The role of remembrance

Posted on June 30, 2018


There are moments in history that have had profound effects on society’s attitudes and the way we live. And these should be remembered if only in order to make new generations aware of a past that has impacted on, and has so much relevance for, the present and how we conduct ourselves in future.

This past week in June, both from a labour and human rights point of view, has a specific interest for me. Because it features anniversaries I think should be widely recognised and discussed.

From a South African viewpoint, the most prominent of these — and one that did receive a few passing references over the week — is June 26. In the decades before the student uprising of June 16, 1976, this was the most celebrated day in the ANC calendar, flagging the adoption of the 1955 Freedom Charter.

This charter called, among other things, for there to be “work and security” (for all) and that “the land shall be shared among those who work it” in a society where “the people shall share in the country’s wealth”. The National Union of metalworkers (Numsa) maintained this week that it remains a “revolutionary political programme” that should be pursued.

However, in also stating that the Charter was the glue that kept “nationalists and socialists in an alliance for decades”, Numsa perhaps unconsciously highlighted the sometimes contradictory nature of this wish list derived from workers and the rural poor. But the Charter’s basic idea of a future egalitarian society of peace and plenty was incorporated into the Bill of Rights adopted in 1996. This states clearly that all citizens have equal rights: the object is to implement these.

June 26 should, therefore, have provided a great opportunity to discuss the merits of the Freedom Charter and its relationship to the Bill of Rights. Above all, if these expressed outcomes and rights have popular support, how to implement them.

One pause for sad reflection should be June 27 when, in 1984, Jeannette Schoon and her six-year-old daughter, Katryn were blown to pieces in Angola when they opened a parcel sent by letter bomb killer, Craig Wiliamson. This provides an horrific apartheid counterpoint to the ideals of both the Charter and the Bill of Rights.

And at this time of debates, both within and outside the labour movement, about colonisation, it is best, perhaps, to remember some of the victories of the colonised as well as the defeats. To my mind, few surpass the Battle of Little Big Horn on June 25, 1876, when the combined forces of the Arapaho, Cheyenne and Lakota defeated the United States cavalry. It was the Isandlwana of the USA.

There is also another anniversary from the US that should be remembered, especially in this era when homophobes everywhere seem to be on the defensive or in retreat: Stonewall. This was the series of often violent incidents known as the Stonewall rebellion or riots of June 28 1969, that finally broke through the legal walls of hetrosexuality in the US and rebounded around the world. Many Gay Pride celebrations — the largest recorded was in Sao Paolo in Brazil in 2014, with more than 2m participants — now take place in “Stonewall June”.

But the acceptance of all working people as equals is best epitomised by the labour movement, for all its previous and subsequent faults. On June 25, 1905 in Chicago a group of labour activists and socialists came together to form the International Workers of the World, the IWW or “Wobblies”. It was a time of widespread child labour and racial prejudice where African-Americans in particular faced fierce discrimination.

Recognising that it was workers — “wage slaves” — who built, maintained and serviced everything that created wealth, the Wobblies called for all workers to be organised into “one big union” that could end exploitation and transform the world. As leading IWW organiser William — “Big Bill” — Haywood noted at the founding meeting: “We should unite into one great organisation — big enough to take in the children that are now working, big enough to take in the black man; big enough to take in all nationalities…”

This was before globalisation as we know it; before trans-continental air flights; before the cell phone and the internet. Communication, essential for effective, democratic organisation, was difficult, slow and often unreliable. But the Wobblies made a significant impact before fading almost completely from sight.

Now, perhaps, the wheel is again turning, with moves, nationally and internationally, toward union mergers or general unions, crossing traditional industrial boundaries. This has happened with Unite in Britain and, internationally, with groups such as IndustriALL. On the domestic front, Numsa, despite its name, is recruiting in areas ranging from transport to the garment trade.

On one hand, this could be a reaction to weakening union strength, gathering the remnants into single laagers. But it could also, in the longer term, signal a move toward more effective structures, nationally and internationally, rekindling the spirit voiced by Big Bill in 1905.