Forged in Steel
Racists, developers cement apartheid alliance
By Ralph D. Tomlinson
February 1990; page 12; Volume 1, No. 4
No one present at the Jan. 24th protest of the State Highway Department's purchase of 10.4 million pounds of South African steel was surprised that Texas would openly support apartheid.
After all, as Joe Morris of Texas Earth First! said, the state government had just allowed its employees the option of celebrating either Dr. Martin Luther King's birthday, or Confederate War Heroes Day. Racism still runs deep in the heart of Texas.
What was surprising was the reaction of the state and the diversity of groups uniting to oppose the Highway Dept.'s immoral arrogance.
While the afternoon press conference went peacefully, the demonstration Wednesday evening attracted nearly as many police as protesters. Shortly after a Highway Dept. security guard noticed several slogans chalked on the retaining wall in front of the art-deco office building, the officers started arriving.
First on the scene were the Capitol Police, followed by the Sheriffs Dept., a few Texas Rangers and the Austin Police Dept. The harassment began within minutes. It's amazing bow much trouble a few chalk marks can cause.
The men and women in khaki and blue puffed out their chests and began questioning various members of the crowd about the author of the temporary graffiti. They requested identification from only one participant, a black UT student from South Africa. Receiving no satisfactory answer as to the person responsible for the anti-apartheid slogans, the officers threatened to send a bill for cleaning the chalk from the wall to the Steve Biko Committee.
A Capitol police officer pulled a Polaroid from his car and took shots of the protestors, drawing the wrath of those present. Another asked Mick Purcell if the group had a permit for the use of amplified equipment. After Purcell replied that he was unaware of the need for such a permit, the officer informed Purcell he "could either take care of the bullhorn, or I'll take care of you." An Austin police officer defiantly switched off the African music playing on the portable sound system.
But more important than the petty harassment of those who serve and protect the property of the state from its citizen-owners was the diversity of those gathered to oppose apartheid steel.
Gary Bledsoe, president of the Austin chapter of the NAACP, told reporters at the noon press conference that not only does the purchase of the steel subvert the intent of the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, passed over President Reagan's veto in 1986, but also that the NAACP has sued the State Highway Dept. for its racist hiring and promotions policies.
The U.S. Treasury Dept., under the Reagan Administration, reinterpreted a clause specifying no steel or iron was to be imported from South Africa to mean that some steel could be purchased, with their blessing. Congress, at the insistence of Rep. John Byrant (D-Dallas), will hold hearings later this year on the legality of such exemptions. According to Bledsoe, over one billion pounds of South African steel have been imported under the Treasury Dept.'s redefinition of the Act.
Highway Dept officials have stated they bought the steel from Group Five Construction, Ltd., of South Africa because it was cheap. But as Bledsoe noted, "We're going to cause the unravelling of our own government by our own greed. We're saying because it's cheaper, we're going to buy it, yet that's putting American workers out of work. How can you pay a person a decent wage over here to manufacture and fabricate steel, when over there people are paid essentially no wages. How can you compete?"
Joe Gunn, in a statement read by Morris, expressed a similar sentiment. He stated that the steel is inexpensive "because it was produced by a South African company functioning within a system of apartheid that oppresses people because of the color of their skin. The steel is inexpensive because slave labor is cheap ... The bottom-line is that in buying this steel, we are financing slavery."
As Makgalemele "Hilton" Mokoka, another South African UT student, noted, "Any person who earns less than $70 a week, working more than ten hours a day, is a slave." One seldom finds such a diversity of community groups sharing the same message.
And perhaps that was the most constructive outcome of the day's events. Bledsoe urged the groups present to make contact with the dock workers and construction workers to prevent the steel from being unloaded and used on the Houston bridge project. Jan. 24th may yet produce a coalition between community-based organizations and labor.
That unity was torn asunder by the turbulent Vietnam War protests. But if the people, and not the stale or multinational corporations, are to determine our future, those who gathered at 11th and Brazos showed that not only is such a coalition possible, it's the only way to stop apartheid - at home and in South Africa.