EPIC 2018 Masthead

Memories of the Struggle: Australians Against Apartheid

Heather Wallace

Memories of the Struggle: Australians Against Apartheid shows what happened when Australians from all walks of life – students, church groups, politicians and sportspeople – took a stand against racism and inequality, and helped end 46 years of apartheid in South Africa.

Showing at the Museum of Australian Democracy (MOAD), the exhibition is a reminder that small acts and courageous voices can bring about great political change. Originally curated by Angus Leendertz and shown in Sydney, the exhibition has been expanded for MOAD to include anti-apartheid activism that happened here in Canberra from the 1970s.

MOAD curator Libby Stewart gave me a tour of the exhibition to explain the history and significance of pieces. “Canberra was a hub or protests in the 1970s and 1980s,” Libby explains, pointing out photos of protesters who converged each day on the South African Embassy. “Protesters set up the Liberation Centre outside the embassy and encouraged people to honk their car horns as they drove by. Three Australian prime ministers, Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke were strong against apartheid and used trade sanctions and international relations.”

As a teenager in 1980s rural Australia my fledgling political awareness was partly through The Special’s 1984 hit ‘Free Nelson Mandela’. Anti-apartheid protests had been occurring in Australia since the 1950s though, and Memories of the Struggle brings together photos and memorabilia, honouring those who stood against the regime.


But what exactly was apartheid? Now it’s a word we associate with cruelty and racism – it’s hard to imagine a time when it was legal practice. While racial segregation in South Africa dated back to Dutch and British colonial rule, apartheid was government enforced from 1949 to 1994, separating the population into racial types.

Schools, transport, hospitals and civil services were segregated.

Public beaches, swimming pools and public toilets were segregated. Non-white South Africans were removed form their homes and forced into racially segregated communities. By 1970 voting rights were removed from all non-whites, and black South Africans were deprived of citizenship.

Multiracial sport was forbidden and teams competing internationally were exclusively white. When New Zealand’s All Black’s toured in 1970 Maori members of the team were classified as ‘honourary whites’. Protests were met with police violence, and activists, including Nelson Mandela and members of the African National Congress, prosecuted and imprisoned. Mandela would be imprisoned for 27 years.

Objects in the exhibition show the different ways people all round Australia voiced their opposition. One of the most significant was Australia’s sporting bans. Letters between activist Meredith Burgmann and Sir Donald Bradman are on display. Bradman’s decision for the Australian cricket team to not play South Africa until they chose a team on non-racial lines sent shock waves around the world.

Meredith Burgmann at the exhibition launch

Meredith Burgmann (right) at the exhibition launch

His correspondence with Burgmann, then a student activist protesting tours by the Springboks and South African cricket team, heavily influenced his viewpoint. Photos of her on the front line of protests are prominent in the exhibition, and seeing her at the exhibition launch standing next to blown up images of her younger self was mesmerising.

Also on display is a Springboks jersey on display with accompanying photos of activist Gary Foley wearing it. “In 1971 the Springboks captain publicly said ‘No black man shall ever wear the Springboks jersey’,” Libby explains. “Wallabies member Jim Boyce managed to get hold of a few and gave them to Gary Foley and Billy Craigie, young male Aboriginal activists. They wore them outside the Bondi hotel where the team was staying, and were briefly arrested by police who thought they’d stolen them.”


One of Libby’s favourite pieces in the exhibition is the Matchstick Boat on loan from lawyer Andrea Durbach. Made of thousands of individual matches, it’s the first time this fragile piece is on public display.

Durbach defended 25 black South African activists against the death penalty. “Each time she met with her clients they’d ask her to bring them boxes of matches,” Libby says. “They made the boat while they were in prison to occupy their minds and not think about their death sentence from the court. Durbach managed to get all 25 acquitted on appeal and when she was preparing to leave for Australia they presented the boat to her as a symbol of their and her new life.”


The exhibition includes filmed interviews with those involved in the struggle and reminds visitors that many paid a price for their courage. Sportspeople who refused to tour South Africa were vilified by some press and protesters would regularly be assaulted. Protests weren’t just by the young and vocal. Church leaders and their communities joined protests and gave support. We’re seeing similar groups come together to support asylum seekers today, and similar reactions against them by some media and members of the public.

That apartheid was defeated through trade and sporting sanctions, and the efforts of communities around the world is now part of history. When Nelson Mandela visited Australia in 1990, the first overseas country he visited after his release from prison, more than 40,000 people came to hear him speak at the Sydney Opera House. The hero image of the exhibition is from that day, with Mandela raising his hand in victorious solidarity. Four year later apartheid officially ended and he became the first South African president chosen in a fully representative election.


That Australia helped reach that moment is something to be proud of and MOAD is encouraging people to share their own memories of the struggle through a comment book in the exhibition and online.

For anyone needing a reminder that everyday actions can change history, Memories of the Struggle: Australians Against Apartheid, might just be what you need.

the essentials

Memories of the Struggle: Australians Against Apartheid will be on display for 12 months at Museum of Australian Democracy at Old Parliament House, Canberra.
Tickets: Entry is free after museum admission.
More information: www.moadoph.gov.au


Heather Wallace

Heather’s career in arts and heritage PR spans 15 years, with highlights including working for Sean Connery at the Edinburgh International Film Festival and promoting Australia’s World Heritage places. Her blog, Myths and Misadventures, (http://mythsandmisadventures.blogspot.com.au/), is about life lessons we can learn from the Romans. You can follow her on Twitter @Missmythology. More about the Author

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