across the sea, it was evident that there was benefit at home.
• Glenn Fubler represents Imagine Bermuda