Jamaica’s contribution to a free South Africa
Island opposition to apartheid
In 1958 Jamaica was the first territory in the world to ban trade with South Africa, even though it had a credit trade balance at the time – about £12,000, a substantial amount in those days. The island imported leather and tanning materials and exported its world-class mango juice to enhance the flavour of South African mangoes!
1958 was the year when the Federation of the West Indies was established, and a lot of work had been done by the University of the West Indies in preparation. The socialist Peoples National Party of Jamaica had gained power in 1955 – the year of Sophiatown’s forced removals and Father Trevor Huddleston’s ‘recall’ to England.
The PNP party structure was based on local groups much used to addressing issues to do with justice and equality including a close scrutiny of history and how Jamaican society had come into being and survived with such vigour and dignity.
Much was being done in education, especially in ‘West Indianising’ the curriculum. Corporal punishment had been banned in the island’s schools by the Ministry of Education – the guidance approach to discipline was adopted. Student councils were making their presence felt. Democratic participation was developing, and teacher unions were influential.
History was being carried forward by an acclaimed group of scholars, Roy Augier, Shirley Gordon, Elsa Goveia and Reg Murray among others. The University Institute of Social and Economic Research assisted teachers and others to delve into significant questions of rootedness and find in themselves the qualities that had sustained Black people over centuries of oppression. Their work was essentially action-oriented
Books were being published. Summer schools were being held. Knox College established its educational services which included book sales. Peter Abrahams had escaped from South Africa and come to live in the island. Ansell Hart published his radical Monthly Comments. Peter Abrahams published the monthly Economic Review. Poets, short story writers and novelists flourished.
It was a time of tremendous creativity, and Jamaicans not only rose to the challenge of the time but created new challenges, socially and politically. There was a fine-tuned awareness of the Black presence nationally, regionally and world-wide. Our farm-workers transformed attitudes in the Southern USA. It was a spiritual uprising.
So what about the trade ban? In 1958 Jamaica was not even responsible for foreign affairs but it took the lead in supporting the struggle that led to black power in South Africa, building on the international connections that had developed at least from the beginning of the twentieth century.
Like all big things, the movement had small, even humble beginnings
Gerry German, PNP activist and teacher at the progressive Knox College up in the hills of Clarendon, was invited to speak to the Young Men’s Fraternal in Mandeville. He had recently purchased Peter Abraham’s Tell Freedom and John Gunter’s Inside Africa from the Knox College bookshop, and he decided to speak about South Africa’s discriminatory and oppressive pass laws. Gunter provided the analysis and Abrahams generated the passion and commitment along with the grassroots experience of living life classified as one of the ‘Cape Coloured’.
The young men asked questions and made comments culminating in a declaration that apartheid could not be allowed to continue – Jamaica mus’ invade!
The outburst of feeling was so strong that Gerry German decided to place it on the North Manchester Peoples National Party Agenda. Every month on a Sunday afternoon in the different parish council wards, the local PNP group met in the local primary school, and community activists, members and friends were invited – group meetings were crowded and this item excited considerable interest.
Over a period of some six months in late 1957 and early 1958, each monthly meeting unanimously endorsed a resolution calling on the PNP National Executive to get the government – which was in PNP hands of course – to ban trade with South Africa. So the people of the Belfield, Christiana, Craighead, Comfort Hall, Devon, Mile Gulley and Walderston parish council wards pressed for this important item and this show of solidarity and sister/brotherhood to be placed on the PNP National Executive agenda.
Wills Isaacs, Minister of Trade and Industry, was present at the PNP National Executive May 1958 meeting in Kingston. He outlined the problems we might have in implementing the resolution because of our political status and limited autonomy but promised to move things forward. The debate was vigorous. The comrades present acknowledged no obstacles. It was the least we could do for and with our Black brothers and sisters – Sophia Town had been ‘cleared’ and Nelson Mandela was incarcerated on Roben Island. It was the people’s resolution and it was passed unanimously.
By the summer of 1958, the government of Jamaica announced the trade ban, and it was immediately followed by similar resolutions from other countries worldwide.
This was also the year when the Notting Hill and Nottingham ‘riots’ erupted in the UK – a sign of solidarity and resistance to institutionalised racist mistreatment. And 10 years before that, the SS Empire Windrush had landed at Tilbury in Essex. Jamaicans and their fellow West Indians, as they were called at the time, continued their historic political cross-fertilisation, but now inside the mother-country rather than far away in the colonies!
When Nelson Mandela visited Jamaica after his release and inauguration as President of the new South Africa, he paid tribute to the people of Jamaica for what they had done and the lead they had given to the world. He was hailed as a brother.
2008 is the fiftieth anniversary of the trade ban, and it needs to be celebrated as an important milestone in the march of Black people to freedom. It came from the grassroots where all genuinely good things originate. Is deh de spirit ketch, across oceans and across centuries. Let us not forget.
(Editor’s Note: I am very grateful to Gerry German, and all of the Caribbean should be also, for this timely reminder of our historical contribution to the anti-Apartheid movement. Indeed, it is a part of our history of which we are proud and should be celebrated. When I met Nelson Mandela at his home in South Africa some years ago, he expressed his esteemed fondness for Jamaica and the Caribbean. Among Gerry German’s other significant contributions to Jamaica, is his contribution to education in the 50’s and 60’s, including as Principal of Manchester High School in Mandeville where he served with distinction – coincidentally at the time I was a student at that institution. It was during Gerry’s tenure as principal that I was introduced to Paul Bogle and the Morant Bay rebellion for the first time. – Curtis A. Ward/Editor-in-Chief, Caribbean Diaspora Connect, July 2008)
*This article by the late Gerry German was first published in my Blog – Caribbean Diaspora Connect, in July 2008. Gerry German served as Principal of Manchester High School from 1959 to 1966 when he left Jamaica, and, after spending several years in Nigeria returned to the UK where he founded and operated a charitable service NGO – the Communities Empowered Network, which provided advocacy and representation to excluded students and their parents. He passed away in May 2012. On his passing, Gerry German was hailed in The Guardian as “a tireless champion of equality, diversity and social justice.” He was notably a “life-long campaigner for children’s rights” (The Monitoring Group).
Caribbean Diaspora Connect was discontinued sometime in 2010. I launched my new Blog, The Ward Post, on October 31, 2016.
Jamaica, in particular PNP-led governments, had an expansive role in advancing the global anti-Apartheid movement. The 1958 trade boycott implemented by the Norman Manley-led government was a modest but important beginning of Jamaica’s global anti-apartheid advocacy. [Curtis A Ward, Publisher/Editor of The Ward Post.]
© 2020 Curtis A. Ward/The Ward Post