Tribute to Lord Hughes by Lord Hain

South Africa House, Trafalgar Square on Mandela’s 60th birthday in 1978 with Labour colleagues Barbara Castle and Joan Lestor

3 min read33 min

Lord “Bob” Hughes of Woodside, who died aged 90 on 7 January, had a long and respected Labour MP and trade union career, including as under secretary of state for Scotland in 1975 to 1976 and shadow transport secretary in 1985 to 1988.
But I will always cherish his memory as a selfless, dedicated and inspirational anti-apartheid leader.

Over two critical decades, he was Chair of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) from 1976 until it dissolved itself, mission accomplished, after South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994.

With the AAM’s president, Archbishop Trevor Huddleston and its Executive Secretary, Mike Terry, he led the movement when it mobilised hundreds of thousands of people in Britain to call for sanctions against apartheid South Africa and the release of Nelson Mandela.

Born in Pittenweem, a small village in the north of Scotland, he spent much of his life in Aberdeen, joining the Labour Party and in 1970 was elected as MP for Aberdeen North.

But, like me he spent his formative years in apartheid South Africa, after his parents emigrated there in 1947, going to school in Benoni outside Johannesburg and taking up an engineering apprenticeship near Pietermaritzburg.

People take it for granted now that Nelson Mandela walked free from spending 27 years in prison, that apartheid was overthrown

He subsequently returned to Scotland in 1954, with an unshakeable hatred of racism and colonialism, later forming close friendships with exiled anti-apartheid leaders in Britain, especially ANC President Oliver Tambo. He became joint chair of the Movement for Colonial Freedom, and in 1975 Vice-Chair of the AAM. 

People take it for granted now that Nelson Mandela walked free from spending 27 years in prison, that apartheid was overthrown. But it was a bitter, hard struggle and anti-apartheid activists were in a minority, in my case hated for stopping all white Springbok tours.

Bob Hughes told how, when the South African government threatened to cancel an order for trawlers from an Aberdeen shipyard when the city’s Labour council boycotted South Africans products, local workers, all his voters, opposed these sanctions, some complaining to him about “some silly bugger in Parliament trying to stop us selling our parts to South Africa”. Bob stood firm, but confessed that the “silly bugger” was him.

As AAM chair, Bob had a clear strategy: “We took a conscious decision that we would go for the biggest broadest based movement we could get. I didn’t ask any questions of people who were members of the Anti-Apartheid Movement about what their religion was or what their politics were – didn’t care if they were Communists or Tories or Liberals or whatever. If they were prepared to work with the Anti-Apartheid Movement, then they were our allies.”

Bob, with fellow Labour MP Dick Caborn (Treasurer of the AAM), helped raise the huge costs of a 100,000 rock concert at Wembley Stadium in July 1988 broadcast by the BBC to more 60 countries to celebrate Mandela’s 70th birthday and call for his release. It was crucial in making Nelson Mandela a global household name. 

He also spent countless hours chairing AAM committee meetings, drafting letters to the government, always on hand to help with the day-to-day running of an organisation cash-strapped, its officers risking their personal finances to keep it in business, its staff also coming under physical threat from apartheid agents, on one occasion from a firebomb attack on its London headquarters.

In 1994 we both returned to South Africa for the first time in decades as observers in the country’s first democratic election, in Benoni, where he had gone to school, inspecting the count.

When the AAM wound up in 1994-1995, Bob became President of its successor organisation, ACTSA (Action for Southern Africa), which continues to campaign for equality and human rights throughout Southern Africa.

Lord Hain is a Labour peer

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