Photo credit: Xinhua/Bai Xuefei
THERE are two types of South Africans who have made Australia their home: those whose lives and careers were blighted by apartheid, and who left their former homeland from the 1960s to deep into the ‘80s, to seek better opportunities for themselves and their families; and those – many former supporters of the apartheid regime – who left the South Africa after the advent of democracy because they could not see themselves living under a black government. Angus Leendertz was one of the first group.
He immigrated to Australia in 1980, two years into PW Botha’s brutal reign as, first Prime Minister, and then President, of South Africa. The 1980s were a particularly dark period for those who actively opposed the apartheid regime. The police responded brutally to any form of protest – and yet protests did not stop. Even funerals of activists became avenues of protests, and it was not uncommon to see police Casspirs following funeral processions, and teargas being fired at chanting, singing mourners. It was during this period that Leendertz, having completed his studies in Amsterdam, decided to make Australia his home.
“In Sydney, I started my design career doing corporate office, café and restaurant design, and after a time with a Sydney firm, I created my own design practice,” he says. When Nelson Mandela, South Africa’s first democratically elected president, called on South Africans who had left the country to return, to help build a new, free South Africa, Leendertz responded enthusiastically. “I moved back to Cape Town, where I changed the focus of my professional practice to the Heritage Sector and undertook skills-based craft training within the broader community,” he says.
“Some of these new-found skills were used in the landmark interiors of the Parliament of South Africa in Cape Town. I developed a number of prestigious projects, including sections of the Robben Island Museum and the Permanent Exhibition on Slavery at the Slave Lodge in Cape Town.” Even though he decided to move back to Sydney – permanently – in 2010 – South Africa remained close to his heart. He, together with a small group of South Africans and Australians, began raising funds for South African non-governmental organisations. And it was from these beginnings that a group called the Australasian South African Alliance (ASAA) came into being. “Our first project was to organise a photographic exhibition celebrating Australia’s role in the anti-apartheid struggle to mark the 20th anniversary of democracy in South Africa,” he says.
“Memories of the Struggle – Australians Against Apartheid” was launched by Former Prime Minister Bob Hawke at the Parliament of NSW in early 2014 and was facilitated by NSW Leader of the Opposition and current Labour MP Linda Burney.”
The first meeting of ASAA was held at the Sydney home of Jane Harris and James Mohr. Present were fellow South African Ish Larney, Meredith Burgmann, Tracy Dunn, Jane Harris, Natalie Hendricks, James Mohr and Kolin Thumbadoo. The ASAA drafted a proposal to Graeme Wilson, the then Australian High Commissioner in Pretoria, pushing the idea of entering into a partnership to curate a photographic exhibition celebrating 20 years of democracy in South Africa. “The thrust of what was to become a photographic exhibit, “Memories of the Struggle – Australians Against Apartheid”, was to outline the historical ties shared between Australia and South Africa, and these role they played in bringing about the downfall of apartheid in South Africa,” Leendertz says.
“It would also celebrate the efforts of those Australians who gave so much to the cause in those difficult years.”
The proposal was successful, with the ASAA receiving seed funding from the Australian High Commission in Pretoria. “Harris, Hendricks, Larney and Pat Wagner worked tirelessly throughout the life of this project and were an invaluable resource,” Leendertz says. At a meeting in July 2013 at a local coffee shop, Leendertz, Burgmann and Larney began listing the network of individuals who were active in the anti-apartheid years. The entire reference group then mapped the decades of anti-apartheid activity in all Australian states and created a detailed timeline. They consulted key organisations and individuals throughout Australia and abroad.
“Out of this process, a timeline emerged that illustrated the full story of anti-apartheid activism across all layers of society in Australia from the mid-1950s to 1994, when Nelson Mandela became the first democratically elected president of South Africa,” Leendertz says.
From then on, work began in earnest….
Peter Limb, author of “The Anti-Apartheid Movements in Australia and Aotearoa/New Zealand provided information concerning anti-apartheid activities in Victoria, Queensland, the Northern Territory and Tasmania. Warren Ludski, a native of Cape Town and former journalist with the Cape Herald and the Canberra Times, made the Times’ archive of photographs available to the project at no cost. “I met with Jane Singleton, who organised the Nelson Mandela tour of Australia in 1991, and she made available the Australian Mandela Foundation archives,” he says.
“Burgmann was a central contributor to this process, not only with her personal archive and her ongoing contact with so many people who were instrumental in the struggle of the time, but also for her academic rigour and tireless energy. Meredith was a founding member of the Stop The Tours campaign and assembled a comprehensive archive of the sporting boycotts of South Africa across a variety of sporting codes.
“Apart from the numerous photographs and protest-related ephemera, she offered me the letters between her, a student activist at the time, and Sir Donald Bradman, the most famous cricketer in the world and chairman of Australian Cricket’s Board of Control [at that time],” Leendertz says.
“The Bradman letters document an important conversation in which Bradman questioned Meredith’s protest actions and requested advice on apartheid and the individuals targeted by it. “After his death, Sir Donald’s son wrote that amongst other factors, Meredith’s letters helped his father to arrive at the decision to stop the tours of the racially selected South African cricket team in 1971/72,” he says.
Touching on the Australian national rugby team, the Wallabies, Leendertz praised them for “putting their principles ahead of their playing futures when they announced that they would not be available for selection to play against the all-white racially selected Springbok team in 1971”.
“It was a choice that was not only without precedent in Australian sport, but was also very unpopular at the time,” he says. “The tumultuous protests and disruptions led directly to a ban on all sporting ties with South Africa which, coupled with economic sanctions and product boycotts, helped greatly to hasten the downfall of apartheid.
“It demonstrates a period of modern Australian history of which we can be proud. “Memories of the Struggle – Australians Against Apartheid” contains exhibits from almost every area of Australian life – from trade unionists to politicians, and from music to sport. As Leendertz says: “The history of the anti-apartheid movement in Australia from 1950 to 1994 was a story waiting to be told. The global anti-apartheid movement was arguably the greatest social movement of the 20th century – and Australia can be very proud of the important role it played in the demise of apartheid”.
Memories of the Struggle – Australians Against Apartheid will be launched at Constitution Hill, near Pretoria on 2 November 2017 and will be hosted by The Castle of Good Hope, the oldest colonial structure built by slaves in South Africa in the centre of Cape Town, where it will run for three months. It will
then travel to Johannesburg/Pretoria and Durban.
Dougie Oakes has been a journalist for more than 30 years, specialising in South Africa as well as the UK in sports writing, politics and features