It was a pretty brutal place, but there was no slavery in Australia.
– Prime Minister Scott Morrison
It is fifty years since 3,000 stuedents and staff at the Queensland University voted to go on strike against South African apartheid. Queensland was visited by the Springboks, the South African rugby team that toured Commonwealth countries as proud ambassadors for that racist system of government.
One of the criticisms of the anti-apartheid movement in Meanjin (Brisbane) was its lack of regard for Queensland’s own apartheid system under racist laws called the ‘Acts’. Take Aunty Dawn Daylight’s experiences as a child slave at the All Hallows’ convent in Brisbane in the 1950’s and 60’s. Aboriginal slavery was common and legal at that time. But her exploitation by the Sisters of no Mercy was either little known or ignored by non-aboriginal people. Yet cheap aboriginal labour was widely exploited in the pastoral industry, on the railroads, and in the fishing industry.
Similarly it has taken a long time for government’s and public institutions to recognise the apartheid system in another settler state, Israel. The Afrikaans in South Africa had ‘pass laws’ that restricted entry to white areas by black south africans. Israel restricts the passage of people with check points and the apartheid wall. Many people in Gaza (set up as an open air prison after the ’48 war) have never been able to visit their brothers, sisters, cousins on the West Bank (occupation set up after the ’67 war). Governments, corporations and sporting bodies in Australia continue to have economic ties with that oppressive regime.
Back in 1971, Abrahams had toured South Africa as a member of the Australian rugby team, the Wallabies, and, appalled by what he saw and heard there, refused to play against the Springboks. Sekai Holland hailed from Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and had lived most of her life under white colonial domination.
Joh Bjelke-Petersen called a State of Emergency and ringed the Exhibition Grounds with barbed wire and police to support the Springboks play Australia. I remember voting for strike of staff and students at the University of Queensland – along with 3,000 others on a wet cold day in the Student Union refectory.
It took until the 1980s for Queensland to reject the Acts. There is still much decolonising to do in Australia.
Apartheid in South Africa was overthrown in the 1990s after a bloody struggle on the frontline states led by the ANC with international military solidarity from Cuban troops defeating and wearing down the military industrial complex in South Africa. Economic boycotts did not kick in until the West was convinced the resistance struggle would not go communist as had happened in indo-china.
An event commemorating the protests is being planned at UQ for the evening of 31 July to commemorate the 50th anniversary. Some of the figures in that drama will be speaking. This event has been organised by Anne Richards with sponsorship from the Brisbane Writers Festival. Speakers include Anne, Dan O’Neill, Matt Foley, Valerie Cooms, Raymond Evans, Sam Woripa Watson and special guest Anthony Abrahams, a former Australian rugby player who refused to play against the Springboks in 1971 after witnessing Apartheid first-hand on an earlier Wallabies tour of South Africa. This is a ticketed event and seats are limited. Don’t miss out.
UQ Union Forum space to be recognised
In July 1971 I was one of 3,000 students and staff who voted for a strike at the University at a Student forum after police attacked anti-apartheid demonstrations the night before. Then vice-chancellor, Zellman Cowen combined with Police commissioner Ray Whitrod did everything they could to destabilise the campaign against South African Apartheid.
Fifty years later, the current UQ Vice-chancellor, Deborah Terry, says the University will commemorate the importance of the forum area. Here is an ABC radio item about her announcement.
7 July 2021