A brief history of the Non-Stop Picket

From 1986 – 1990 the supporters of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group [City Group] maintained a Non-Stop Picket outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square calling for the release of Nelson Mandela. City Group was formed by Norma Kitson (an exiled ANC member), her children, friends and supporters (including, crucially, members of the Revolutionary Communist Group) in 1982. City Group’s unconditional solidarity with all liberation movements in South Africa and Namibia (not just the ANC and SWAPO, but also the Pan-Africanist Congress and AZAPO amongst others) and its principled linking of the struggle against apartheid with anti-racism in Britain led to group’s eventual expulsion from the national Anti-Apartheid Movement. City Group deployed diverse tactics, including direct action, to express its solidarity with those opposed to apartheid. Its support for those sidelined by the exiled leadership of the ANC was valued by activists in South Africa. The Picket played a key role as a ‘convergence space’ through which transnational activist discourses and practices addressing the politics of race were articulated. As such, an analysis of its political culture is important and overdue.

The Picket was a highly visible protest against apartheid. Through its constant presence, the Picket developed a distinctive appearance, culture and sense of community. Bright hand-sewn banners (often in black, green and gold, the colours of the ANC) provided a backdrop to the Picket, declaring its raison d’etre and picketers carried placards which declared their solidarity and commented on topical events and campaigns in South Africa. Members of the picket would leaflet and petition passers-by, whilst others made impromptu speeches on a megaphone or sang South African freedom songs. Larger themed rallies were held on Friday evenings, and on Thursdays the Picket’s numbers swelled as supporters danced to the music of a group of street musicians, the Horns of Jericho. The culture of the Picket not only conveyed its political message of solidarity, but helped individual participants define their personal identities.

Norma Kitson, June 1987 (Source: Gavin Brown)

Positioned on the pavement directly outside South Africa House, the picket was strategically placed to draw attention to apartheid and bring pressure to bear on the regime’s representatives and allies in the UK. The Embassy repeatedly brought pressure on the British Government to ban the protest, and for nearly two months in 1987 (6th May – 2nd July), the Picket was removed from outside the Embassy by the Metropolitan Police (following an action in which three City Group activists threw several gallons of red paint over the entrance to the Embassy). During this period, the Picket relocated to the steps of nearby St. Martin-in-the-Fields Church and activists repeatedly risked arrest to break the police ban on their protest and defend the right to protest outside the Embassy. The police used an arcane Victorian bylaw, “Commissioner’s Directions”, which allowed the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to curtail public gatherings within a mile of Parliament, to allow MPs free movement to go about their business, to ban the Picket during this period. Eventually, the ban was broken when four MPs protested outside the Embassy alongside other picketers and the police were unable to justify the ban any longer. In total 173 people were arrested during City Group’s campaign to break the police ban and defend the right to protest. All charges were eventually thrown out of court.

City Group’s activism was not restricted to Trafalgar Square: picketers took direct action against apartheid across the UK and toured the country mobilising solidarity. These extended campaigns of direct action away from the Non- Stop Picket included ‘trolley protests’ against the sale of South African goods in supermarkets across London, where activists filled trolleys with South African produce, took them to the checkout and then refused to pay for them. At their most effective, these protests could tie up the majority of checkouts in a targeted supermarket simultaneously. In a similar vein, City Group organised frequent occupations of the South African Airways (SAA) offices in Oxford Circus through their “No Rights? No Flights!” campaign. These offices were frequently closed through successive occupations several times in a day. As the security staff at the SAA offices increasingly recognised protestors, activists needed to utilise more and more imaginative disguises to enable their initial access to the premises – during one women-only protest on South African Women’s Day in 1988 a large party of women, varying in age from their mid-teens to their seventies, occupied the SAA offices dressed as nuns and a class of convent girls. Finally, City Group activists took direct action at sporting venues around the UK, including pitch invasions at various athletics tracks and cricket grounds, in protest at sportsmen and women who had broken the sports boycott of South Africa.

The geography of the Non-Stop Picket extended beyond its location and its relationship with the struggle in South Africa. The combination of the Picket’s central location and its expression of solidarity through confrontation with the representatives of apartheid attracted a broad and diverse group of (mostly) young activists from the UK and beyond. The Picket provided ‘uncommon ground’ through which friendship networks developed that crossed boundaries of nationality, ethnicity and social difference. At times, the Picket became something of a haven for young street homeless people living in the West End, although their involvement was often shortlived and marked by the reassertion of social hierarchies by more settled and privileged members of the Picket. The social and political life of the Picket had a particular emotional geography through which individuals overcame social isolation, transformed their sense of self, and enjoyed being ‘unruly’ in public space. These entangled personal and political motivations are crucial to a holistic analysis of the Non-Stop Picket and transnational solidarity activism more broadly.

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Camps and long-term protests against apartheid

I have just published a guest post about long-term anti-apartheid protests outside South African embassies around the world over at the Protest Camps blog. This thinks about the Non-Stop Picket in the context of the year-long daily protests at the South African Consulate in Washington, DC (1984 – 1985) and the South African Liberation Centre in Canberra. It also remembers that the struggle against apartheid also created another, very different, form of camp – the military bases of Umkhonto weSiswe and the Azanian People’s Liberation Army in the frontline states of Southern Africa.

The South African Embassy and the South African Liberation Centre, Canberra, 1989

The South African Embassy and the South African Liberation Centre, Canberra, 1989 (Source: James Godfrey)

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On (not) being a heckler inside South Africa House

On Thursday 20 March, the AAM Archives Committee hosted a launch event for their websiteForward to Freedom, at South Africa House in London. We were not initially invited; but, Gavin secured an invitation for himself and these are his reflections on the event.

First, something probably needs to be said about our non-invitation. The pool of academics currently researching the history of the British anti-apartheid movement is really quite small. Most of us know (or have had contact with) each other. Indeed, I have previously shared a conference platform with Christabel Gurney from the AAM Archives Committee, the main organiser of the launch event. Although we (inevitably) didn’t agree on everything, our previous exchanges seemed amicable enough.  So, it seemed pointed that Helen and I did not receive invitations to the launch, when a number of academic friends with less direct interests in the history of anti-apartheid campaigning did. When I finally asked to attend, the acceptance came with the caveat “as long as you don’t heckle!

What does it mean to heckle? What does it mean to be remembered as hecklers? Of course, as the relationship between City Group and the national Anti-Apartheid Movement deteriorated in the early 1980s, there was heckling and City Group members did ask ‘impudent questions’ of the AAM leadership (including, famously, Bob Hughes, the Chair of the AAM who chaired last week’s event). In many ways, the noise of the Non-Stop Picket was a constant heckle against the apartheid diplomats inside South Africa House. At the time, amplified singing and chanting was the main way in which the group’s anti-apartheid message could penetrate the walls of the embassy.

The launch event itself was interesting, but uneventful. There was a display charting many aspects of the Anti-Apartheid Movement’s work from 1959 until 1994. Of course, an exhibition covering thirty-five years in a dozen posters cannot address everything. It focused on telling a positive story of the movement’s achievements and overlooked awkward controversies. Although Steve Biko got a mention, this was predominantly a story of solidarity with the ANC and its allies. Once the speeches began, the evening’s message (from Lord Hughes, from the High Commissioner, and from Christabel Gurney) was clear – Forward to Freedom provides an opportunity for “looking back in order to go forward tackling the legacies of apartheid”. Obed Mlaba, the South African High Commissioner, appealed to former anti-apartheid campaigners to “keep working with us”. Lord Hughes reminded the audience that, if the ANC had not achieved everything that had been expected of them in the last twenty years, it was because they were tackling the legacy of centuries of colonialism, not just the legacy of apartheid.

Settler iconography, South Africa House, London (Photo: Gavin Brown)

Settler iconography, South Africa House, London (Photo: Gavin Brown)

What struck me that evening was how much the legacy of colonialism and apartheid is still fixed in the monumental fabric of South Africa House. The bible and Voortrekkers’ wagons are still carved into the stonework; while paintings of early colonial contact are shielded by protective glass in the main corridor to the reception. The staircase to the basement had stencilled quotes from Luthuli, Mandela and Tutu painted on the walls. These (presented alongside a quote from de Klerk) seemed fleeting and temporary next to the Boer iconography. In this semi-public part of the embassy, it seems as if the two post-apartheid decades have yet to leave many long-lasting traces.

As I noted earlier, in the 1980s, the main way that the Non-Stop Picket breached the embassy walls was with its noise. I spent much of last week’s reception reflecting on how strange it felt to be inside the embassy’s walls. However, there were at least two occasions when City Group activists did cross the embassy’s threshold and take their heckling and impudent questions inside.

The embassy was usually closed during my shift so there was only one time when I had any contact with them. That was one occasion (I think it was the De Klerk white-only referendum on whether he should continue negotiating), we made a short-lived invasion of the embassy. Somehow, I was asked to go into a side room with Andy G. where two of the staff attempted to put their point of view (it’s not really like that, change is coming etc), which obviously we argued against and we attempted to make our key points. It was a slightly bizarre situation and, to be honest, it was a totally useless conversation as they were not going to give any ground and indeed used evasion tactics to avoid directly answering any real questions from us, but it dragged on for about an hour. (Interview with Helen L, 13 December 2013).

Another picketer remembered an occasion when a group of protestors entered the embassy to disrupt the weekly Dutch Reform Church service:

So our idea was we should go into one of these church services and disrupt it, because it’s inside the embassy, which is what we did.  That was such fun as well, so going in there, going to the front, so there were people sitting in a church environment.  And I remember just going to the front and I was standing at the front, and I said good morning, we’re from the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, the Non-Stop Picket outside, and all these women oh, and the men are coming to the front.  And then the priest got really aggressive, trying to grab us. (Interview with Andre, 9 April 2013).

As I left the reception, and picked my coat up from the ad hoc cloakroom facility, I realised I was looking at the back of one of the big display windows that were smashed and set alight during the Poll Tax Riot of 31 March 1990. Despite this catalogue of fleeting breaches of the apartheid embassy’s integrity, what struck me was how overwhelming and solid the building still seemed. It felt strange to stand inside the embassy and look out at the patch of pavement where the fragile infrastructure of the Non-Stop Picket stood, heckling those who supported injustice in South Africa.

Looking out from the entrance of South Africa House (Photo: Gavin Brown)

Looking out from the entrance of South Africa House (Photo: Gavin Brown)

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Surveying the Anti-Apartheid Movement digital archives

This week the digital archives of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement have gone live online.  The websiteForward to Freedom, charts the history of the AAM from 1959 until 1994. It provides a rich resource of photos, interviews, video clips and scanned documents from the movement’s history; but, no attempt has (yet) been made to digitize the full AAM archive held at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. I’ve taken a quick tour of the site to see what I could find of relevance to our research on the Non-Stop Picket.

Searching for the ‘City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’ (who organised the Non-Stop Picket) reveals only three archival entries of relevance.  The first is a City Group leaflet advertising a 24-hour picket of the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square on 7-8 June 1985 and mobilizing support for the City Group contingent on the AAM’s national demonstration on 16 June that year.  The summary that accompanies this item on the website states:

City of London Anti-Apartheid Group was formed in 1982. Its first activity was a non-stop 24-hour picket to demand the transfer of political prisoner David Kitson from Pretoria Central Prison. This 24-hour vigil to demand the release of Nelson Mandela was a precursor of the four-year non-stop picket of the South African Embassy organised by the group from 1986 to 1990. The picket attracted hundreds of enthusiastic young activists.

The second entry is a photograph from a year earlier, June 1984.

In June 1984 the police banned anti-apartheid protesters from the pavement in front of South Africa House. City of London AA Group supporters demonstrated against the ban on the steps of St Martin’s in the Fields, 22 June 1984.

The final, earliest, entry is a photograph of City Group’s 86-day picket of the embassy calling for the release of David Kitson and all South African political prisoners:

Members of City of London Anti-Apartheid Group call for the release of South African political prisoner David Kitson. The Group launched a non-stop picket of South Africa House in August 1982. Kitson served 20 years imprisonment in South Africa and was released in 1984. In the picture on the right are David Kitson’s wife Norma Kitson and son Steve.

David Kitson speaks on the Non-Stop picket, 19 April 1987 (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

David Kitson speaks on the Non-Stop picket, 19 April 1987 (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

On the face of it, using ‘Kitson’ as a search term reveals more material – 14 items are returned (some overlapping with the material above).  There are leaflets for marches from Oxford to London called by the Ruskin College Kitson Committee in May 1969 and May 1970 demanding David’s release from gaol:

In the early 1970s the Ruskin College Kitson Committee organised an annual march from Oxford to London over the Whitsun holiday. The group campaigned for the release of political prisoner David Kitson, a member of the trade union DATA, who was serving a 20-year sentence in South Africa. This leaflet publicising the march was printed just before the cancellation of the 1970 Springbok cricket tour.

A photo from the 1970 march from Oxford is also contained in the archive. There is an interview with John Sheldon, a young trade unionist, who became the founding Treasurer of the Ruskin Kitson Committee while studying at Ruskin College in the late 1960s:

Yes, it was basically a small group of people, two of them members of TASS. You’ve got to remember it was 1968 and there was lots of other political activity going on at the time. Ruskin was in fact a hive of political activity and we changed the constitution of the Ruskin Students Committee, we got students elected to the governing body and all that sort of activity was going on at the time, an interesting time for people. I volunteered to become the Treasurer of the Kitson Committee and since we had no money, we had to raise some and so I suspect I was on the – what did we call them – we’d call them task groups or working parties now, we called them committees then, but certainly that was the three or four people who were the force behind it. I have to say it was extraordinarily well supported by the student body as a whole and by the college authorities who themselves could see that it was an issue that Ruskin as an institution needed to play a part in. (Interview with John Sheldon, by Christabel Gurney, 28 March 2000).

He continues, describing the march from Oxford in more detail:

It took four days, we had a public meeting in every town. So we had a public meeting in High Wycombe, which was hardly a hot-bed of … but nevertheless had the beginnings of an immigrant population. It was there that we first met the National Front in force. They wrecked the meeting, or tried to wreck the meeting, so from then on the police, of course,
helped us even more with the march. We stopped in High Wycombe … There would have been about a hundred of us on the march. …  The vast majority of them were Ruskin students, so the vast majority of people on that march were between 25 and 45 and were trade union shop stewards. (Interview with John Sheldon, by Christabel Gurney, 28 March 2000).

Also of interest here is a short extract from an interview with the veteran trade union leader, Jack Jones, where he describes a trip to South Africa to visit David Kitson in gaol in Pretoria.

The rest of the material revealed by a search for ‘Kitson’ is interesting in other ways. First, there are a set of papers relating to the early work of SATIS – South Africa the Imprisoned Society, which campaigned for political prisoners in South Africa.  The catalogue entries for these petitions and leaflets serve as a reminder that the Ruskin and TASS/AEUW Kitson Committees were central to the formation of this campaign:

Southern Africa the Imprisoned Society (SATIS) was a coalition that worked for the release of political prisoners in Southern Africa. Two hundred people attended its founding conference on 8 December 1973. They set up a campaign that brought together the AAM, IDAF, National Union of Students and the Ruskin and AUEW (TASS) Kitson Committees.

Second, there is a leaflet for (and a photo from) the AAM’s 25th Anniversary Convention in June 1984 (just after David Kitson returned to London, having been released from gaol in South Africa). The catalogue descriptions for these two items remember that David Kitson was among the speakers at this event; however, he is neither listed as a speaker on the leaflet, nor shown in the photograph of the speakers.

All this material is valuable and fascinating. However, the selection and presentation of the archival material on the website overlooks two crucial facts – by the time the Non-Stop Picket began, in April 1986, David Kitson was out of favour with the ANC (and, consequently, the leadership of his union); and, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group had been ‘disaffiliated‘ by the national movement. The only indication of this, that I can find, on the Forward to Freedom website is in the pages of the AAM’s Annual Report 1984-1985It contains the following statement:

The meeting [of the AAM National Committee on 23 February] also overwhelmingly decided that it would no longer recognise the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group as an organisation in membership under clause 7(c) of the constitution since it failed to provide assurances sought by the executive and national committees that it would function as a normal local anti-apartheid group. The matter had been considered at the previous national committee when a report was presented on the relations between the City of London AA group and the AAM. That meeting of the national committee endorsed the action of the executive committee in seeking a number of assurances from the group. A further effort was made to secure these assurances but without success. Explaining this action AAM chairperson Bob Hughes stated that the Movement was ‘not expelling any individual or organisation. We are not seeking to prevent any form of anti-apartheid activity, least of all picketing at South Africa House, which we have been organising for 25 years; nor are we pursuing any political vendettas. What we cannot have is an organisation in membership as a local group if it is not one. It is as simple as that. We regret that this has happened but the national committee has to consider the interests of the Movement as a whole.’

The assurances sought from the City of London AA group were that the membership of the group should consist of those living or working in the City of London; that the group should cease organising activities outside the City of London; and that it should not organise campaigns at a national level or approach national organisations without consultation with the AAM headquarters or executive committee. (AAM Annual Report 1984 -1985, pg 35).

The same report notes that,

The national committee approves all membership applications under clause 7 of the constitution; only one application was rejected – that of the South African Embassy Picket Campaign 1984. (AAM Annual Report 1984 -1985, pg 35).

This was the campaign set up by the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and its supporters to defend the right to protest outside the South African Embassy, following the police ban on demonstrations there in June 1984. The same campaign that appears to be commemorated elsewhere on the Forward to Freedom website (as noted earlier in this article). It also means that the 24-hour picket of the embassy advertised by the City Group leaflet (mentioned at the start of this article) occurred after the group had been disaffiliated by the AAM.

It is unsurprising that the official online archive of the Anti-Apartheid Movement should want to celebrate its work and achievements over its 35-year history. In that context, the 12-year history of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group is only a small part of the story. Nevertheless, the way in which material about City Group and the Kitson family is presented on the website seems a little disingenuous. While the purpose of this educational website is to celebrate British anti-apartheid campaigning, it seems to avoid directly addressing one of the most tense political debates of the AAM’s final decade. Charitably, it appears that the AAM Archive Committee may be attempting some kind of rapprochement, but this is unlikely to be well-received by many former City Group activists. They are likely to interpret the site as celebrating precisely those aspects of City Group’s campaigning that brought it into conflict with the AAM National Committee in the early 1980s. The dispute generated much correspondence on both sides, most of which is contained in the AAM Archive at the Bodleian Library. It would be interesting to see more of this material digitized for the web archive in due course, so that students of British anti-apartheid campaigning can draw their own conclusions on this conflict over the tactics of the Anti-Apartheid Movement.

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Stories from the green crates: exploring Steve Kitson’s papers

There are two green, plastic crates full of papers sat on the end of my desk. They smell a little damp. My office smells a little damp. The papers are squeezed so tightly into the boxes that I fear for their integrity whenever I gently tease one of the plastic folders free to examine its contents. That tentative touch fights other tendencies too – I am excited to explore the folders, to read the papers, to uncover the stories they tell and the pictures they paint of the past.

The boxes of Steve Kitson's papers.

The boxes of Steve Kitson’s papers.

The crates contain the papers that Steve Kitson kept from the early 1980s [and I thank his sister, Amandla, for lending them to me]. They offer a new insight into the life of a key member of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and the group’s activities in the first years of its existence.

Steve unwittingly played a key role in the formation of City Group. In December 1981 he flew to South Africa to visit his father, David, in gaol. Steve had made this trip each year since he turned 16 in 1973. This time was different and, on 6 January 1982, just as he was leaving the prison in Pretoria after visiting his father, Steve was detained and interrogated by the South African authorities.  Out of the Free Steve Kitson Campaign, organised by his family and friends in London to demand his release, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group was formed.

The papers in the crates mostly cover the period from 1983 until 1987 (although there are a few papers relating to Steve’s education and employment that predate that). They contain the papers that Steve retained about City Group’s early anti-apartheid campaigns, along with several campaigns that it was forced to run in defence of its own members and their right to protest. There are papers here about the Trafalgar 9 Defence Campaign of 1983 and the South African Embassy Picket Campaign of 1984-85 that challenged the Metropolitan Police’s first attempt to ban protests outside the embassy. The papers chart the growing tensions between City Group and the national Anti-Apartheid Movement, and the campaign to reinstate David Kitson’s fellowship at Ruskin College (after the promised funding was withdrawn by his union, TASS).

Non-Stop Picket rota for 3 - 9 May 1986 (Source: Steve Kitson papers)

Non-Stop Picket rota for 3 – 9 May 1986 (Source: Steve Kitson papers)

There are also papers from the very earliest days of the Non-Stop Picket in 1986, including copies of weekly rotas. These rotas, although single sheets of paper, structured and organised in a grid formation, serve as a clue to the dedication and dynamic activity that sustained the Picket. They offer a clue to the people who quickly emerged as trustworthy and reliable in the early days of the Picket (some, of course, had already been City Group activists for several years, others had joined once the Picket started). Incidentally, we have interviewed about half the people named on this rota – it indicates that several of them were involved in the Picket and pledged to appear on the rota far earlier than they remember.

A shopping list written on the back of a Non-Stop Picket rota (Source: Steve Kitson's papers)

A shopping list written on the back of a Non-Stop Picket rota (Source: Steve Kitson’s papers)

Although a box of papers contains all these clues about such dynamic ‘non-stop’ activism, it is quite static and still by comparison. The faint odour of damp somehow exaggerates this. There is always the risk that we interpret ‘archived’ papers out of their original context; but here what risks being lost is the pace at which that context was experienced.

Recently, I have been thinking about how time spent on the Non-Stop Picket was always fitted around the rhythms of participants’ lives. In the folders of Steve Kitson’s papers are pages torn from his diary that illustrate how he fitted a commitment to the Picket around the demands of his career and other interests. The printout of the rota too offers a hint of how entangled picket-time and other aspects of picketers’ everyday lives could become – written in green ink on the back of the rota, in Steve’s handwriting, is a shopping list for groceries.

Over the coming months, as I explore the contents of these green crates more, and the damp smell dissipates in my office, I will recover more stories and further analysis from Steve Kitson’s papers and share them here.

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The end of the project (for now). Some thanks.

Today is officially the last day of our current funding for the Non-Stop Against Apartheid project. So, our thanks are due to a few people. But, before that, here is our (current) favourite quote from the project:

In the annals of late 20th century protest in Britain, the Non-Stop Picket stands out as one of the truly inspirational protests.  To think that people maintained a picket of the embassy night and day through freezing winters and pouring rain, for nearly four years, that’s truly extraordinary and heroic.  I feel in total awe of the people who were there around the clock, 24/7.  They made sure that the British public, they made sure that the anti-apartheid struggle and in particular the demand for the freedom of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, was kept constantly in the public eye.  It was an incredibly effective form of protest by a relatively small but highly motivated passionate idealistic people. The City Group exemplified the very best of international solidarity. (Peter Tatchell, 19 December 2013)

It has been a pleasure and a privilege recording their (our) stories. So, first and foremost, we would like to acknowledge and thank the Leverhulme Trust for the funding that made this research possible. Principally, their funding paid for Helen Yaffe to work on the project full-time; but it also enabled us to conduct the interviews and archival work.

The banner that counted the days (Source: City Group)

The banner that counted the days (Source: City Group)

Gavin would like to thank Helen for all her hard work and enthusiasm on the project. It is through Helen that we were able to negotiate access to the privately held archives of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (and Helen has played a key role in persuading the custodians of those papers that they will, eventually, be better placed, securely in the public realm).  More impressively, Helen systematically summarized and catalogued the bulk of the papers and artifacts in the archive – that summary document runs to over 400 pages. Helen has also tracked down many of the people we eventually interviewed (and a few that we didn’t) and recorded most of the face-to-face interviews we conducted. It is largely through Helen’s efforts that we recorded 90 interviews (rather than the 35 anticipated in the original grant application). Thanks to Helen’s hard work we now have a treasure trove of material that we will continue to work with for quite some time to come.

We should, obviously, thank all of the former members and supporters of the Non-Stop Picket who have shared their memories, their photos and often their papers with us. The number of people who have contributed to the project, in some way, far exceeds the 90 people we actually interviewed – some have made their support for the project clear, and lent us material, even though they chose not to be interviewed.  Our apologies to those who offered an interview but who we have not (yet) found time to talk to properly – there will be other opportunities! Several people – but particularly Nicki – have done wonders raiding their address books and putting us in touch with other former picketers.

The members of our project advisory group (although they never actually met as a group) have been there to offer advice and guidance on specific issues when we asked them. So, thank you to: our colleague at Leicester, Jenny Pickerill; Divya Tolia-Kelly (Geography, Durham); Jo Norcup (Geography, Glasgow); Kate Amis (formerly of the Royal Geographical Society): and three former Non-Stop Picketers – Cat Wiener, Deirdre Healy, and Mark Farmaner.

The development of ideas and analysis always happens in dialogue, so thank you to our colleagues, students, friends, audience members at various talks, and social media interlocutors, who have listened, asked questions, and told when they thought we were wrong.

Finally, we would like to thank the administrative and technical staff in Geography at Leicester who have helped manage our finances; booked flights and accommodation for us; designed posters for us; written press releases (and edited podcasts) to publicize our work; and calmed us down when university IT systems were getting the better of us. Thank you all!

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Our achievements and the future of this blog

We’re nearly done! Officially, the current phase of our research about the Non-Stop Picket comes to an end in under a fortnight. Since July 2011 our work has been funded by a research project grant from the Leverhulme Trust. That funding runs out at the end of this month. Although our work won’t stop then; inevitably, that means that the nature of our work (and probably this blog) will change over the coming months. We want to use this post as an opportunity to reflect on what we’ve achieved and to look to the immediate future.

We have now recorded the stories and memories of 87 people who were involved with maintaining the Non-Stop Picket or were close supporters of the protest. The majority of these were either recorded face-to-face (46) or over ‘live’ over Skype (11), but about a third of respondents (30) shared their stories through email ‘interviews’ or other online means.  In this tally, we have not counted those people who shared very short recollections as comments on this blog, but we have included those who emailed extended narratives through this site.  On average, the recorded interviews (whether conducted face-to-face or over Skype) lasted just over an hour and a half.

Singing on the Non-Stop Picket (Source: City Group)

Singing on the Non-Stop Picket (Source: City Group)

The picketers that we have interviewed span a wide age range – the youngest (who were just becoming teenagers at the end of the Non-Stop Picket) are in their mid-thirties; whilst the oldest is in his eighties. We interviewed slightly more women (49) than men (38).

In addition to the interviews with Non-Stop Picketers, we also recorded the memories of nine retired police officers who had been involved in policing the picket in some shape or form. In contrast to the expansive interviews with picketers, these interactions mostly took the form of short email questionnaires, or brief telephone interviews around a limited range of questions.

We have also gathered and analysed a large archive of photos and papers from the time. We have been lucky enough to discover that the entire contents of the City Group office are intact and privately stored (although we are working to negotiate a longer term, secure home for these papers in a publicly accessible archive in London). Helen compiled a comprehensive inventory and summary of the material in this archive. Individual picketers have also been very generous in sharing their own photos and papers with us.

Put together, the interview material, the photos and the archive are a huge resource. We have done a lot with them, but we’ve still only scratched the surface.  There is a lot more to come.  Over the last two years, this blog has been a useful way of regularly telling stories from the research and from the Non-Stop Picket. We have (until recently) usually managed to update the blog weekly. At first, we followed the calendar of the Picket and recorded stories that related to events ‘on this day’; but, as the project progressed, the posts have become a bit more thematic. Over the coming months, the tone of the blog will probably change again.  Gavin is currently on a research sabbatical until September 2014 in order to write-up work from this research. By September, he hopes to break the back of drafting a book about youthful solidarities and the Non-Stop Picket. Gavin and Helen have other, shorter writing projects planned too. We can’t promise to update the blog every week over the coming period, but we can promise you bit and pieces from our writing, as it develops. This blog has been a useful way of testing out ideas and emerging analysis, as we’ve gone along. The feedback we’ve received from former picketers and other readers has been invaluable. We hope that dialogue and interaction will continue.

Thank you for your continued interest, support and encouragement. We appreciate it.

Posted in Academic, Archival research, Dissemination, Gavin Brown, Helen Yaffe, Interview material, Popular & Informal Education, Project staff | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Being ‘non-stop against apartheid’: seminar in Nottingham (5 February)

On Wednesday 5th February 2014 Gavin Brown will be giving a seminar at the University of Nottingham about the Non-Stop Picket project. His talk is called “Being ‘non-stop against apartheid’: the spatialities and temporalities of British solidarity activism in the late 1980s“. Here’s a bit about what he’ll be talking about:

The South African embassy picket had a distinct temporality. For nearly four years, it was non-stop. It worked with (and sometimes against) the rhythms of urban life. Although the Picket was a constant presence, how it looked, how it functioned and what it was like to be there changed throughout the day and across the week. Busy shifts passed quickly, but time moved more slowly when few people, picketers or public, were present. Quiet shifts during the day could be stressful, as picketers were stretched in keeping the Picket functioning; but many picketers preferred quieter overnight shifts precisely because they offered space for conviviality. The Picket was structured around particular weekly rituals and found ways of celebrating its longevity that served to recognise the commitment of existing activists and recruit new participants. In considering the way time passed and was marked on the Picket, this talk will examine the different rhythms of the protest – its daily, weekly and annual cycles. Sustaining a ‘non-stop’ protest around an ‘urgent’ global issue required non-stop commitment from core activists that was frequently hard to sustain. This talk reflects on the complex temporalities of the Non-Stop Picket and the lessons these might hold for contemporary protest movements.

The event starts at 4.00 p.m. in Room A31 of the Sir Clive Grainger Building (building 16 on this map) on the main University of Nottingham Campus. We look forward to seeing some of you there.

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