The struggle to dismantle the racist system of apartheid in South Africa had grown into a worldwide international campaign of boycotts and embargoes by the 1980s. The SUA made many contributions to this struggle, particularly in its involvement in the oil boycott.
Many seafarers felt that apartheid was unacceptable to the internationalist 'United Nation' ships crews, bunking in together on long sea voyages where, as long-time MUA Queensland official Mick Carr says. there was "no racism because they were all workers with nothing, getting exploited by the boss, looking after each other to make sure they didn't get hurt." While modern-day seafarers saw opposition to racism as a natural outcome of first-hand observation, the SUA's anti-racist politics developed under the leadership of EV Elliott who, after he took over in 1941, extended a hand to Indonesian, Indian and Chinese seafarers and assisted them in efforts to create their own unions. Anti-racism was by then official policy of the Communist Party.
The WWF also played an active role in opposition to apartheid. In 1976, for example, South African cargo was banned in protest at the murder of children and demonstrators in Soweto; bans against ships being loaded and unloaded continued through the 1980s. In addition, the WWF actively participated in fundraising efforts for the African National Congress.
The SUA played a key role in bringing together and funding an international conference aimed at enforcing the oil embargo against South Africa. In 1985, the conference in London signaled the formation of Maritime Union Against Apartheid. British Seamen's Union Secretary Jim Slater got the United Nations Committee Against Apartheid to co-sponsor the conference.
The United Nations had imposed a mandatory arms embargo on South Africa but the oil embargo was voluntary, with key countries such as the United States voting against it. A Shipping Research Bureau was established in Amsterdam in 1980 to monitor the oil trade and track tankers carrying the crude.
Wally Pritchard, who was working as the SUA's nominee for the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), understood that the oil embargo had huge potential because it brought together WFTU with the anti-communist ICFTU, both of which had endorsed the embargo.
Pritchard recalls that in its first year, the embargo added fifty cents to a barrel of oil, which he says:
Mightn't seem much in today's oil prices but then the price of oil was very stable and it added about something like a 10 per cent cost onto the South African Government. And seeing that most of the oil they used was for the military, it did have an effect.
Oil became the highly visible focus of the anti-apartheid campaign. Enforcing the oil embargo forced South Africa to pay premiums to oil companies in secret trading deals to break the embargo just to meet its daily needs for oil, and the premium prices, in turn, drained the South African economy of millions of dollars it could not use for other needs.
The SUA also refused to allow South African goods and produce to be imported into Australia or served on ships.
After he was freed from prison in 1990, Nelson Manelda would tell Pat Geraghty:
We knew what you [the unions] were doing and it was very important to people's minds.
Cutting Off The Oil: A short video describing maritime workers' role in enforcing the oil boycott against South Africa.