Speech delivered at the Opera House Forecourt, 24 October 1990, at a rally organised by the Labor Council of NSW, “In Union with Mandela”.
Mr Gareth Evans, Foreign Minister representing the Prime Minister, Mr John Dowd, Attorney General representing the Premier, Mr Jeremy Bingham, Lord Mayor of Sydney, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen – welcome to Australia, Mr Mandela!
The people of Sydney and the Australian labour movement, of which I am honoured to be a part, are proud to see you here today. Proud that you are able to accept the invitation to be here, proud about the cause of freedom which you represent.
That cause is now visible and alive to the whole world.
That attitude of indifference, of regarding the needs and aspirations of four fifths of the South African people as invisible, characterises the evil of apartheid. Apartheid is more than neglect for the non-white peoples, it represents another ideology of oppression and inhumanity of which the Twentieth Century has been witness too many times.
One of the great anti-racist novels of our century is Ralph Ellison’s The Invisible Man which tells the story of a black man invisible “simply because people refuse to see…”. The main character explains: “When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves, or figments of their imagination – indeed, everything and anything except me”.
Well, today, South Africa’s invisible man is here. The man various South African administrations hoped they could imprison, contain, and ignore, is a vital and disturbing presence. Mr. Mandela, you are silent no more.
It is appropriate that this gathering is called “In Union with Mandela” because it is sponsored by the trade unions of NSW, many of whom have done much to support the ANC in Australia. The Australian Council of Trade Unions, through its aid agency, APHEDA (Australian People for Health Education and Development Assistance) is working closely with the ANC to assist in the development of projects promoting basic vocational training and health assistance, areas of notorious neglect in South Africa. This year APHEDA’s assistance to the ANC-supported projects will be over four million dollars. APHEDA also has several training projects with various South African trade union and church organisations. They include an occupational health and training programme with the Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), cooperative programmes with local township communities and skill training programmes with the National Union of Metal Workers of South Africa.
In your nation, the story of the labour movement, including the development of free trade unions, is largely the story of the struggle for liberty. A struggle sometimes bordering on the desperate, with the segregationist actions of the government – including the outlawing of non-racial unions and the banning of industrial action.
Mr Mandela, you are among friends who want you to fulfil the best hopes of current and future generations, and the creation of a truly democratic South Africa, where the ideal of a multi-racial, pluralist society is not a hollow boast, but a proud and worthy reality. With developments over recent years, that ideal is now more visible, that achievement now possible.
The people of Australia want you to succeed. And we want you to know we are watching and cheering you on.
To be honest, I was not sure what to expect in organising, with my Labor Council colleague Tom Forrest, this event. Senator Gareth Evans, the then Foreign Minister, a few months or so beforehand phoned me to ask if the Labor Council could do something. At first, I thought of hiring the Sydney Town Hall. Then, the Sydney Sports Stadium, a reunion of Cold Chisel and other rock bands, came to mind, but as we thought an overflow crowd might be curious to turn up, we looked at putting the event, a welcome to Sydney, In Union with Mandela, on the steps of the Opera House. I rang then Premier of NSW, Nick Greiner, for NSW government support for the event.
The case for opposing apartheid was compelling, of course. The Labor Council and unions had long supported the African National Congress (ANC) as the chief, organised opposition to the South African government. But due to the communist affiliations of much of the top ANC leadership, there were grounds for worrying if the transition to democracy and the loosening of control by the white supremacists to the people of South Africa could possibly be peaceful.
This rally occurred in the aftermath of toppled European communist tyrannies demoralised and wiped out by ‘people power’. In retrospect, it is amazing that there was so much optimism that South Africa would go the same way.
So, in the lead-up to this exciting event, there was the trepidation about whether Mandela, released from 27 years in prison on 11 February 1990, would be the kindly, mature, and determined figure he proved to be.
Around 11.00am the crowds began milling around the Opera House. A choir put together for the occasion by students and the local ANC office spellbound their audience as they sang various traditional African songs. Applause broke out with excitement growing in the crowd which overflowed into the Botanical Gardens.
Mandela arrived via a barge and whisked into the bowels of the Opera House, re-emerging onto the steps of the Opera House as the ceremony began with the choir boisterously singing the ANC anthem, “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” (“God Bless Africa”) the powerful hymn-like song of mourning, redemption, celebration, and mobilisation. Later, Mandela said he felt like he was in Soweto when he heard their voices.
With the event marketed as “In Union with Mandela” it was obvious that the labour movement was deeply committed to the ANC.
Evans and I wanted as broad a display of support as possible. There were brief speeches from John Dowd, the NSW Attorney-General, Don Dunstan, the former Premier of South Australia, Patricia Staunton and me for the Labor Council.
The Lord Mayor of Sydney, Jeremy Bingham, gave Mandela the keys to the city. The honour was initially conferred in 1987 when he was still imprisoned, but now he could accept.
Gareth Evans then introduced Mandela to a rapturous crowd and the minister spoke on the government’s commitment to the dismantling of apartheid.
Mandela spoke for at least 30 minutes (maybe 40) and promised that the ANC would not compromise on their position of one person one vote. He thanked Australia and all those who had supported the cause of freedom.
To finish, Michael Edwards-Stevens, the American singer performed his stirring version of the ANC’s “Freedom Charter” with “Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika” sung another time. The day was one of the most exciting of my life – to organise this event, to connect Mandela’s struggle with the cause of the labour movement. A hundred thousand people turned up. The cheering I never will forget.