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GEORGE WEEKES : ANTI-APARTHEID CHAMPION by Cecil Paul & Gerry Kangalee

posted 30 Dec 2013, 09:21 by Gerry Kangalee   [ updated 30 Dec 2013, 10:14 ]

George Weekes

The most passionate opponent of racism in Southern Africa and Trinbago’s foremost anti-apartheid champion was undoubtedly George Weekesthe late President General of the Oilfields Workers Trade Union (OWTU) and along with the late Joe Young, a giant of the post-independence labour movement.

 

On the death of Nelson Mandela, the union Weekes led and whose members at the time struggled against apartheid and engaged in boycotts against the racist regime did not mention his (Weekes’) contribution in the fight to free Mandela and end apartheid. As a result we have decided to go into history for those who do not know and for those who may have forgotten.

 

Bukka Rennie
In addition, Bukka Rennie, the revolutionary intellectual, author and former editor of the OWTU Vanguard newspaper wrote a comment on Gerry Kangalee’s and Cecil Paul’s Facebook pages advising us to read an article in the Saturday Express of 21st December 2013 by Sir Ronald Sanders former diplomat, consultant and academic titled “Standing by Mandela”.

 

Sir Ronald writes, “…the purpose of this commentary is to recall the role played by Caribbean people in freeing Mandela and ending apartheid”. The article, never, not even once, mentioned the role of Trinidad and Tobago or its people or organizations in supporting the anti-apartheid struggle.

 

He, however, mentioned several other Caribbean countries. So Bukka Rennie advised that we write something for our country’s sake but National Workers Union had already requested that we (before Sir Ronald’s article) comment on George Weekes’ and Trinbago’s role in that great international struggle against racism in Southern Africa. So here are our views based on experiences in the anti-apartheid struggle.

 

In the middle 1970’s as young trade unionists and political activists entering the OWTU head office in San Fernando, we couldn’t miss this large poster picture of Nelson Mandela with barbed wire on his forehead on the wall outside Weekes’ office with a sign “FREE MANDELA at the top, and at the bottom “END APARTHEID NOW”.

 

There were other posters at the other offices in Port of Spain and elsewhere calling for “DEATH TO APARTHEID”, “SUPPORT THE ANC”, “BOYCOTT SOUTH AFRICA”. This picture inspired many of us to seek information and knowledge on the African National Congress (ANC) Nelson Mandela and the Anti Apartheid Struggle.

 

But it was not only posters: Comrade Weekes would also constantly speak about the struggles in Southern Africa. The Union’s Library had many publications on apartheid. The Vanguard carried stories and reports of events in Southern Africa, particularly after the Soweto uprising in 1976, when children as young as ten years old faced the guns of the South African police, were shot down in the streets and persisted in their struggle which gave new life to the anti-apartheid movement.

 

In the wake of the Soweto uprising, the OWTU stepped up its campaign of education about the evils of apartheid. The union newspaper VANGUARD carried numerous articles about apartheid; the union’s flyers and branch bulletins carried articles, cartoons, pictures and slogans about the situation in Southern Africa; the OWTU envelopes and letterheads carried anti-apartheid slogans.

 

Persons familiar with the issues, even those in exile from Southern Africa, were brought in to our country to inform members of the Union and the public at large. At demonstrations we carried pictures of Mandela and placards calling for freedom for the people of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Angola, Mozambique and Namibia. There was also a picture of Sam Nujoma the leader of South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO).

Kelvin Pope - The Mighty Duke

 

Our calypsonians also played a major role in the anti-apartheid struggle Duke’s “How Many More Must Die”, Stalin’s “More Come” Valentino’s “Stay Up Zimbabwe” Bally’s “Chaka Chaka”, King Sparrow’s “Isolate South Africa and “Invade South Africa” were among many other songs contributed by our kaisonians. George Weekes ensured that particularly Valentino and Stalin were hired at our rallies to educate the members on the evils of racism in Southern Africa.

 

So important was Trinidad and Tobago to the anti-apartheid movement that OWTU and progressive trade unions received Southern African emissaries conducting their overseas anti-apartheid struggles as OWTU was their de-facto representative in Trinbago.  Comrade Weekes also got the OWTU to agree to grant scholarships to Southern African students. Many Zimbabwean students were able to get an education at the John Donaldson Technical Institute and at UWI because of the commitment of George Weekes.

 

Valentino: the people's calypsonian

George Weekes and the OWTU arranged and facilitated non-reported/non disclosed meetings between the T&T government and representatives of the liberation movements due to the fear of our governments at the time of US and UK reprisals.

 

The African National Congress (ANC) observer at the United Nations, Dr. Dube, was a frequent visitor to OWTU. As a result of the George Weekes’ led anti-apartheid campaign of the 1970’s workers in our country began to boycott goods and shipments of oil to South Africa and punished countries trading with the apartheid regime.

 

Space Research Corporation, (SRC) a company owned by Canadian Gerald Bull (who was assassinated by Israeli intelligence MOSSAD in 1990), through Israeli contacts and the support of the CIA made a deal with the apartheid regime to supply heavy artillery, specifically the GC-45 howitzer, to the South African army which had invaded Angola in 1975. SRC established testing facilities in Barbados and Antigua.

 

Tim Hector

The late Tim Hector led a mass campaign in Antigua calling for SRC to be shut down. Tim was the leader of the Antigua Caribbean Liberation Movement (ACLM), the editor of the leading progressive newspaper in the Caribbean, The Outlet, and a leading Pan Caribbean progressive intellectual. Tim Hector was a close ally of George Weekes and the OWTU.

 

When Antiguan dockworkers refused to load arms shipment to South Africa, the government of Vere Bird threatened to dismiss them. Oil workers at the Pointe-A-Pierre refinery waterfront refused to load a shipment of fuel to Antigua and eighteen of them, including Weekes’ son, were suspended by transnational corporation Texaco. The OWTU made it quite clear to the Antiguan government that it was quite prepared to withhold fuel supplies from Antigua. This led to the eventual withdrawal from Antigua and Barbados of the SRC.

 

In 1979, when Tim Hector appeared before the United Nations to talk about Antigua breaking the UN-imposed arms embargo on South Africa, he made it his business to put on the record the role of T&T oil workers, George Weekes and the OWTU in the SRC affair.

 

In 1979, the year of the famous Texaco Must Go campaign, the OWTU gathered enough evidence to force the government to set up a Commission of Enquiry into the trading relationship between Texaco and the apartheid regime. While the Commission never completed its report, a lot of information implicating Texaco in trading with South Africa was exposed.

 

In 1975 the South Africans invaded Angola and Fidel Castro in one of the greatest acts of international solidarity sent Cuban troops to beat back  the apartheid soldiers.


The Barbados government allowed the Cubans to re-fuel the planes carrying the troops in Bridgetown, but the US soon put a stop to that. The Cubans requested that oil rich Trinidad and Tobago refuel the planes after the trip from Cuba to the Southern Caribbean for the long trip across the South Atlantic to Southern Africa. This is a normal and routine refuelling operation for such long flights. The Eric Williams government refused.

 

 George Weekes and the progressive trade union movement went to the streets in protest against this seemingly reactionary pro-apartheid position of our government. This embarrassed the then Government and exposed their indifference to racism in Southern Africa.

 

Ironically it was Forbes Burnham of Guyana who allowed some of the smaller aircraft to refuel, but only two flights were made from Georgetown after the USA and the Perez government in Venezuela threatened the government of Guyana.

 

As we entered the decade of the 1980’s the anti-apartheid struggle intensified in South Africa and throughout the world, including in Trinbago. The United Nations had imposed a sporting boycott of the racist South Africa regime. Trinidad and Tobago trade unions and progressive groups were to play a major role in enforcing the United Nations boycott even to the extent of police brutality and failed attempts by local conservative elements to frustrate militant actions in favour of panel discussions and other passive methods.

 

In 1987-88 the Cubans together with the Angolan Army defeated the South Africans forces in the famous battle of Cuito Cuanavale, which is viewed by historians as a crucial tipping point in the struggle to eliminate apartheid.

 

WE LOVE CRICKET BUT HATE APARTHEID MORE

 

In the late 1970’s into the 1980’s George Weekes’s passion grew deeper for the anti-apartheid movement and the freeing of Mandela and other jailed activists in Southern Africa. The OWTU had become an active constituent in the International Anti-Apartheid Movement. This interest began to spread to other unions and organizations. The movement was growing.

 

The National Joint Action Committee (NJAC) since the 1970’s was also engaged with the anti-apartheid struggle but having been fractured by the departure of the left and the progressive trade unions their voice was not as effective as the trade unions.

 

The Trinidad and Tobago Peace Council, the local arm of an international body called the World Peace Council (formed and supported by then Soviet Union to end the cold war and promote détente), took up the anti-apartheid struggle in the early 1980’s. Its main spokespersons were UWI academic Dr. James Millette and political activist Errol Balfour.

 

Clive Lloyd
In the late 1970’s Clive Lloyd’s star-studded and famous West Indies (WI) cricket team decided to play in World Series Cricket (WSC), a non-International Cricket Council approved cricket league organised by Australian television magnate Kerry Packer in Australia, because their fees were much more than what the colonial type West Indies Cricket Board of Control (WICBC) was paying.

 

In 1978 some of the younger players (including Desmond Haynes) were victimised by not being selected to play in the official test series against a weakened Australian team. The WSC-contracted players, led by Clive Lloyd, opted out of the rest of the series. This “ban”, on possibly the best cricket team the world had seen, created bitter responses and anger from West Indies cricket fans.

 

 As a means of having these great players reinstated, the late Dr.Trevor Farrell, the late trade unionist Lyle Townsend and other trade unionists decided that an organization should be formed to defend the cricketers. The Committee In Defence of West Indies Cricket (CIDWIC), comprising of mostly trade unionists was born for the struggle to defend our cricketers.  

 

There were demonstrations, meetings with cricket officials and boycotts of the new Alvin Kallicharan-led cricket team. The players were eventually re-instated and defended their World Cup title in 1979. It was only in Trinbago that this struggle in defence of our cricketers took place.

Lyle Townsend
 

CIDWIC went into abeyance for a while then turned its attention to the United Nations (UN) sporting boycott of apartheid and called for a ban on those players who were lured by big money to break the UN sanctions and play in South Africa. Among them were Windies players Alvin Kallicharan, Bernard Julien and Colin Croft. They and others were banned. However after a period of time CIDWIC called for the ban to be removed on those players.

 

The UN sports boycott of the apartheid regime was successful and the racist regime became more and more isolated from the world. But the English cricket tour of the Caribbean in 1986 and the inclusion of unrepentant English players who had defied the UN boycott and a passive Anti Apartheid Movement of Trinidad and Tobago (AAOTT) (a government initiated body) the anti-apartheid struggle of CIDWIC was revived.

 

Sometime in 1985 while serving as General Secretary of the Council of Progressive Trade Unions (CPTU) Cecil Paul was summoned to a meeting by a government official to discuss the anti-apartheid issues in Trinbago and the support our country, (meaning the trade unions and progressive groups) was giving to the fighters in South Africa.

 

Several of our country’s former and present diplomats including Dr. Patrick Solomon, Mr. Reginald Dumas, Mr. Eustace Seignoret several religious leaders including Anglican Bishop Clive Abdulah and one other trade unionist from the T&T Labour Congress (T&TLC) were present. Trinidad and Tobago was a signatory to a UN agreement to form anti-apartheid groups in countries around the world to develop and consolidate the international pressure on the racist regime in Southern Africa to quickly end apartheid.

 

One such group was to be formed in our country and trade unions were invited to be part of this local group. At this very first meeting Cecil Paul was requested to speak with Comrade George Weekes on the possibility of him (Weekes) delivering an address on behalf of the national AAOTT (now formed) at an overseas anti-apartheid conference he was attending in his own right as the foremost anti-apartheid trade union leader in the Anglophone Caribbean. Comrade Weekes agreed.

 

So we now had a formal government anti-apartheid movement but with no government official involved. The convenor was a conservative retired Trinidad and Tobago (T&T) diplomat. All the groups involved in the struggle, plus the progressive political groups and some conservative religious leaders joined and attended meetings at the Anglican Parish Hall in Belmont, Port of Spain.

 

Dr. James Millette of the University of the West Indies (UWI) eventually became the General Secretary but the conservatives still controlled. The group engaged in long – winded discussions, a few public lectures and media statements. Our struggle became cold. We were going in the opposite direction as if our militant anti-apartheid work was being misdirected. The comrades became angry and suspicious. But the English cricket tour of the Caribbean in 1986 returned the anti-apartheid struggle to its former militancy.

 

Some of the English cricketers who had broken the UN sports boycott were on the English team. AAOTT called for their removal from the team and withdrawal of entry into our countries as in the West Indies we had punished our cricketers but the English refused to do likewise.  Despite protests from trade unions our government allowed the renegade players into the country. The very renegade players had also been allowed entry and played in other West Indian countries without objection.

 

At a meeting at City Hall in Port of Spain the WICBC, now led by Sir Allan Rae, the former Jamaica and West Indies opening batsman, refused to take action by demanding the renegade players be left out of the team. Rae even insulted us by calling us “bush lawyers”. The Trinidad and Tobago Cricket Board of Control (T&TCBC) represented by Mr. Baldwin Mootoo adopted the same position as the WICBC.

Sir Allan Rae

 

At AAOTT meetings trade unions proposed to call for a boycott of the game and the AAOTT conservatives agreed. The Unions also called for demonstrations around the Queens Park Oval (the venue of the game) but the conservatives disagreed.

 

A compromise was reached on a candlelight procession from Woodford Square to the Queens Park Oval. Many of our militant activists steeled in struggle became members of the AAOTT and started to attend meeting to support the trade unions aggressive anti-apartheid agenda of seeking out those in our country with ties to the racist regime and shaming them.

 

Antagonism developed and our comrades were told by Bishop Clive Abdulah that “they don’t want any riff raff” in the AAOTT. Eventually we were evicted from the Church’s premises in Belmont and had to hold our meetings in the Union Halls. However the retired diplomat convenor stayed with the group but the religious people took no further part in the AAOTT.

 

While we were struggling with the split in the AAOTT the progressive elements decided to revive CIDWIC as the vehicle to conduct the anti-apartheid cricket struggle. With the slogan “WE LOVE CRICKET BUT HATE APARTHEID MORE”, CIDWIC began to organize for demonstrations around the venue for all days of the cricket match. Progressive trade unions therefore began operating on two fronts for this major battle ahead.

 

The candlelight procession from Woodford Square to the Queens Park Oval was said by some to be one of the largest night demonstrations in Trinidad and Tobago but was not without its conflicts.

 

A conservative address by the retired diplomat convenor, Mr. Eustace Seignoret, before the start of the march brought on the wrath of the great serial pamphleteer, Guyanese-born the late Walter Annamunthodo, who cut his teeth in the George Weekes-led Rebels Movement in the OWTU and worked closely with CLR James.

 

Walter Annamunthodo
Annamunthodo, along with Cecil Mitchell and Hugh Norton, was expelled by then President General John Rojas from the OWTU in 1957. He fought and won his case in the Privy Council. In 1965, during the widespread labour unrest, he was shot on the steps of the OWTU headquarters at 4A Lower Hillside Street, San Fernando. Tragically, he was murdered in 1992.

 

Walter went up to the podium took the microphone away and gave the retired diplomat a good dressing down and lesson in revolutionary positions and actions against apartheid. That was the end of the former diplomat’s involvement and the end of the AAOTT. It was obvious that the AAOTT was forced upon the T&T Government by the UN decision on apartheid and was created to bolster the international image of Trinidad and Tobago.

 

The demonstration at the Oval was also well attended and supported as one of the renegade English players was selected to play and we were incensed at this disregard for the struggle of millions of South Africans fighting a daily struggle against racism and poverty. However we were met with police barriers and the presence of the feared tactical squad who were formed for and were experts at breaking up strikes plus brutalizing and arresting protesting workers. Cow itch was even smeared on the barriers

 

But we were not fearful as we ensured that our demonstrators were peaceful and were told to follow police instructions. Our cool off water and food camp was the Invaders Pan Yard opposite the Oval. The late Lancelot Layne and other performers would entertain us during the break periods of the game. But on the second day the Invaders Steelband, formerly known as Oval boys, informed us we must not again use their premises. Obviously the big boys at the Oval had gotten to them. 

 

On the second day of the match one of the most brutal attacks on protestors took place in Trinidad and Tobago. The paramilitary tactical squad of the police service viciously and without provocation violently attacked the anti-apartheid demonstrators and media personnel.

 

Those who managed to escape the beatings at the site were pursued and those caught beaten. Some of the protestors beaten included now Industrial

Justice Gregory Rousseau
Court Judge Gregory Rousseau, Miguel Jimenez then TIWU shop steward and Noel Saldenah a journalist. Some of the demonstrators’ names that spring to mind include Keith Look Loy, Frank Sears, Man Man Edward, David Abdulah, Keith Sheppard, Gerry Kangalee, Dennis Singh.
Miguel Jimenez

 

So vicious was the violent acts against the anti-apartheid demonstrators that many of these activists have suffered permanent damage and still have resultant health problems after twenty-seven years.

 

George Weekes was now a veteran fighter: jailed, scarred and worn but that act of violence brought him out on the third day of the demonstration. He strongly condemned the violence against the protestors and placed the blame on the government. This savagery and brutality against anti-apartheid demonstrators was a major embarrassment for the then Government. A few months later the sitting government overwhelmingly lost the elections of 1986.

 

George Weekes’s contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle and his contribution towards strengthening post-Independence trade unionism cannot be erased by pettiness, opportunism, incompetence, insecurity or even by destroying the records because of “best practices” to get rid of documents after twenty years.

 

Oliver Tambo
When the late Oliver Tambo, the then leader of the ANC, came to our
country many of the younger trade unionists met him at the SWWTU Union Hall. He expressed his gratitude for the work done by George Weekes and the trade unions in Trinidad and Tobago in the fight against apartheid.

 

George Weekes certainly did not do it alone. What he did was to lead by example and inspire younger progressives, through information, education, leadership opportunities; he demonstrated humility, a lack of insecurity and a non-sectarian attitude.  He developed a new generation of trade union and political activists to continue the struggle for Peace, Bread and Justice.

 

Our failure to inform our young generation of his anti- apartheid contribution is also a failure to inform our young people of the contribution of Trinbago in the fight against apartheid. 

 

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