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One Day: Apartheid ends in South Africa

How Trócaire supported the movement against Apartheid in South Africa.

Two boys sit together and embrace equality in South African school Two boys sit together and embrace equality in South African school

The Apartheid (1948 to 1994) in South Africa was the racial segregation and political and economic discrimination under the all-white government of South Africa which dictated that non-white South Africans were required to live in separate areas from whites and use separate public facilities and limited contact between the two groups.

Trócaire supported on-the-ground projects in South Africa, campaigned on the international stage for an end to apartheid and engaged in education work with schools, youth organisations and other groups in Ireland.

Brian McKeown (first Director of Trócaire) said that the South African campaign was extremely important in the development of Trócaire, even in spite of criticism the agency received particularly along the lines that Trócaire should be giving money to feed the hungry and not getting involved in politics.

The fight against Apartheid

In 1974, just one year after the organisation was founded, Trócaire gave £2000 for the relocation of a carpentry school that had to be closed when the white minority government in South Africa declared, overnight, that the area in which the school was located was a white residential zone.

In 1976, Trócaire set out a detailed, clear analysis of the unjust situation existing in South Africa. Under the Apartheid system, Africans (68% of the population) owned only 12% of the land, and white people earned six times the amount earned by African workers. Trócaire committed itself to fighting such racism. Trócaire began to support adult education and leadership schemes to help combat the discriminatory and racist regime. Black people were being made aware of their own dignity and potential to bring about change in the whole system of apartheid by peaceful means.

From the early 1980’s Trócaire stepped up it’s advocacy campaign against apartheid including calling on the Irish Rugby Football Union to cancel a proposed rugby tour of South Africa in response to calls from justice and human rights groups inside the country. Trócaire launched a poster campaign ‘Apartheid Hurts’ and made a political stance calling for blocking of the secretive efforts by the South African Prime Minister to be received officially by the European Commission during his visit to Europe.


Trócaire Anti-Apartheid posters from the 1980s

Along with other European agencies, Trócaire was successful in persuading the EEC to set up the largest ever special fund to cope with an emergency situation; channelling more than ECU150 million to black organisations within South Africa. The highly publicised Dunnes Stores strike increased the pressure to impose sanctions on South African produce, which resulted in the Irish government announcing a ban on imports of fruit and vegetables from South Africa. Pressure was then applied on the Irish government to ban all trade, not just fruit and vegetables.

Dunnes Stores protest in 1985 Dunnes Stores protest in 1985

In 1987, Brian McKeown paid an eight-day visit to South Africa. When he returned, he announced the donation of £10,000 towards the support of the families of 360,000 striking South African mineworkers. Trócaire had also donated £300,000 over the previous year to a wide variety of projects in South Africa.

Trócaire ’Apartheid is rotten to the core’ poster Trócaire ’Apartheid is rotten to the core’ poster

Trócaire sponsored the Irish film premiere of Cry Freedom and the film director Sir Richard Attenborough attended the event. Trócaire gave Donald Woods a grant to buy an electronic typewriter which enabled him to restart his great work after his exodus from South Africa.

Trócaire’s first director Brian McKeown pictured with South African journalist, Donald Woods, at a Trócaire conference Trócaire’s first director Brian McKeown pictured with South African journalist, Donald Woods, at a Trócaire conference

In 1991 and 1992, Brother Jude Pieterse, secretary general of the South African Bishops’ Conference, visited Dublin, imploring through Trócaire that the Irish government put pressure on President De Klerk to end apartheid.

In 1993, finally, the ANC, the National Party and 19 other parties agreed a new constitution and in the same year, Nelson Mandela and De Klerk won the Nobel Peace Prize and in 1994, Mandela became the leader of South Africa.

In 1998, Mandela had the following to say about Trócaire on its 25th anniversary; “The new and democratic South Africa shares the commitment of Trócaire, and indeed the people of Ireland, to the alleviation of poverty and the development of a human rights culture”.


Trócaire is celebrating 50 years of working together with partners, people who we support, staff, donors and supporters to create positive and lasting change. One Day showcases the profound impact of these collective efforts, highlighting the countless “One Days” where lives have been transformed. Together, for a just world. Explore more One Day stories here.

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