The Way I Was: Don't just talk, do something: Des Wilson tells Nicholas Roe how he stirred the UN into taking action against apartheid

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Indy Lifestyle Online
Des Wilson, campaigner and writer, ran the 1992 Liberal Democrat election campaign. His latest novel is called 'Campaign'.

IT WAS an event that was never reported in the United Kingdom, so no one here ever really knew what happened, but it was an extraordinary experience - two days of my life that will always remain with me.

The photograph is of me speaking at the lectern in the main chamber of the United Nations during quite a dramatic session in 1972, when I was in my late twenties.

What happened was that I was working in London, campaigning on various issues, and I received a telephone call from the anti-apartheid movement in New Zealand, saying there was a critical meeting of the UN apartheid sub-committee taking place in New York: would I attend and speak on their behalf?

There was a huge controversy in New Zealand at the time about whether or not the South African rugby tour should take place, and they asked me to try and persuade the UN to send a cable to the prime minister asking him to stop the tour.

When I arrived and talked to the committee chairman, it was made clear to me that they did not want to do this - I think pressure had been applied. But during the first session, with the ambassador sitting grimly in the front row, I explained that I felt ashamed to be a New Zealander at this time, that it was necessary for international views to be made known and that a telegram from the UN was the most effective way this could be done.

Afterwards I was taken on one side and patronised: 'splendid speech' and so on, but I had to understand that there were complications.

In the afternoon I raised a point of order, saying I had not received an answer and when would I? Again, I was patted on the head and assured that my voice had been heard. It was all amazingly informal.

At a reception that evening I was approached by one of the New Zealand delegation who said he hoped I would now let the matter rest. But I nobbled the chairman and had a go at him, and the following day I got up again and said I still did not know what was actually happening.

While this was going on there were other points about apartheid being raised, but my point was that it was no good having a two-day meeting on the whole subject simply as a safety valve, when here was something they could actually do.

By now I was becoming a pain in the neck and the patronising smiles had become rather fixed. At lunch on the second day I nobbled the chairman again and then went on to make another speech, a strong speech.

After the last tea break, we gathered for the chairman's closing remarks and he stood up and began by saying it had been decided that they would send a telegram to the prime minister of New Zealand calling for a ban on the tour.

And he looked across at me and smiled, and everyone looked across, and I thought: 'Gosh, I've done it.'

It was an extraordinary experience. It was not that I had won, it was the fact that the system worked, it actually worked.

By itself, of course, it had no importance to anyone's life but my own. The telegram went off but it did not make any difference; the tour went ahead and caused the biggest internal problems New Zealand had ever experienced.

But the reason I choose the picture now is precisely because those two days were insignificant in the tide of world affairs - I doubt if my name is even on the minutes. But it mattered to me.

To me it was a symbol of the fact that if you believe that right is on your side and you are determined and ready to persist and stand up, you can win, and you can do so in almost any forum. I have always remembered it and it was a proud moment.

(Photograph omitted)

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