6 December 2013 – The news that many of us were expecting came last night. Comrade Nelson Mandela, the visionary leader and icon of the South African liberation struggle, has died. Just like many of us will remember the day Mandela walked free from prison in February 1990, so we will remember the enormous sense of collective loss on receiving the news of his passing. We mourn the loss of a leader who led by example and never put himself above the interests of ordinary people. We mourn the loss of a leader who understood that the poor of South Africa were entitled to a better life. And we mourn the loss of a leader who in all spheres of political life stood for social justice and equality. Achieving the overthrow of apartheid and the first steps towards a non-racial, non-sexist, democratic South Africa is Mandela’s legacy. The ITF stands in solidarity with our South African affiliates and all other South African unions and democratic organisations to remember the passing of this great and brave man.
But the struggle against Apartheid was a collective international struggle. The power to defeat the might of the apartheid state was built by workers in the factories, farms, mines and shops. It was built by women, students, youth and working class communities. Mass-based organisations mobilised and organised against all forms of oppression and exploitation. The South African trade union movement was at the forefront of these struggles, linking workers’ demands in the workplace to the wider struggle for a radical transformation of society. Transport workers occupied a proud place in all these struggles, building a mighty, national industrial union which unified all transport sectors.
The collective struggle went beyond the borders of South Africa. Solidarity and internationalism was built in support of the South Africa struggle from all corners of the globe. Trade unions, and many ITF affiliates, took action to enforce the oil embargo, economic sanctions and disinvestment from South Africa. Unions internationally boycotted South African products. Many unions assisted their South African counterparts financially, and took solidarity action to strengthen their strikes. Union comrades around the world opened their offices, homes and communities to fellow South African trade unionists.
Who can forget the incredible moment of South Africa’s first democratic elections on 27 April 1994? Much has changed positively since that memorable day. But South Africa remains a deeply divided country due to inequality and social exclusion. It has the highest differential between rich and poor in the world. The rich are richer and the poor poorer. Neoliberal capitalism has replaced the dream that South Africans once had of a truly equal, just society.
The ITF as part of the international trade union movement will honour the memory of Mandela by continuing our fight against a system that denies workers’ rights, creates insecure work, oppresses women, destroys the environment and deprives workers of their dignity. We will fight back inspired by his example, vision and words “that it falls upon a generation to be great. You can be that great generation. Let your greatness blossom.”
ITF President Paddy Crumlin paid moving tribute to Mandela, saying: “Nelson Mandela will be remembered and celebrated for his leadership of the movement to bring justice and freedom to the people of South Africa. And in doing that captured the hopes and aspirations of all human beings seeking or protecting those values. He made an indelible mark on the history of the world because of the way in which he pursued the liberation of his people and all peoples.
“He was steadfast in holding to a moral vision in the face of the use of structured and institutionalised oppression and brutality to maintain a political outcome. His courage in leadership and determination in advocacy meant he personally felt the brunt through persecution, both physical and emotional, and incarceration for decades. His humanity and compassion even for his gaolers is legendary and he harnessed the determination and steadfastness of his anti-apartheid brothers and sisters into an extraordinary example of human liberation regardless of the material circumstances.
“His imprisonment became a rallying cry for international solidarity for a political remedy to the racist and political extremism of apartheid.
“When he walked through the prison gates that had denied him his freedom for 27 years, his mission was one of reconciliation, not revenge, a further act of extraordinary wisdom and generosity.”