In 1968 as a law student I started a club on campus at the University of London, England. It was an anti-apartheid club, and our aim was to protest outside a nearby branch of Barclays Bank.
We organized many protests. We rallied outside the South African embassy. We were noisy. We shouted. We carried signs that read, “We Are All Equal”. Once we were confronted by police on horseback. And in the end we won.
Barclays was a leading supporter of South Africa’s apartheid regime. Its subsidiary was the largest bank in the country and became the target of a National Union of Students campaign, “Boycott Boerclaybank”.
To this day I very clearly remember the choice words of a bank manager who implored me not to “worry my little mind” with such issues; to be “a good little girl” and go back to studying. “Apartheid will always exist in South Africa,” he said.
The anti-Barclays movement was a phenomenon. The Independent wrote recently, “In the late 1970s to early 1980s you couldn’t cross a U.K. university campus without being confronted with posters calling for a boycott of Barclays.”
The banks’ share of student accounts fell from 30 percent in 1965 to half as much by 1986, when Barclays sold its Johannesburg subsidiary. The chairman of the board said, “The cost of being in South Africa in terms of the obstructions and difficulties this generated for Barclays’ operations in other parts of the world was no longer tenable.” In time apartheid became untenable, too.
My father Sherali Bandali Jaffer often spoke to us about racial injustice. Our family had emigrated to Uganda and built a life. We owned real estate, a soap factory, a coffee packaging plant. Under British rule the country was divided so that Asians, Africans and Europeans each had their own schools and shops. My father invited people of all ethnicities as guests in our Kampala home.
Did I see colour as child? Truthfully I don’t know. But we were taught respect. In 1962 my father was elected an MP. A decade later we were forced to flee the country.
When Idi Amin seized power Uganda was thrown into upheaval. The chief justice vanished. Family friends disappeared, and my father was warned the soldiers would come for him. Amin vowed to drive Asians out of the country, though my family made Uganda our home for three generations. In 1972 we fled to England as refugees. All our property was lost.
When I reflect now, I think those years shaped me as a person. The terror of Idi Amin’s Uganda and atrocity of apartheid South Africa taught me a simple truth: I truly believe we are all equal.
In 1978, I became the first South Asian woman lawyer to practice in Canada. In 2012 my father received the National Independence Medal from the Government of Uganda. And I still recall the words of the man from Barclays: “Apartheid will always exist in South Africa.”
(Editor’s note: the author is a Liberal senator from Vancouver, and deputy chair of the Senate national security committee)