Nelson Mandela and the co-operative movement’s fight for freedom

As the world mourns the passing of a man whose life was dedicated to the type of inclusive society co-operators would describe as “the co-operative commonwealth”, it is...

As the world mourns the passing of a man whose life was dedicated to the type of inclusive society co-operators would describe as “the co-operative commonwealth”, it is worth reflecting on the impact that he and the struggle against apartheid had on the co-operative sector.

I, like many others of the post-war baby boom generation, had my values shaped by the horrors of the Vietnam War and our growing awareness of the brutality and injustice of apartheid. During the 1970s, working for the then London Co-operative Society, I had the privilege of getting to know some of the many ANC exiles in London whose children were active members of the Woodcraft Folk.

The 1970s saw growing calls for co-ops to boycott South African goods. In 1977, the TUC approached the Co-operative Union seeking their support in a week-long boycott. Later that year, the Co-operative Press Annual Shareholders Meeting passed a resolution calling for the Co-operative Press to discourage further advertisements for South African produce. Stan Newens MP, then the President of the London Co-operative Society, declared, “There is no future for racialism”, and called for the press to start talks with the CWS on wider action.

The debate continued into the 1980s. Resolutions were debated at members’ meetings in many co-operative societies. While some argued for “consumer choice” and warned of the potential damage to trade, including editorials in the News itself, pressure grew inexorably. In 1985 CRS and CWS went further. CRS stated “From today therefore CRS will no longer stock any produce from South Africa”. CWS announced that it would take further steps to eliminate all remaining trade with South Africa, adding that since 1978 it had been seeking alternative sources of supply.

The following week a letter in the News included the statement: “Co-op membership has really still got meaning. I am proud to belong to the first large retailer in the British Isles to have taken this action against apartheid.”

Other societies followed, with Scotmid and Oxford, Swindon and Gloucester among the first to ban South African goods in response to member pressure.

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This solidarity action from the Co-operative Movement was a logical development, building on earlier efforts to help establish co-operatives engaging all the communities in South Africa. The first known co-operative society in Africa had been established in Cape Town as early as 1865, just two years after the formation of the CWS. It asked the newly established CWS if it could supply goods, as well as maintaining correspondence with Sam Ashworth at the Rochdale Pioneers Society on its constitutional framework.

In the early 20th century, the Simonstown Co-operative Society, serving the town that had developed around the British Navy base, was thriving. In 1934 an article in the CWS internal publication, The Link, reported on “native co-operation in South Africa”. It “drew a gloomy picture of the condition of the natives”, adding “the most hopeful sign however was the growth of the co-operative movement amongst the natives”. Sadly, that initial development of co-ops among the black population was suppressed as apartheid became entrenched in the post-war period.

Co-operators shared the excitement when Nelson Mandela was released from his 27 years in prison in February 1990. One of the early Co-operation in the Curriculum conferences was taking place at the Co-operative College that weekend, and the whole conference adjourned to watch the TV footage as Mandela made that famous walk from prison.

The next issue of Co-op News included a statement from Pauline Green, then Labour and Co-operative Euro MP for London North, now President of the International Co-operative Alliance. Welcoming the release, she stated: “We must not lose the battle in our euphoria about this one release, important as it is. We must keep up the pressure until all political prisoners are released, and most importantly we must continue the fight for a complete and absolute end to the whole evil system of apartheid.”

The editorial in the News under the title Still Not Free reflected on the earlier debate inside the consumer movement about whether or not to stock South African goods, and the position taken by many societies to offer South African goods alongside those from other sources, with the line that the consumer should make the choice.

The News’s position by then was firm, stating: “This has never been a tenable position; if it were, the Movement’s stores would now be selling ozone harmful aerosols and other environmentally damaging products alongside those deemed to be environmentally friendly. On ‘green’ issues the movement had taken the view that its duty is to lead the consumer down the sensible path, and this is the course all societies should have followed on South African goods.”

Perhaps that is one of the everlasting legacies for the Co-operative Movement of the struggle against apartheid. It started to make co-operators and co-operatives aware that they needed to live up to their values, and that means being prepared to make difficult choices.

Soon after, in 1992, the International Co-operative Alliance initiated the debate on Co-operative Values in a Changing World and how the Movement lived up to its ideals became centre stage for the whole movement. Issues such as the struggle against apartheid are defining moments in these processes.

Today Nelson Mandela’s legacy is far more than a free South Africa. It is also the knowledge that social justice and equality are inalienable rights and cannot be withheld from people indefinitely. As South Africa struggles to overcome the legacy of apartheid and build a more just society, perhaps the greatest contribution that co-operators can make is to pledge to help in any way they can in building an inclusive co-operative sector in South Africa today.

Read more: My story: How co-operators led a South African boycott in support of Mandela

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