Boycotts turn tides: Lessons from Irish anti-apartheid

How Irish Dunnes Stores workers who fought against South African apartheid inspire radical Palestine solidarity
6 min read

Beauty Dhlamini

28 July, 2023
When Irish Dunnes Stores workers refused to sell South African goods to protest apartheid, it led the Irish government to implement a national boycott. These are the radical stands we must take in solidarity with Palestine, writes Beauty Dhlamini.
The Dunnes Store twelve, who mobilised and decided that their principles were more important than the personal cost to their livelihoods, challenge us to consider the real strength of our solidarity with the Palestinian struggle, writes Beauty Dhlamini.

Thirty-nine years ago, on 19 July in 1984, Dunnes Stores workers took a stand with those against the apartheid regime in South Africa resulting in one of the most poignant, disruptive acts of international solidarity.

It all began when Mary Manning, a 21 year old cashier at Dunnes Stores in Dublin, followed a directive given by her trade union, the Irish Distributive and Administrative Union (IDATU), now Mandate Trade Union, to refuse handling South African goods as resistance against their segregationist and oppressive policies. She denied scanning two oranges through her till, an act so small yet so powerful. Together with another colleague, shop steward Karen Gearon, they continued to defy store management and refused to handle any apartheid South African produce.

Their actions resulted in their suspension and they went on strike together with ten IDATU members, including Liz Deasy, Michelle Gavin, Vonnie Munroe, Alma Russell, Tommy Davis, Sandra Griffin, Theresa Mooney, Cathryn O'Reilly and Brendan Barron.

As the fallout from the strikes unfolded, these workers received £21 a week worth of strike pay and it was assumed that the strikes were largely motivated by poor industrial relations rather than a nuanced understanding of the struggles of South Africans living under the apartheid regime. However, these strikes had a rippling effect that stood strong for almost three years, eventually forcing the Irish government to ban South African goods from being sold in Ireland.

This ban was only reached as a result of national and international public pressures in support of strikers and upheld until the end of the apartheid regime, in 1994. It was the first complete ban of South African imports by a Western government.

Striking Back

As with most organising and acts of solidarity, it was not easy or straightforward. 

As detailed in the book by Manning, Striking Back: The Untold Story of an Apartheid Striker the events that occurred that day were not just about defiance in the face of management or the Irish establishment, but also eventually became longstanding resistance to the status quo.

Comrades such as Nimrod Sejake, a black South African living in exile, joined the Dunnes store twelve picket throughout the strikes, and provided organising tools, resources, and education about the realities of apartheid South Africa. He was instrumental in helping them build this as a movement within Ireland.

It was only when Archbishop Desmond Tutu was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1984 and requested the Dunnes strikers attend, that public opinion slowly started to change in Ireland. This gained momentum and mobilised more people, particularly when they were denied entry into South Africa and the consequential media attention caused an international uproar.

The clear selfless actions of a small group of Irish working class workers despite threats from management, fellow workers and the majority of the wider public, shows that we all have the capacity to stand on the right side of history. What people consider an inconvenience to their lives finally made the biggest difference to the growing international solidarity movement against apartheid in South Africa.

Remembering Palestine

In December 2014, members and supporters of the Ireland-Palestine Solidarity Campaign shared their petition with over 8000 signatures with Dunnes Stores, calling on them to stop stocking goods produced in illegal Israeli settlements in the occupied Palestinian territories. They asked the stores not to let history repeat itself by making this public commitment. 

This also coincided with the 30th anniversary of the 1984 Dunnes Stores anti-apartheid strike to support justice for Palestinians.

The Dunnes Store twelve, who mobilised and decided that their principles were more important than the personal cost to their livelihoods, challenge us to consider the real strength of our solidarity today when it comes to the Palestinian struggle. They demonstrated that support against the apartheid regime then, was present but conditional. Indeed, whilst there are many of us as individuals, groups and communities, who would consider ourselves to be allies of Palestinians fighting for liberation, we must question to what extent we are putting this into practice.

It is not enough for us to continue making empty statements of solidarity - we need to disrupt the comfortable order that currently exists from people seemingly saying and doing all the right things.

For sure, we as masses are moved by emotional stories, and we are impacted by the images and videos we see on social media of Palestinians living under apartheid, facing home intrusions and demolitions in Jerusalem, senseless violence and attacks on refugee camps in Jenin. But, our reactive emotions to knowing and seeing all of this, is fleeting, only to be drowned out by other atrocities in our news cycles. This is the everyday reality for a Palestinian.

Thirty-nine years on, the Dunnes stores strikes should inspire us to continue disrupting the success of Israel’s apartheid regime. It should be a lesson for us all to not overlook or be complacent in the persistent plight and devastation of the Palestinian people. This means both individually and collectively, we should be bolder in our support for Palestinians and against the apartheid regime in Israel.

Unquestionably, this requires committing to the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) movement. The UK government continues to undermine our role in international Palestine solidarity movements as it tries to pass its anti-BDS Bill through parliament, but we have to remain unmovable and relentless in our fight against it. Plans to stop us exercising our rights to boycott Israeli trade is an unforgivable infringement on our freedom of expression, protest and to stand up for what we believe in.

The success of South African anti-apartheid boycotts, such as the Dunnes store strike, proves what this government does not want us to realise: boycotts work! We should not be curtailed by false accusations of antisemitism or legislative restrictions, but instead it should light a fire beneath us to further mobilise and embolden collective organising and international solidarity movements. Ultimately, regardless of what the UK government try and do, one way or another Palestine will be free.

Beauty Dhlamini is a Tribune columnist. She is a global health scholar with a focus on health inequalities and co-hosts the podcast Mind the Health Gap.

Follow her on Twitter: @BeautyDhlamini

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Opinions expressed in this article remain those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of The New Arab, its editorial board or staff.