SAN FRANCISCO – At a memorial tribute March 23, the South African government honored longtime International Longshore and Warehouse Union activist Leo Robinson – who helped spark the movement on the West Coast to boycott apartheid South Africa – with its Nelson Mandela Humanitarian Award.
In the 1980s, Robinson, who died Jan. 14, was a leader in the ILWU’s boycott of South African ships seeking to unload cargo at West Coast ports. For 11 days in 1984, longshore workers refused to unload the South African ship Nedlloyd Kimberley as it lay docked in San Francisco Bay. Though a federal injunction forced the end of their boycott, it sparked a movement that spread throughout the West Coast and played a big part in anti-apartheid actions throughout the country.
“We express our gratitude because we know that without the leadership of Leo Robinson and the ILWU, the end of apartheid might not have come as quickly,” Ebrahim Rasool, South Africa’s ambassador to the U.S., said as he presented the award to Robinson’s widow, Johnnie Robinson, together with a South African flag.
Rasool cited the observation of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who was post-apartheid South Africa’s first president, that apartheid could not have been defeated without the solidarity and leadership of the ILWU and Leo Robinson.
Cyril Ndaba, consul general at South Africa’s consulate in Los Angeles, then presented the Nelson Mandela Humanitarian Award to the ILWU.
Robinson, a second-generation longshore worker, was born May 26, 1937. He became a longshore worker in the early 1960s. He became a rank-and-file union leader, and served 20 years on ILWU Local 10’s Executive Board.
In response to the 1976 uprising of high school students in Soweto, a district of Johannesburg – many of whom were massacred by South African authorities – Robinson helped found the union’s Southern African Liberation Support Committee. The next year he wrote a resolution for the union calling for a boycott of all South African cargo, and helped organize a community picket line that longshore workers refused to cross. The ILWU sponsored many events that brought southern African trade unionists and leaders of liberation struggles to the West Coast.
A founding member of the Northern California Chapter of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, Robinson worked with CBTU, the ILWU and other organizations to hold the first trade union conference on apartheid, at San Francisco State University.
At the memorial, Carl Jones, president of the Northern California CBTU chapter, announced that the chapter will present an award in Leo Robinson’s name each year, to a worker who exhibits his characteristics of activist leadership and determination. Jones presented Johnnie Robinson with a photo montage of her husband’s activities with CBTU.
Robinson was a leader in the fight-back against racist violence, spearheading successful campaigns against attacks on Black residents in Richmond and Oroville, Calif.
He was among the founders of the ILWU’s African American Longshore Coalition, and helped initiate the 2004 Million Worker March in Washington, D.C.
Photo: Daily Worker/Daily World Photographs Collection, Tamiment Library, New York University