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From Sharpeville to Gaza: the international fight against racism

ADRIAN LEE reports on the annual Anti-Racism Day event held by The Liberation Movement, an anti-racist campaigning group founded in 2021

THAT an Irish nationalist MP hosted this year’s The Liberation Movement (TLM) UN Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination meeting in the House of Commons was politically significant. It symbolised the similar racial discrimination faced by Irish and black migrants who came to Britain as workers in the 20th century.

The event fittingly commemorated the notorious Sharpeville massacre of March 21 1960 in apartheid South Africa at a time when apartheid Israel is involved in a genocide against Palestinians in a Gaza it has all but destroyed, killing more than 33,000 mainly women and children as a result.

In a sad sign of the times, Labour MPs who are TLM supporters had pulled back from booking a room and attending, fearful of repercussions from a shamefully draconian party leadership that has suspended black MPs and other leftwingers, including Diane Abbott and Kate Osamor.

Meeting host Mickey Brady, who represents Newry and Armagh in Northern Ireland, is one of seven abstentionist Sinn Fein MPs elected to the British Parliament who refuse to swear allegiance to the British crown and therefore are not allowed to enter the House of Commons chamber and take part in debates.

Brady said: “We are delighted to be associated with progressive organisations like The Liberation Movement and always happy to work with them. We welcome the fact that Northern Ireland is an increasingly diverse society.”

Introducing Brady, TLM co-founder Marc Wadsworth remarked that Caribbean second world war volunteers like his late Jamaican ex-RAF father had faced racism when returning to Britain on the famed Windrush steamship after the conflict, encountering notices in the windows of rooms to let that said: “No blacks. No dogs. No Irish.”

The MP replied: “I myself personally witnessed that in Preston in 1969. I was there with a friend who was going out with a girl from the city. At Preston docks there was a cafe and several boarding houses, and I remember seeing that every single one of them had a huge cardboard notice up ‘No Blacks. No Dogs. No Irish’.”

Wadsworth recalled that, as leader of the Labour Party Black Sections, he visited the brave mainly women workers at Dunnes Store in Dublin, Ireland, including Mary Manning, who lost their jobs in 1984 after loyally following a policy of their trade union not to handle fruits imported from apartheid South Africa.

The dispute led to the Irish government eventually banning goods from the leper country.

Appropriately, the keynote speaker was Tsoana Nhlapo, who is the CEO of the Sharpeville Foundation and was born and raised in the town, which is not far from Johannesburg.

On a video call from South Africa, she talked about new research by scholars which had revealed that at least 95 — not the officially claimed 69 — unarmed protesters had been murdered by the South African police on the day of the massacre.

They had gathered at the police station to protest the use by the apartheid regime of passbooks black people were forced to carry to control their movement in the country. The mass protest on the day was part of the anti-pass laws campaign organised by the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania.

According to official figures, 180 people were wounded when heavily armed South African police fired directly at the more than 20,000 protesters, who had refused to disperse. The new study puts the figure at 234 who were injured. Many of the demonstrators, several of them young people, were shot in their back as they fled the scene.

Nhlapo commented: “What has made it different this year is that we have discovered that the apartheid government had lied and covered up a lot of things concerning the massacre.”

She added: “Now, growing up in the township you would have grandmothers and elderly people telling you that, no, this story is not right. The new research results have been a vindication for the older people.

“Because they had been saying these things, but for years we couldn’t prove it because it was their word against the official statement of the country, the official statement of the UN, the official statement everywhere, except for the people of Sharpeville.”

More disturbing has been the increasing conviction that the actions taken against the demonstrators were premeditated and purposeful, and not a spontaneous “accident” on the part of the police.

“Senior government ministers were in the Sharpeville police station when the massacre happened. Did they give the order to fire on the crowd? Up to now official accounts claimed that no order was given to open fire.”

She went on: “The amount of force that they brought to that police station, it shocks us to this day. They had about 15 fighter planes over Sharpeville. And Sharpeville is a very small township — compared to [nearby] Soweto, it is very small. And we had over 100 police officers that were armed.

“We had armoured vehicles that were transported all the way from Johannesburg into Sharpeville, passing about five or six other townships, which also had large numbers of protesters on the day.”

In line with TLM’s stated aim of having trade unions at its core, the RMT union’s black solidarity committee secretary Mel Mullings, who is co-founder of the Black Lives Matter branch in Croydon, south London, spoke.

A leading member of the Global Afrikan Congress UK, she made an impassioned case for the British government to pay reparations for its role in the slave trade, something RMT has become the first British union to formally support.

She said: “Good race relations is the harmony we seek. But you can’t have harmony without justice. And sometimes justice hurts. It is necessary. Reparations is something that we have to campaign for.”

TLM believes that the racism and other forms of hatred it opposes have to be fought internationally, a sentiment with which Brazilian Afro-Indigenous activist Elda Cardoso, who was a London-based representative of President Lula Da Silva’s successful leadership campaign, agreed.

She told the meeting that of the more than 6,000 people killed every year by the Brazilian police, one every 20 minutes, 94 per cent were black and indigenous, a majority of them black men aged between 14 to 28 years old. This was a brutal feature of the previous disastrous far-right Bolsonaro presidency, one of the most violent periods for Brazil.

Cardoso said: “Thankfully President Lula was elected by Brazilians on October 30 2022. The world needs more leaders like Lula, with the courage to speak out against injustice, act to address it and increase equality for all — not only in Brazil but wherever they see injustice in the world.

“Lula speaks out and challenges Western world leaders, who are only there, for centuries, to exploit and destroy communities, support and commit atrocities against the black and Indigenous people of the global South.”

Addressing the meeting via video call from the US, Leonard Butingan, a PhD candidate from the University of California Santa Cruz, where he is researching the history of black Britain and the wider African diaspora, remarked that the meeting had importantly heard about the connected struggles of people from four countries on four continents.

He said South Africa’s March 21 Human Rights Day now resonated more loudly than ever before with the history of people’s struggle — race and class, settler colonialism, apartheid, civil conflict, war, genocide, reparations, justice and dignity.

TLM co-chairs Hassan Ahmed and Deborah Hobson committed to making next year’s event even more special as it would be the 65th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre.

Follow liberationmovment.org.uk on X @theliberationM.

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