Every now and then over the past 30 years, I wonder if British singer-songwriter and left-wing activist Billy Bragg ever wore the T-shirt I gave him after the Birmingham Six benefit concert in London in 1989.
The concert was for six Irishmen who, it later turned out, wrongly served nearly 17 years behind bars for two pub bombings in one of the worst miscarriages of justice in British history.
The T-shirt had its own history.
In May 1985, management fired the entire workforce of 970 at the BTR Sarmcol rubber factory near Howick, in what was then Natal, after they went on strike in support of demands for recognition of their union, the Metal and Allied Workers Union (Mawu). This union was later consolidated into the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa). Management employed Inkatha-affiliated scabs to replace the workers in the rubber factory while they were on strike.
Mawu helped set up worker-controlled co-ops in the local township of Mpophomeni to help the dismissed workers survive, including a t-shirt silkscreening press and a vegetable farm.
A year later, in December 1986, the Inkatha Youth Brigade held a rally in Mpophomeni. Afterwards, they rampaged through the township, abducted four prominent Mawu members and, with the help of the KwaZulu Police (KZP), killed three of them before setting their bodies alight.
Despite a formal inquest in 1988 finding nine Inkatha members responsible for the murders, nobody was ever charged.
Early in 1989, I covered the violence that was unleashed in many Natal townships for Vrye Weekblad, a progressive Afrikaans newspaper. The job took me to Mpophomeni, where I bought a beautiful black and white Freedom Charter t-shirt at the Sarmcol Workers Co-op.
A few months later, that very same t-shirt was stashed in my backpack at the Billy Bragg concert. Earlier that day, I’d managed to convince his people to let me meet him after the show.
“You must please come and play in South Africa when the country is free,” I asked him as I gave him the crumpled shirt backstage. “And you should wear this T-shirt.” He agreed before I was ushered out again by some minder.
In 1990, after the unbanning of the liberation movements and the release from prison of our leaders, I sent a few faxes to his record label, Go! Discs, reminding them of his promise. No reply.
Over the next few years, I sent the occasional fax and later, when I was working at the SABC, called his management from the one international telephone in the newsroom when nobody boss-like was around. Again, to no avail.
But even fanboys – and their lives – move on. I remained a Billy Bragg fan. To me he was always a proper protest singer, not a poser like Bono. Bragg started his musical career playing benefit gigs during the 1984 miners’ strike in the UK, a grassroots activist doing the hard, unglamorous work.
“My reputation as a protest singer stems from this period. These were politically charged times and my songwriting reflected the struggles that were going on, not only on the picket lines but also in the bedroom,” Bragg said in an interview with The Guardian. “Whether you’re lovelorn or radical, I’m just trying to help you make sense of the world, because that’s what my favourite songs did for me.”
Bragg fronted the 1980s Red Wedge movement, which aimed to get young people to vote for Labour when it was still a socialist party. He has remained a solid leftist since, even if people take the piss out of him and his views. “Put empathy and activism together and you get solidarity, the key driver to social change,” he said in another interview.
My favourite Bragg album is still 1986’s Talking with the Taxman About Poetry, where punk and folk got together in the most raucous but thought-provoking way – none more so than on the track There is Power in a Union.
Pure and compelling, Bragg uses the tune of an 1862 American song, Battle Cry of Freedom, to extol the virtues of belonging to a trade union in his passionate lyrics:
The union forever defending our rights
Down with the blackleg [scabs], all workers unite
With our brothers and our sisters from many far off lands
There is power in a union
The brothers and sisters in far-off Mpophomeni finally savoured victory in March 1998 – 13 years after the BTR Sarmcol strike – when the Supreme Court of Appeal ruled in favour of the dismissed strikers.
In 2003, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission found that the killings of the unionists “set in motion a lengthy period of political conflict, resulting in widespread gross human rights violations for which Inkatha and KZP are held accountable”.
I chuckled the other day when a Facebook notification alerted me to the fact that I’m now some sort of Billy Bragg superfan according to his page. I’m tempted to entice him again to play here.
I bet, like me, even though we’re not lighties anymore, he still believes there’s power in a union. He should come and sing it here.