Australian Biography

Zelda D'Aprano - full interview transcript

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… Zelda, in retrospect, what do you think they really thought of you?

You mean the Communist Party?

I mean this group of men from the Communist Party who decided to deprive you of your livelihood.

I don't know what they thought of me. All I know is, as far as they're concerned, the structure comes first.

But what could you do to harm them? I mean it sounds as if they were afraid of you.

I think they were caught, caught in a bog of their own making. They create these type of structures. What happened was that they held an inquest —this is a bit of a convoluted story — but I remember going to a meeting in the city after this and George said he was going to speak on workers' control. And he stood up and he started talking about workers' control. And Max Ogden got to his feet and said, 'I don't believe this. Here we are listening to George Seelaf going on about workers' control when he sacked Zelda from the office for daring to criticism him. What sort of workers' control are we on about?' And I was absolutely stunned. The place just went silent. I had never heard anything like this happen in all the years I was in the Communist Party. And nobody said anything, and everything was just silent, and I felt that I had to get up and say something. And I was in a — I wasn't expecting anything like this — totally emotional state and I got up on my feet. I can't even remember a word that I said. Can't remember anything. But in the meantime the executive of the party were forced to have a [whispers] whisper together. And so they made a decision and they said there would be an inquiry held into the whole matter. And so that was the end of it. And so I actually was going to resign from the party straight away. I mean, I didn't want to bother any more with it. But Cathy Gleeson said, 'Look, give them a go, Zelda. Stay put and just see what happens.' And I said, 'Nothing, nothing will happen, Cath.' 'Oh, give them a go,' she said 'So all right,' I said, because we were great friends. So I waited.

Now, they did have an inquest and who was there? One man who was a union bureaucrat, a man who worked in the union office who depended on George for his livelihood and another woman who worked for a strong union bureaucrat (communist). And these were the three people. Now they asked me what happened. That's all they did. I don't know who else they asked anything. They must have asked George; I presume they asked him. And so I was waiting for the results of this finding. I'm so sorry I never hung on to them, you know, I sort of, you know, didn't think any of this is history of course. But what they ultimately said was that I was sacked from the union because I felt that I could do whatever I liked in their time. Whatever I liked. I mean, whenever I went and handed out those equal pay leaflets it was in my time. And when I chained myself up, it was in my time. I mean, perhaps I had 15 minutes over, I don't remember. But I made sure it was in my lunch hour. I couldn't understand what they meant about doing my business in their time. What business did I have to do anyway? Didn't have any business.

Do you think the image of you all over the newspapers, chained up, and your stand in relation to women's affairs did you a certain amount of harm with the communist men who were in charge of the union movement at that time?

Well, what all this did, of course, to me was make me far more aware of women's position in the whole set up. I remember while I was still at the union, in my Easter, I went to a conference in Sydney of all the left. And I counted all the men that spoke and I counted all the women that spoke. And so few women spoke. And when I got up I told everyone there what I was doing. In the meantime, before I did that, I went round and asked different women, 'Do you intend speaking here?' No. 'Why not?' 'Oh, I couldn't. I'd make a fool of myself.' 'Are you going to speak here?' 'No.' And then they'd give me some reason. So I eventually got up on the platform and I told them exactly the statistics up to that point in the conference when it was three-quarters over, of how many men had spoken and how many women had spoken. But right from the beginning, before it started, I objected to the all-males on the platform. So they brought one woman on. The token woman. But then later on, as I was just saying, I gave them all the statistics. And the replies from the women as to why they weren't going to speak. And just told them, you know, what's happening. What's happening in the left. So I was already watching and thinking about this. But anyway of course, as far as the communist men were concerned and what they thought of me, I think some of them would have thought I an untrustworthy maverick. Once a very nice fellow said to me, 'Zelda, you're naïve.' And I went away and thought about what he said, and I thought, 'Well, I don't think I am really. I expect people to live by their beliefs; otherwise what's the point.' And that's the same with people saying they're a Christian and they rob you left, right and centre. If you say you're something as far as I'm concerned, practice it, and if you don't practice it, well then don't pretend. And that's the way it was.

And was the gap between what the communists were saying they believed in, and what they were actually doing in those unions that they ran, really strikingly large to you?

Well, now, when I look back, and I've asked different communists, in fact, how would they see a socialist society, and I asked about a dozen. After they gave me their replies there wasn't one I would have liked to have lived in. Nobody really thinks about what they do want. In the main, all they're thinking about is what they don't want and that's one of the problems of the whole — the world, the society we live in, generally speaking. They don't think enough about how it should be and how we can make that nice world happen. And so that's the same with the Communist Party. There wasn't just enough thought goes into it at all. And so you got 57 varieties. It's like old Heinz products. There's nothing to say what sort of a human being you have to be. Or what you should believe in really.

Why do you think, after all these years, you still feel so emotional when you think about those events?

I suppose because that particular event was one that I had based my life on. And it pulled the rug right from underneath my feet. I mean it — and looking back, it's like, I suppose, a very religious person who finds that all these years they've been hoodwinked. And it wasn't just a hobby to me, which it was to a lot of communists. It was a way of life and I tried as best I could to live by those principles. But I realise now, of course, that with most of them it's just an interesting pastime or a nice theory, just like believing in a religion. Something that you do on Sunday sort of thing.

A lot of people left the Communist Party in 1956. Some people left as various revelations relating to what was going on in Europe came through. You didn't leave at any of those points. What do you think in the end made you decide to go?

No, it's what happened to me as a human being. Because you don't believe everything that others tell you [about] what happens overseas. We didn't believe it. And, in fact, we weren't told the truth. The truth was hidden from us. Oh, when I think of it, it's horrifying that people must have known what was really happening but we were never told.

But you could read in the papers for example about Hungary. I mean it came out what was happening with Stalin, even out of Russia itself, and yet you were still in the Communist Party by the late '60s. How did you deal with it?

No, well, the truth about Hungary wasn't told totally. Because one of the things we always knew, it's a fact, that America has always tried to interfere and tried to bring these systems undone. And has done everything they possibly can to cause them economically to be unstable and all these other things. And we know that happened. And so we didn't believe everything that they said about Hungary even though I can remember being shocked, terribly shocked. The truth about Stalin at that time hadn't as yet come out. And even then it was questionable. [INTERRUPTION]

[end of tape]

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