Obituaries | Lord Bob Hughes: a passionate fighter against apartheid
Lord Bob Hughes, 90, who died on Friday, spent some time in South Africa during his formative years. Christabel gurney writes that his experience in South Africa left him with an unwavering hatred of racism and colonialism, which underpinned his entire future political career.
Lord Bob Hughes of Woodside, who died at the age of 90 last Friday, served as Chairman of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) from 1976 until its mission accomplished disbandment after South Africa’s first democratic elections in 1994.
Together with AAM President Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and Executive Secretary Mike Terry he led the movement when it mobilized hundreds of thousands in Britain to call for sanctions against apartheid in South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela.
Hughes was born in Pittenweem, a small village in the north of Scotland, and has spent much of his life in Aberdeen. He joined the British Labor Party and in the 1960s was a member of Aberdeen City Council and was elected Member of Parliament for Aberdeen North in 1970. He was a member of the AEU engineers’ union and was deeply rooted in the British labor movement. As chairman he gave the AAM seriousness and respectability as the very model of a Scottish Labor MP.
But only among British parliamentarians, Hughes had spent his formative years in apartheid South Africa, emigrated as a teenager with his parents in 1947. He attended school in Benoni and then apprenticed as an engineer. in Howick, near Pietermaritzburg. Upon his return to Scotland in 1954, leaving his family in South Africa. His experience there left him with an unwavering hatred of racism and colonialism, which underpinned his entire future political career. He has forged close friendships with the leaders of southern Africa, in particular ANC chairman Oliver Tambo, and has developed an unwavering loyalty to the liberation movements over the past few years.
Upon his return to Britain, he first worked in the Colonial Freedom Movement, becoming its co-chair, and then joined the AAM as vice-chair, in 1975.
Already, as an Aberdeen city councilor, he had proposed a local boycott of South African products. Anti-apartheid action was not popular in 1970s Britain. Hughes recounted how when the South African government threatened to cancel an order for trawlers from an Aberdeen shipyard due to of the boycott by local authorities, local workers opposed the ban. He later visited trade unionists at an aircraft parts factory to persuade them to set up a trade union “political fund”. The workers agreed they needed it because “there is an idiot in Parliament trying to stop us from selling airplane parts to South Africa”. Bob held on, but had to tell them the “foolish idiot” was him.
In the 1980s, in response to the uprising and repression in South Africa, the British AAM grew into a mass movement, with the support of students, trade unionists, black and ethnic minority communities, and faith-based organizations. , supporters of the Liberal and Labor Party, and many people who had no political party affiliation. As president, Hughes was at the forefront of the goal of building a broad-based social movement.
He later said: “We have made a conscious decision to go for the widest possible movement. I didn’t ask members of the anti-apartheid movement any questions about their religion or their politics – it didn’t matter if they were Communists, Conservatives, Liberals or whatever. If they were ready to work with the anti-apartheid movement, then they were our allies.
The first breakthrough came with the protest in June 1984 against apartheid President PW Botha’s visit to Britain to meet with Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. Thousands of people marched through London from Hyde Park to a rally and rock festival sponsored by the Greater London Council. Britain’s black community was at the forefront of the protests for the first time.
Hughes chaired the rally at Jubilee Gardens on the South Rim. The years 1985-1986 were the culmination of the campaign to pressure the British government to support mandatory UN sanctions against apartheid South Africa. In November 1985, after Thatcher sabotaged the Commonwealth’s attempt to impose sanctions, 150,000 people joined marches converging on Trafalgar Square in London to hear from ANC Chairman Oliver Tambo, the leader of SWAPO of Namibia Shapua Kaukungua and US civil rights leader Jesse Jackson call for sanctions. Again, they were introduced by Bob Hughes, who chaired the event.
In 1988, the AAM launched its most important initiative of all time, the campaign to force the apartheid government to release Mandela: “Nelson Mandela: Freedom at Seventy”. The idea for the campaign originated in December 1987, when Mike Terry and Hughes met future South African President Thabo Mbeki at an ANC solidarity conference in Arusha, Tanzania. The campaign was launched with a rock concert at Wembley Stadium attended by a large crowd and broadcast by the BBC to more than 60 countries. The plans for the concert were extremely ambitious; this was only made possible by the initiative of Bob Hughes, who approached Labor leader Neil Kinnock to ask the Transport and General Workers Union to guarantee payment for the rental of the stadium.
The day after the concert, 25 marchers, one for each year of Mandela’s imprisonment, set off from Glasgow to London. They arrived on July 17, the eve of Mandela’s 70th birthday, and were joined by 250,000 people at a rally in Hyde Park in London. Hughes introduced Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who called for Mandela’s release. As a result of the campaign, Nelson Mandela became a household name across the world.
The last meeting of the British AAM executive in 1995. Lord Hughes is seated next to Cyril Ramaphosa. (AAM Archives).
In addition to his frontline role, Hughes has spent countless hours chairing AAM committee meetings, drafting letters to the government, and consulting with AAM Executive Secretary Mike Terry and other officers. He was always available to help with the day-to-day management of the organization. The movement was strapped for cash and its leaders risked their personal finances to keep it going. His staff were also physically threatened by apartheid agents, and on one occasion, after a firebomb attack on AAM headquarters, Bob Hughes ordered that no staff should work in the office after hours.
In the British Parliament, Bob Hughes worked with other MPs, including Labor Party’s Joan Lestor and Richard Caborn, Liberal David Steel and Conservative Peter Temple-Morris, to wrest control of the all-party parliamentary group over Southern Africa from the ultra-right led by “Pretoria Member” John Carlisle. He led the organization of delegations to ministers and the drafting of first motions and questions to the Prime Minister on Southern Africa.
Under Secretary of State for Scotland
Along with his anti-apartheid work, Hughes was a big hitter of the Parliamentary Labor Party. In 1975-1976 he was Under Secretary of State for Scotland and from 1985-1988 joined the Labor shadow cabinet as Shadow Secretary for Transport.
In 1990 he represented the AAM at Namibia’s independence celebrations and in 1994 he returned to South Africa for the first time in 40 years to act as an observer in the country’s first democratic elections. country in the same place where he had gone to school, Benoni.
When AAM was dissolved in 1994-95, Hughes became president of his successor organization, ACTSA (Action for Southern Africa), which continues to campaign for equality and human rights in all of southern Africa.
Hughes played a unique and irreplaceable role in the anti-apartheid movement. He was selfless and principled and, above all, efficient. He remains a source of inspiration for all who work for a future free of corruption, inequalities and prejudices for the peoples of southern Africa.
– Christabel Gurney is a former British activist in the anti-apartheid movement and editor-in-chief of the AAM’s Anti-Apartheid News. She is secretary of the AAM Archives Committee and a member of the Advisory Board of ACTSA (Action for Southern Africa).
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