South African anti-apartheid leader Nelson Mandela was made an honorary member of the FBU at its conference in June, following his release from prison in February.
The move, very much in keeping with the union’s progressive stance on worldwide issues, coincided with a debate and emergency resolution in which delegates backed the continuing fight, including the maintenance of Britain’s economic sanctions on the apartheid regime. Delegates paid tribute to Mandela and the African National Congress, of which he was vice-president. Mandela was to receive his honorary membership of the union when he attended the Labour Party conference in October.
The FBU had campaigned for Mandela’s release from prison for years and, like many in the labour movement, was jubilant at his release. In January the union had launched its South Africa – Freedom Now! Campaign, which rested on four pillars: stop apartheid repression, boycott apartheid – sanctions now, solidarity with the ANC, and a united, non-racial and democratic South Africa.
The June conference recognised Mandela’s “supreme sacrifice” of freedom and that he and his colleagues would never be free until a true and democratic structure was established in South Africa. The FBU pledged to continue, through the anti-apartheid movement, to support the struggle for freedom in the country, the release of all political prisoners, the lifting of all bans and restrictions on people and organisations, the removal of troops from towns and an end to the state of emergency.
The union also called for the repeal of all legislation, such as the Internal Security Act, designed to restrict political activity, and an end to all political trials and executions. As John Neville, Dumfries and Galloway brigade chair, pointed out in The Firefighter, how can the union fight against discrimination on grounds of race in the workplace and not be opposed to the system of apartheid? He said:
"It seems to me to be wholly meet and appropriate that we should therefore honour one of the world’s great exponents of racial equality."