Angus Leendertz – curator’s essay
The global anti-apartheid movement was arguably the greatest social movement of the 20th century and Australia can be very proud of the important role it played in the demise of apartheid. The history of the anti-apartheid movement in Australia from 1950 to 1994 was a story waiting to be told.
Books, PhDs and documentaries were used as reference but the greatest part of information, photographs and other anti-apartheid memorabilia came from the personal and organisational archives of activists and supporters. This material presented us with the opportunity to create a multimedia exhibition that speaks of the commitment of many Australians from all walks of life to supporting the struggle for democracy in South Africa. A picture emerged of continuous protest in the fields of politics, sport, the trade unions, civil society and the clergy, and many who were the vanguard of the anti-apartheid movement did so against the wishes of the state and federal governments of the day and some sustained injury or were imprisoned for it.
I immigrated to Australia in 1980 after completing my studies in Amsterdam. In Sydney I started my design career doing corporate office, café and restaurant design and after a time with a Sydney firm created my own design practice. In 1997 I responded to Nelson Mandela’s general call for skilled expatriate South Africans to return to their country of birth and assist in building the new free South Africa, where I changed the focus of my professional practice to the Heritage sector, and on developing skills-based craft training within the broader community, some of which was used in the landmark interiors of the Parliament of South Africa in Cape Town. I developed a number of prestigious projects including the Robben Island Museum and the Permanent Exhibition on Slavery at the Slave Lodge in Cape Town.
I returned to live permanently in Sydney in 2010, and set about working with a small group of South African expatriates and Australians raising funds for South African Non-Government Organisations. It was from this start that the group called Australasian South African Alliance (ASAA) came into being, and our first project was to organise a photographic exhibition celebrating Australia’s role in the anti-apartheid struggle to mark the 20th anniversary of democracy in South Africa.
The first meeting of ASAA was held at the Sydney home of Jane Harris and James Mohr. Present were Meredith Burgmann, Jane Harris, James Mohr, Natalie Hendricks, Tracy Dunn, Ish Larney and Kolin Thumbadoo.
We drafted a proposal to the Australian High Commissioner in Pretoria, HE Mr Graeme Wilson, proposing a partnership to curate a photographic exhibition celebrating 20 years of democracy outlining the historical ties Australia shared in bringing about the downfall of apartheid in South Africa and to celebrate those Australians who gave so much to the effort in the hard years. The proposal was successful and we received seed funding from the Australian High Commission in Pretoria. Natalie Mendelsohn, the Second Secretary at the AHC in Pretoria, facilitated the proposal and assisted High Commissioner Graeme Wilson in communications with our group. Sadly, Mr Graeme Wilson passed away before the exhibition was realised in Pretoria but his contribution was crucial to the project.
At a meeting in July 2013 at a coffee shop in Glebe, Meredith Burgmann, Ish Larney and I began listing the network of those individuals who were active in the years of anti-apartheid activity. Then, with the entire reference group contributing, decades of anti-apartheid activity in all Australian states was mapped and inserted into a detailed timeline. Key organisations and individuals throughout Australia and abroad were consulted. Out of this process the timeline illustrated the full story of anti-apartheid activism across all layers of society in Australia from the 1950’s to 1994, when Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa. Not all information gathered could be used as there were time and exhibition space constraints but all contributions are recognised and valued.
We realised that we had the beginnings of a good exhibition, one that not only focused on the enormity of ending apartheid in South Africa, but one which illustrated the development of Australian society in the years of the struggle.
Memories of the Struggle – Australians Against Apartheid was launched by Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke at the Parliament of NSW in early 2014 and was facilitated by NSW Leader of the Opposition Linda Burney.
Our work began in earnest. Peter Limb, author of The anti-apartheid movements in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand was extremely helpful in providing information to the project around anti-apartheid activities in Victoria, Queensland, The Northern Territory and Tasmania. Warren Ludski a former journalist with the Canberra Times made the paper’s archive of photographs available to us at no cost.
I met with Jane Singleton who had organised the Nelson Mandela tour of Australia in 1991 and Lynette Simons added considerably to my understanding of the events as they happened. Lynette together with Penny O’Donnell had written Australians Against Racism – Testimonies from the Anti-Apartheid Movement of Australia that was a great resource to us. Photographs and other ephemera were shared freely with the project and valuable insights were gleaned from the archive of the Mandela Foundation.
Meredith Bergmann was a central contributor to this process, not only with her personal archive and her ongoing contact with so many instrumental people of that time, but also for her academic rigor and tireless energy.
Meredith was a founding member of the Stop The Tours campaign, and assembled a comprehensive archive of the sporting boycotts across a variety of sports. Apart from the numerous photographs and protest related ephemera, I was offered the letters between her, a student activist at the time, and Sir Donald Bradman, the most famous cricketer in the world and chairman of Australian Cricket’s Board of Control. The Bradman letters document an important conversation where Bradman questions Meredith’s protest actions and requests advice on apartheid and those who were targeted by it. After his death Sir Donald’s son wrote that amongst other factors, her letters helped his father arrive at the decision to stop the tours of the racially selected South African cricket team in 1971/72.
While every member of the ASAA group worked hard at getting the detail right and keeping the onward movement of the exhibition going, special mention must be made of the contributions of three people in particular.
James Mohr, one of the assistant curators, tirelessly researched many archives for detail and photographs we could include in the exhibition, and Tracy Dunn, the other assistant curator undertook to catalogue all of the information flowing in and order it for use in the final panels and to research and co-ordinate the installation of the ephemera that was on show at Customs House, some of which in the MoAD exhibition. When we realised that all the information that we collected would not be able to fit in its entirety in the Customs House show Tracy came up with the idea of making a scrapbook of our research. This scrapbook is on show again here at MoAD and is one of the most interesting items on exhibition.
Natalie Hendricks, Ish larney, Jane Harris and Pat Wagner worked tirelessly throughout the life of the project and were an invaluable resource and never too busy to assist with whatever was required.
Julia Park, our graphic designer became an indispensable member of the group and it was she who is responsible for bringing elegance and legibility to the labyrinth of information the show presented.
Over the next few months I made contact with the key organisers in the Australian story and went to South Africa to research at Fort Hare University archive and then to Johannesburg to meet Eddie Funde, the ANC representative in Australia from 1983 to 1992. Eddie was central to the anti-apartheid movement and led awareness campaigns across Australia. It was he who facilitated important contact with the Australian Trade Unions, who were early supporters of the struggle for democracy in South Africa.
Important contributors to this exhibition are Helen McCue, former head of Australian People for Health, Education and Development Abroad (APHEDA), Audrey McDonald, formerly from the Union of Australian Women, Peter Jennings and Ken Davis from APHEDA all spent time and energy in informing me of the work of the unions and APHEDA during the struggle. Numerous stories, photographs and interesting ephemera were offered by this group for the exhibition and James Mohr and I spent many hours investigating the APHEDA archive of the years up to the first democratic elections and beyond. This group of Union organisers spent endless hours assisting with the timeline document which informed the exhibition and were important in unraveling the web of organisations, individuals and political parties who played a role in the anti apartheid movement in Australia.
Ken Davis contributed invaluable new information about the support of the gay movement for information and education about the spread and treatment of HIV/AIDS and the work of the unions in this area before and after 1994.
The Wallabies who announced that they were not available for selection to play against the all-white racially selected Springbok team in 1971 put their principles ahead of their playing futures, and made a choice that was not only without precedent in Australian sport, but also very unpopular at the time. The tumultuous protests and disruptions led directly to the ban on all sporting ties with South Africa, that, coupled with economic sanctions and product boycotts helped greatly in the downfall of apartheid and demonstrates a period of modern Australian history of which we can be proud.
Canberra based Kerry Browning who was married to Maxwell Humbelani Emadzivhanani,the representative of the Pan African Congress (PAC) in Australia provided important insights into the numerous activities and protests in Canberra over many years. Kerry provided posters, photographs and artworks relating to the struggle and she facilitated our access to the National Museum of Australia’s Kerry Browning Collection.
John Myrtle worked closely with John and Margaret Brink, the founders of the South Africa Defense and Aid Fund (SADAF), and he generously provided important history and significant insights into SADAF who coordinated efforts to support families of political prisoners in South Africa, but also his personal experiences of the sporting boycotts and the response of the clergy to apartheid.
Dorothy McRae-McMahon was the minister of the Pitt Street Church in the mid-1980s. After Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s visit to Australia in 1987, her congregation began to support the anti-apartheid movement. Dorothy shared her experiences during that time and was happy to loan her human rights medal to the project.
Gareth Evans was a friend of the Memories project from the beginning. His role as Foreign Affairs Minister in the Hawke government’s campaign against apartheid is well documented and we were honoured when he agreed to open the Customs House exhibition in September 2014. Evans commented:
If we in Australia had washed our hands of apartheid, on the comfortable but indecent justification that it was too far away or too intractable a problem, we would not only have failed in our humanitarian duty, but have debased the very values which are the core of our sense of human dignity.
After the success of the show at Customs House Museum in Sydney and at the University of Pretoria, I approached the Museum of Australian Democracy in Canberra about mounting an expanded version of the show that went into Customs House Museum and they welcomed the opportunity to work with us on the expanded exhibition. This version includes a significant multimedia component, but also includes new information unknown to us at the time of the first exhibition. When we learnt that Gareth Evans was being honoured with the Order of OR Tambo by the South African government in Pretoria he gave permission for us use the medal and ceremonial staff in the exhibition at MoAD.
We expanded the group and invited Paul Kaplan in West Australia, and Algernon van der Hoeven, Sybil Wakefield and Irene Gale in South Australia to contribute. From this group we received a wealth of information for the timeline, photographs, flyers and other ephemera emanating from their states.
Father Richard Buchhorn was a life long supporter of the struggle in South Africa and the plight of Aboriginal people in Australia. In my talks with John Myrtle, he gave me access to the extraordinary archive of cards and letters that Father Buchhorn exchanged with the families of political prisoners in South Africa over many years. Some of the cards were sent in response to his letters, some to thank him for taking the time and effort to remember at a time when many of them were under house arrest or banning orders while other members of their families were languishing in prisons with little hope of being released. The intensely personal relationship between the individuals on both sides in this correspondence shows how important this contact from an Australian was to those hardest hit by apartheid.
Australian surfers Tom Carroll, Martin Potter and Cheyne Horan were among the first sportsmen in the world who spoke out against apartheid and Tom Carroll ignited a storm in professional surfing when he alone announced his boycott of the pro tour in South Africa in 1985.
In our search for an Australian artist who had dealt with South Africa we were very fortunate to find George Gittoes willing to contribute to the project. A small selection of his South African suite has been featured in the exhibition.
In 1993 I had witnessed the successful elections in Cambodia bringing an end to suffering caused by the Khmer Rouge. Humanity seemed to be on the right path and I knew that 1994 would see one of the greatest triumphs of the human spirit, ever, with Mandela leading South Africa into a future without apartheid. I wanted my art to express this joyous dance of freedom.
In 2015 Gittoes was awarded the Sydney Peace Prize.
Through my circle of South African friends I had met Andrea Durbach. From 1985 to 1991 lawyer Andrea and her colleagues fought the largest death penalty case in South African legal history. The ‘Upington 25’ were convicted of the murder of one policeman, and 14 were sentenced to death. After the barrister in the case, human rights advocate Anton Lubowski, was assassinated in Namibia in 1989, Durbach came to Australia. She worked in a major law firm in Sydney and re-qualified as an Australian lawyer, but returned to South Africa in 1991 for the appeal against the Upington judgment. The appeal court overturned 21 of the murder convictions, and all 14 death sentences were commuted. Andrea says of the boat:
Each week my clients would give me a shopping list, which curiously included boxes and boxes of matches. The boat is the result of their ingenuity and represents their imaginings and longing for freedom. It is my most treasured possession.
Andrea migrated to Australia after the appeal and is currently a professor of law and Director of the Australian Human Rights Centre at the University of New South Wales. I wrote to her to ask if she would allow us to show the boat in the MoAD exhibition and she replied, “I’d be happy to sail my boat to Canberra to be part of the exhibition.”
The role of Australian politicians was explored and specific actions by three prime ministers celebrated in the exhibition. Gough Whitlam, Bob Hawke and Malcolm Fraser all played important parts and demonstrated a commitment to ending the scourge of apartheid by applying sporting and economic pressure over the years by supporting various boycotts and bans.
As the expanded content of the MoAD exhibition grew, Georgia Wallace-Crabbe and Gregory Miller of local production company Film Projects were commissioned to carry out a series of interviews with the main players in the story and to produce expanded video content for the exhibition, including a multi-screen video wall telling the history of the Australian anti-apartheid struggle. Interviewees included: former PM Bob Hawke; Meredith Burgmann; Zimbabwean Sekai Holland, Natalie Hendricks, Jane Harris, and Bulelwa Freer; union aid organisers Helen McCue, and Audrey McDonald. Cheyne Horan, who rode a surfboard with "Free Mandela" on it in the 80s, Jack Mundy, former BLF secretary who lead the green bans in the 70s, and Aboriginal academic, Gary Foley, active in the fight against apartheid who said in his interview:
It was important that we [made] our own people more politically aware not only about their own situation ... but also the situations of other oppressed peoples around the world, the people of South Africa ... what we saw to be part of an international underclass similar to us.
The final video content will feature the new interviews combined with archival footage courtesy of the ANC Archive, the ABC, Frontyard Films, Abaracadabra Films, Essential Media, Alchemy Films, and archival photos from the National Library of Australia and private collections.
Working mainly with the material that was available from our research we collaborated closely with the MoAD production team and imposed the curatorial rigour required for an exhibition of this importance. Libby Stewart the senior historian at MoAD edited volumes of text and simplified the content to adhere to the museum’s standards whilst never losing sight of the story.
In this exhibition you will hear the voices and memories of some of the Australians and South Africans and others who worked hard over decades to bring about the end of apartheid. They often faced bitter opposition, and some were jailed for their actions. Memories of the Struggle pays tribute to the dedication and commitment of everyone who took part in the movement.
Memories of the Struggle will travel to the South African National Arts Festival in Grahamstown South Africa for it’s 2017 season. The Robben Island Museum World Heritage Site in Cape Town and prison where Nelson Mandela spent most of his term will host the exhibition after that.
Sydney, April 2016.