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Public Employee Press

Union fought to set him free and end racist apartheid system



ABOVE: DC 37 leaders and activists were arrested in Washington D.C., at anti-apartheid demonstrations at the South African embassy

As Nelson Mandela led the people of South Africa on the long march toward democracy and freedom, District Council 37 and its national union, the American Federation of County, State and Municipal Employees, walked with him.

Union members and leaders boycotted, demonstrated and were arrested as they pressed U.S. governments and corporations to take action against the racist apartheid system.

"Nelson Mandela changed the course of history by liberating an oppressed nation in pursuit of racial equality," AFSCME President Lee Saunders said when the great South African freedom fighter died Dec. 5.

As with the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., AFSCME established a special relationship with Mandela, providing vital financial support and extending the arms of solidarity to embrace the political prisoner during the long uphill struggle to end apartheid.

Over several decades, AFSCME's anti-apartheid campaign raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Mandela and the African National Congress. The union also backed the National Nelson Mandela Welcome Committee that included former Secretary-Treasurer William Lucy, which brought Nelson and Winnie Mandela to the United States in 1990.

Upon his release after 27 years of incarceration, Mandela did not harbor ill will toward his enemies but inspired the world with his courage, personal sacrifice and perseverance in the cause of freedom and dignity for all. He came to AFSCME's 1990 convention, where the faces of his union sisters and brothers mirrored those Mandela saw in the mineworkers, farm hands, protesters and students of his homeland, and he personally thanked members for standing up against oppression and urged them to "keep the pressure on."

A spreading anti-apartheid boycott began in the kitchen of a Manhattan homeless shelter, where SSEU Local 371 Institutional Aides refused to serve canned pineapple imported from South Africa. Their concerns were heard as DC 37 leaders pressed the New York City Council for legislation to ban the purchase of South African goods by the city.

Labor led the campaign against the racist and inhumane apartheid system and those who profited from it, and former DC 37 Executive Director Victor Gotbaum convinced members' pension systems to divest their holdings in companies doing business in South Africa. In 1984 and 1985, Gotbaum and other DC 37 leaders, staff and members were arrested numerous times in civil disobedience protests at South African government offices in Washington and New York City.

The steadfast support from AFSCME and the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists bolstered Mandela in his fight to eradicate apartheid and remove its grip on the economic and educational opportunities of the people of South Africa.

When Mandela died, DC 37 Executive Director Lillian Roberts celebrated his life in his own words: "It is what difference we have made to the lives of others that will determine the significance of the life we lead."

True freedom, he said, "is not merely to cast off one's chains, but to live in a way that respects and enhances the freedom of others," and Mandela truly accomplished that.

— DSW

 
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