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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Working with anti-apartheid memories

By researching the historical geographies of the Non-Stop Picket, we are constantly confronting the multiple ways in which memory operates. The very act of remembering the Non-Stop Picket is an intervention into the ways in which the struggle against apartheid is remembered. Remembering the Non-Stop Picket complicates narratives about the anti-apartheid movement in Britain. By delving into the archives of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (and other organisations) we confront the ways in which organizations preserve memories of their work. By interviewing former picketers (and other interested parties) we expose all the frailties and quirks of the ways in which human memory functions (and occasionally fails).

Despite engaging with memory, remembering and commemoration in these multiple ways throughout the research, I am not sure I have stopped to think too much about how memory works, or the methodological ways in which I approach memory. This week I am participating in a workshop organised by the newly constituted Leicester Memory Studies Network. As this event approaches, I have been forced to think a bit more about how I approach memory in my work. I want to explore a few of those ideas in this post, and to explore those through a practical example from the last couple of weeks.

Policing the South African Embassy Picket Campaign, June 1984 (Photographer: Rob Scott)

Policing the South African Embassy Picket Campaign, June 1984 (Photographer: Rob Scott)

Last week, I received an email from Graem Peters. He had read a recent post on this site and was inspired to get in touch. As he said in his initial email,

I have been recently piecing together my memories of an event that took place back in the 1980s.

Graem recognised that his memory of the event was partial and incomplete and was trying to make sense of it in relation to the various material published here. He continued,

I was one of three protesters who took part in a planned red paint throwing incident at South Africa House sometime in the ’80s. I was something of a tag-along as it was the other two who planned it. One of them was  a Young Liberal friend of mine called Clive [B], the other was someone I did not know who was connected with the AAM or City AAM. He was tall, white and blonde haired and I think South African. Our attack involved filling 6 balloons with red paint and carrying them in our hands to throw at the walls of the building. The attack took place during the day when there was no protesters. We threw the paint bombs and ran off in separate directions. I gather that the guy I did not know was arrested when he returned to AAM offices. Nothing happened to Clive or myself.  My recollection was that this attack resulted in the police moving the Non-stop Picket, but that doesn’t match the recollections in the link.

I would be interested to know if you had any knowledge of this incident. It is clearly a different incident and the visual impact was not so great.  It occurs to me that the balloon throwing attack that I was involved with may have preceded the paint tin attack. (Email from Graem Peters, 1 July 2014)

I checked our records to see if Graem or his friend, Clive B, were mentioned in any documents amongst the City Group archive. They did not appear to be and the archival records offered me no leads that could help pin down these events for Graem. Nevertheless, his email suggested that the paint-throwing action that he was involved with predated the Non-Stop Picket – especially because, although the action took place during the day, there were no protesters present. Once the Non-Stop Picket started on 19 April 1986, picketers were present all day everyday. I suspected, given the mention of the Anti-Apartheid Movement office in Graem’s email, that he was referring to the 1984 paint-throwing that contributed to the first attempt to ban pickets from outside the embassy and led to the creation of the South African Embassy Picket Campaign (all the records I have read in connection with that incident suggest that on that occasion, the principal paint-thrower was  a volunteer from the AAM office). I told Graem this and sent him a link to my recent post about those events. Here’s his reply:

The background story in this page matches my recollections in all but possibly one respect. 1984 sounds more like the time I was involved, rather than 1987. By 1987 I was involved exclusively with Simon Hughes’s election campaign and was not involved in any of the protests that year. In 1984 I was actively involved with London Young Liberals who gave support to City AAM as we supported the use of direct action. I think there were a number of other groups  involved, but I know that it was particularly important for City AAM to show to the AAM that they had the active support of the Young Liberals. 1984 also sounds right as I remember that before the paint bombing, the three of us met up at the Young Liberal Office located within Liberal Party headquarters inside the National Liberal Club in Whitehall Place which is just around the corner from Trafalgar Square. That was where we made the paint bombs and we carried them to Trafalgar Square with our hands in our coat pockets.

This additional information not only helps to add detail to the events of late May 1984, but it also offers a fresh perspective on the network of support that the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group enjoyed (at the moment that its relationship with the leadership of the national Anti-Apartheid Movement was really beginning to deteriorate). This serves as a reminder that City Group’s direct action approach to anti-apartheid campaigning appealed to a wider layer of activists that just those inclined towards the far Left.

A day or so after my exchange with Graem, I was re-reading the transcript of our interview with Nikki. I was not specifically looking for material relating to the protests against Botha’s visit to London in 1984, but I came across this excerpt from her interview which really resonated with Graem’s description of the paint-throwing action:

Paul Annegarn was the white guy who worked in that AAM’s office, he was a war resistor and he come to Britain in the ‘80s having refused to go in the army in South Africa and he was the person who got the picket banned in 1984, because he threw paint all over the Embassy, well before we threw paint all over the Embassy. He threw paint all over the Embassy and then legged it and ran back to the AAM’s headquarters, and he was, and then we got banned because of him, which was kind of ironic but there you go. (Interview with Nicki, 27 March 2013).

This chance find is illustrative of how our research involves piecing together fragments of memories from multiple sources and paying attention to the points where they overlap convincingly. In this case, both Nicki and Graem identified a white South African volunteer from the Anti-Apartheid Movement offices as the person who was arrested (at those offices) for throwing paint over the South African Embassy. Graem was unsure of the date, but could connect it with a ban on protests; Nicki was clearer that this event happened in 1984. But after thirty years, individual’s memories are seldom perfect: Nicki primarily remembers that paint was thrown and pickets were banned as a result; leaflets and reports from the time suggest that the first day the ban took effect was 8 June 1984 (two weeks after the paint was thrown); but Graem remembers the sequence of events differently:

My recollection diverts from this account in one respect. After the paint attack that I was involved in, the first Friday I remember turning up to join the protest I found that  the protest was re-located to the steps of St Martins in the Field, which is not specifically stated in the account. I also remember the police informing the protesters towards the end of the protest that evening that they would not allow us to disperse along in front of South Africa House and they told us that anyone who dispersed in this direction would be arrested. That day I attended the protest with my dog and friends of mine suggested it would be interesting to see if the police would arrest me and my dog. I did not think of joining the protesters getting arrested in front of the embassy but when the police told us about their dispersement plans I made up my mind that I would disperse by walking with my dog along in front of the embassy in defiance. Even though I and my dog had been identified as part of the protest, the police did not challenge my dispersement route.
Those friends of mine who knew I had also taken part in the paint bombing took the piss out of me for my inability to get myself arrested twice in succession. (Email from Graem Peters, 2 July 2014)

For Graem, the primary memory seems to be his embarrassment at failing to be arrested twice in a row. In Nicki’s case, it is the political significant of the subsequent South African Embassy Picket Campaign that is most important (and the finer chronological details have faded from memory). As for myself, it is entirely possible that I have misinterpreted the papers from the time that we found in the archive and imposed a sequence on the events that is inaccurate. In researching anti-apartheid activism from the 1980s, we are frequently faced with such challenges. Different individuals remember the same events very differently, depending (frequently) on how significant those events were to them at the time, and what aspects of the events particularly affected them. Some people have very good, detailed and seemingly accurate memories of protests and meetings from that period (others are merely convinced that they do). For others, those events are mostly only remembered in broad brushstrokes and subsequent campaigns have superseded them in their memories. Some others remember specific events in great detail but struggle to contextualize them or place them in a sequence of other events from the time. The challenge for me as a researcher is to look for the patterns, the overlapping details and attempt to piece together plausible narratives and analysis from the memories of many individuals and the records that were kept at the time. Looking for those connections and patterns can, in turn, reveal exciting new details that had previously been forgotten.

 

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PW Botha, police spies, and the South African Embassy Picket Campaign 1984

In June 1984, President PW Botha of South Africa was expected in Britain for talks with Margaret Thatcher. His tour of Europe that summer was intended to promote ‘constructive engagement’ with the apartheid regime (rather than sanctions) and stave of a major political crisis for South Africa. The British Anti-Apartheid Movement planned various protests in response. The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group called a week-long continuous picket of the South African Embassy. As Solomon Hughes explained recently in The Morning Star, security concerns surrounding Botha’s visit drew unwelcome police attention to that and subsequent protests at the embassy.

On 15 May 1984, City Group wrote to Richard Balfe MEP asking him to support their protest against Botha’s visit. They planned a week-long picket of South Africa House from 26 May until 1 June, immediately prior to Botha’s arrival. They announced that this protest had already been sponsored by Tony Benn and Stanley Clinton Davis MPs. Importantly, given City Group’s difficult relationship with the leadership of the ANC in London, the picket was also sponsored by Adelaide Tambo.

As evidence supplied to Solomon Hughes (as a result of a Freedom of Information Act request) reveals, Scotland Yard were well aware of City Group’s plans. They briefed the Foreign Office not only that “the Kitson family plan to stage a vigil outside the Embassy”, but also that,

“The Anti-Apartheid Movement intend staging an occupation of South African Airways office (251 Regent Street SW1) either within the 48 hours immediately before or 48 hours immediately after the visit. They will, obviously, keep their plans secretive so that preventative action cannot be taken, but local police will be alerted and will stand ready to take action to evict the demonstrators if the SA Airways Office require them to do so.” (Letter from [redacted], Security Section, Protocol Department to SAfD, 17 May 1984)

The police advised that, at that stage, the South African Embassy should not be notified of the threat to occupy the Airways offices. A hand-written note in the margins of the letter says “I am worried about 1(b) [the Airways occupation]”. In 1984, City Group was still a local branch of the Anti-Apartheid Movement and it seems very likely, given their later regular occupations of South African Airways, that this too was them. A ‘teleletter’ from the Foreign Office to the British embassy in South Africa (also dated 17 May) confirms that Special Branch obtained this intelligence “from their own sources inside the AAM”. Other correspondence (a letter from the Protocol Department of 11 May 1984) refers to City Group as “a hooligan element” within the AAM. A note from British diplomats in South Africa (10 May 1984) reported that Botha himself “had been somewhat concerned by the hostility of the anti-apartheid lobby in Britain to his visit”.

No 'peace and dignity' for apartheid (Photographer: Rob Scott)

No ‘peace and dignity’ for apartheid (Photographer: Rob Scott)

Just before Botha’s visit to Britain, on 25 May 1984, a volunteer from the national Anti-Apartheid Movement’s office threw paint over the main entrance to the South African Embassy. On 1 June, four members of the National Union of Mineworkers deposited a pile of coal on the embassy’s doorstep in protest at the importation of South African coal in an attempt to break the miners’ strike. Given the heightened security concerns surrounding Botha’s visit, the Metropolitan Police took the opportunity to ban all protests outside the South African embassy with effect from Friday 8 June 1984. A press statement, issued by City Group on 10 June, explained these events:

On 5 June Superintendent Dark of Cannon Row informed our Convenor that the City AA picket scheduled for Friday 8 June, 5.30 – 7.30 p.m. was banned. He claimed that all pickets and demonstrations in the vicinity were being banned due to a banquet for Reagan, Thatcher & Co being held the same evening at the National Portrait Gallery. Bu the evening of 5 June, following protests by MPs, councilors and others, permission was given for a picket in Duncannon Street – near the National Portrait Gallery – but not outside South Africa House. On Thursday 7 June, despite consistent misinformation, spread by Scotland Yard to the Press, it became clear that what was at issue was a permanent ban on City AA’s pickets and not concern for the Reagan/Thatcher banquet. The City Group convenor and Richard Balfe MEP met Commander Howlett on 7 June. […]

Commander Howlett informed us that this was his decision based on his own personal interpretation of the Vienna Convention catering for the peace and dignity of embassies. In his opinion any picket or demonstration outside any embassy would be in breach of the Vienna Convention. He admitted to having consulted no-one in arriving at this decision.

The press release continues by explaining City Group’s response to the ban:

City AA was prepared to resist this attack. On 8 June over 200 people representing a wide range of organisations assembled at Duncannon Street. Among the demonstrators were Ernie Roberts MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Rodney Bickerstaffe of NUPE, and Peter Hain.

At approximately 6 p.m. a group of 18 demonstrators crossed the road and assembled in front of the Embassy. They began to sing, chant slogans, distribute leaflets and collect signatures. Within 5 or 6 minutes a massive police cordon surrounded the peaceful picketers. They were all arrested without being told why and bundled into waiting police vans.

Half an hour later, a further six protesters crossed the road and were also arrested. The twenty-four anti-apartheid demonstrators were taken to Albany Street police station. They were all released without charge, after only a couple of hours, but not before one black picketer was accused of being an illegal immigrant and threatened with indefinite detention. She too was released without charge, less than an hour after the others.

Amandla Kitson during the SAEPC (Source: City Group)

Amandla Kitson during the SAEPC (Source: City Group)

IMG_0990In response to this ban on demonstrations, City Group convened the South African Embassy Picket Campaign (SAEPC) to win back the right to protest against apartheid directly in front of the South Africa House. The defiance of the ban continued, with people risking arrest each Friday. On 15 June, Commander Howlett met with Mike Terry from the national Anti-Apartheid Movement to discuss the ban. In a witness statement (dated 6 July), Commander Howlett described this meeting in the following terms:

On Friday, 15th June 1984, at 10.15 am, together with Chief Superintendent Richards and Inspector Menear, I met, at my request, in my office, Mr Mike Terry and Miss Cate Clark of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. I explained the change in police policy and the reasons for it to them. A note of the meeting has been kept by the police. Mr Terry expressed their opposition to the change and indicated that steps to alter that policy would be taken and that his organisation intended that those steps be legal as his movement did not seek confrontation.

When a representative of the SAEPC met with the police later that day, they were advised to follow the lead of the AAM in avoiding confrontation. The SAEPC did not take that advice – that evening, twenty-six protesters crossed Duncannon Street to break the ban. This time, they were charged with obstructing the police in the cause of their duties (in this context, their duties were said to be protecting the ‘peace and dignity‘ of the South African Embassy in line with the Vienna Convention).

On Friday 22 June, David Kitson (who had, by then, been released from jail in South Africa) watched twenty-two anti-apartheid activists, including his son Steve, be arrested for defying the ban. As the defendants began appearing at Bow Street Magistrates Court the following week, strict bail conditions were imposed, preventing the defendants from standing on Morley’s Hill, the pavement in front of South Africa House. By 16 July, 137 people had been arrested as a result of the South African Embassy Picket Campaign and five had been imprisoned for breach of the bail conditions forbidding them from demonstrating within 30 yards of the embassy. During the course of a 24-hour protest on 21/22 July 1984, five councillors and three MPs – Tony Banks, Stuart Holland, and Jeremy Corbyn were arrested for breaking the ban.

Jeremy Corbyn MP arrested, 22 July 1984 (Photographer: Rob Scott)

Jeremy Corbyn MP arrested, 22 July 1984 (Photographer: Rob Scott)

In act of solidarity with its arrested councillors and the SAEPC, Camden Council took a legal opinion, on the legality of the ban, from Stephen Sedley QC. His view was that,

The Vienna Convention 1961, insofar as it is incorporated in the Diplomatic Privileges Act 1964, adds nothing to the duties, nor therefore to the powers, of the police in this regard. It follows, if I am right, that their action in declining to allow continuance of the demonstrations on the pavement outside South Africa House was an abuse of their powers, and that they were not executing any duty known to the law when they cleared the pavement and arrested persons who remained there.

One of the City Group defendants, Richard Roques, agreed to stand as a test case. On 1 August 1984, at Bow Street Magistrates Court, the Chief Stipendiary Magistrate for Central London, Mr Hopkins, dismissed the charges against Richard. A week later, in light of this decision, the police dropped the charges against the other 136 protesters who had been arrested during the campaign (including the five who had been imprisoned). The victory for the SAEPC was an embarrassment for the national Anti-Apartheid Movement. The Executive Committee of the AAM issued a statement on 10 July 1984 (the day four of the defendants were first threatened with imprisonment, if they breached their bail conditions). Their statement outlined a series of meetings they had arranged with senior police officers to try to negotiate an end to the ban:

It is the view of the Executive that until the above process has been exhausted and the EC has met to further assess the situation, the AAM and its local groups should not demonstrate immediately in front of South Africa House.

The AAM has been approached by a number of local groups and others seeking advice on the ‘”South African Embassy Picket Campaign 1984″. The AAM EC does not support their approach, believes that it damages the prospect of achieving a removal of the ban, and therefore asks its members and supporters not to participate in this campaign.

The AAM were wrong to be so cautious. Although City Group and the SAEPC won back the right to protest outside the South African Embassy through their civil disobedience, their victory would come at a cost. City Group’s defiance of the AAM EC’s guidance accelerated the deterioration of the (already strained) relationship between the national movement and its ‘hooligan element’ in the City of London. The conduct of the SAEPC remained a contentious issue with the AAM and directly contributed to City Group’s ‘disaffiliation‘ from the national movement the following year. City Group remained committed to taking direct action against apartheid, and civil disobedience to defend the right to protest. When the Metropolitan Police attempted the ban the Non-Stop Picket from outside the South African Embassy in May 1987, City Group was once again successful in defending their protest through direct action.

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Objecting to apartheid: disobedient objects at the V&A

Gavin has written a guest post for the Disobedient Objects blog hosted by the V&A MuseumDisobedient Objects is an exhibition “about the art and design produced by grassroots social movements” which will open at the V&A at the end of July, running until February 2015.

The exhibition examines the important role that material objects and design innovations play in movements for social change. It will assemble a diverse range of objects that have seldom been displayed together in the context of a museum. As their website catalogues, the show includes: “finely woven banners; defaced currency; changing designs for barricades and blockades; political video games; an inflatable general assembly to facilitate consensus decision-making; experimental activist-bicycles; and textiles bearing witness to political murders”.

Non-Stop Picket infrastructure, Spring 1989 (Source: Gavin Brown)

Non-Stop Picket infrastructure, Spring 1989 (Source: Gavin Brown)

Gavin’s guest piece examines the fabric of the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy, and thinks about the objects that were integral to the group’s anti-apartheid activism. The show will include a number of anti-apartheid badges from the 1980s, collected in the course of the ‘non-stop against apartheid’ research.

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Marking South Africa House with ‘blood’ on election day 1987

As South Africa celebrates twenty years since the end of apartheid, and prepares for tomorrow’s election, I want to remember a protest that responded to a very different South African election. On 6 May 1987, there was a white-only general election in South Africa that excluded the majority of the population. Three anti-apartheid protesters from the Non-Stop Picket in London demonstrated their opposition to these racist elections by redecorating the entrance to the South African embassy with a large volume of red emulsion paint. We interviewed two of them last year and use their words to tell the story of that day.

The idea for the protest came from Irene, the youngest of the three activists. She had joined the Non-Stop Picket, soon after it started the previous spring, when she 16 and about to sit her O Level exams. Irene shared the idea for the protest with her older sister, Liz, who was also involved with the Non-Stop Picket. She then approached a third picketer, but did not pursue the plan with him,

And I actually, for whatever reason, I can’t remember, but I think I broached the idea originally with him and said, oh what do you think about doing it, and he’d said, yeah, I want to do it with you, and then I bottled it because I just didn’t quite trust him enough, so I asked my sister and I asked Adam.  I don’t know why I asked Adam, he was a friend and he was quite feisty I suppose. (Interview with Irene, 19 July 2013).

Adam at the embassy gates, 6 May 1987 (Source: Dominic Thackray)

Adam at the embassy gates, 6 May 1987 (Source: Dominic Thackray)

Adam appreciated the potentially serious charges that the trio could face as a result of their actions, but agreed to take part because, “it was a significant day, so I did feel that it warranted a fairly dramatic response,” (interview with Adam, 28 November 2013). The trio discussed their plans, in very general terms, with a leading member of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group.

I don’t even remember it as me going to [them] for authority.  Maybe I was just saying, maybe it was just that I was lacking in confidence to do it and I was saying, what do you think?  I don’t think it was a thing of, oh I better talk to someone on the committee, I don’t think there was a formality.  I don’t think it would have occurred to me at that age that I should ask anyone to do anything! (Interview with Irene, 19 July 2013).

With no explicit attempt having been made to dissuade them, they made more concrete plans for their action on the day of the election. This included tipping off a sympathetic photographer:

I think I … spoke to him a couple of days before and said, could you be there, and I didn’t tell him what we were doing.  So I definitely had a sense of this is a top-secret affair.  … I’d said to him, can you just be there and have a camera at whatever time of day, I think it was 10 a.m. or something.  He had no idea what we were doing, I don’t think.  I don’t think he had an idea what he was doing, because I think I was quite conscious that because there was this feeling that there might be informants, for want of a better word, that you just wouldn’t say anything you didn’t need to say, and I was conscious that if the police knew we were going to do it that they would be able to stop it quite easily just by putting barricades up and then you’re screwed immediately. (Interview with Irene, 19 July 2013)

On the day of the election, they met as planned, but quickly realized that they had not discussed exactly what they would do next. As Irene recalled,

I think we had a tin each.  I remember we met in Charing Cross Station and we took the lids off in Charing Cross Station and put them in a dustbin, and then walking up the stairs as a group of three and then we had no idea what we were doing, that’s my memory, as in it wasn’t like, oh you go there and I’ll go there, it was just from that point there was no organisation at all. Well, we’d just not planned it at all.  We’d planned where to meet, to have the paint, and then we got there and started marching towards the embassy and you think, well, I can’t go back now because the police could probably see us at that point, so you had to just keep going forward, and I remember going like this with the paint and nothing happening!  Because I was quite small and it was quite thick, and I went to throw it at the embassy and literally nothing happened, it might have been like a splodge on the floor and just thinking, this is not working, and so I ended up doing it with my hands because I couldn’t, I didn’t have the power in my arms to throw it! (Interview with Irene, 19 July 2013)

South Africa House, marked by paint, 6 May 1987

South Africa House, marked by paint, 6 May 1987 (Source: City Group)

Adam remembers that moment slightly differently.

I think we were a bit surprised by how effective it was to be honest. … We were able to throw all the paint.  We had plenty of time.  So we had quite a lot of paint and we were able to, you know, if you’ve seen the pictures it is quite impressive, which is surprising really.  And because of the nature of the paint it fucked up the electronic doors, they couldn’t open the electronic doors.  You know that glass door as you go through the alcove thing? They couldn’t open that. (Interview with Adam, 28 November 2013)

Although there were police on duty in front of the embassy, and one got covered in some of the paint, Adam remembers that they were taken by surprise, and seemed slow to react.

The Old Bill were complete numpties. We could have walked away; we could have got away; we could have been about five miles away by the time they got their act together. [Interviewer: So why didn’t you?] Well I think because we knew it was more than just actually about throwing the paint.  You know, it was about actually saying well this is what we’ve done, what are you going to do about it? (Interview with Adam, 28 November 2013)

Irene’s also acknowledged that they could have run at that point, but that did not occur to her. Her attention was on the reactions of their fellow protesters on the Non-Stop Picket. Although it was an election day in South Africa and there was a rally planned for that evening, at 10.00am there were relatively few people on the picket.

So they all went crazy, it was really good!  They were really cheering and I think there’s a picture in there of us getting arrested and it’s just the faces of the people on the Picket just curled up with laughter.  It must have just seemed like such a shock that you’re standing there at 10 a.m. and then this thing happens in front of you, and there was one, I think there was one policeman on duty and it was his like second week at work, he’d just qualified.  There might have been two but they were both, they weren’t the hostile ones, they weren’t the ones who’d come on and taunt you, they were the ones that turned up and stared at their feet!  And I just remember them being completely bamboozled by it, trying to run around and decide who to arrest.  There were three of us and two of them or maybe even one of them at that point.  I think it might have only been one actually, the young lad. … we just kept smearing paint and the picketers were chanting and laughing and shouting. (Interview with Irene, 19 July 2013)

Following their arrests, the trio faced a lengthy legal process. They used the trials as an opportunity to put a political defense and argue that (on the basis that the United Nations had declared apartheid to be a crime against humanity) their actions were justified as an attempting to disrupt an illegal embassy. At their first trial, the jury refused to convict them and the case went to a retrial. Eventually, Adam would spend time in Brixton prison for his part in the direct action.

In hindsight, Irene accepts that the action was not entirely successful.

I don’t think it ever occurred to me I [could] go to prison.  …  I think I just wanted to do it.  I think there was a big build up in the media and obviously on the Picket in City AA, there was a big build up towards these white elections that it felt like a moment in history, if you like, that they were going to have these elections and I just felt like we needed to do something about it and that was what I came up with, was the idea.  Well, I think it was based on the idea, obviously red representing blood spilt of apartheid, but also an intention to close the embassy which completely failed and was naïve possibly to think it would, but – …  the idea was if you’re not allowing black people to vote then we’ll stop everyone voting and so that was the idea is close the embassy through making it impossible for people to walk through the door, but obviously they just went through the side entrance!  So I’m sure it was completely, in practical terms, meaningless for what we were trying to achieve, but obviously the things that happened from it perhaps had more significance. (Interview with Irene, 19 July 2013).

While the junior police on duty that morning might have been slow to react, at first, before too long, their superiors had authorized a more thorough response – they forced the Non-Stop Picket to relocate across Duncannon Street and banned protests directly in front of the embassy building. The rally planned for that evening was loud and militant, but it took a very different course to that which had been planned. The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and its supporters spent the next two months engaged in a campaign of civil disobedience to win back the right to protest against apartheid in front of the embassy.

Irene defies the ban on the Non-Stop Picket, 1987 (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

Irene defies the ban on the Non-Stop Picket, 1987 (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

We asked Irene if she ever felt guilty that this was one of the consequences of her actions that day. She replied,

No, I don’t think I felt bad, no, because it carried on and it gave, what’s the word, not purpose, but it gave an additional kind of – fight for, yeah, so I don’t think I ever felt guilty about it. (Interview with Irene, 19 July 2013)

Irene herself would be arrested a further three times that summer, defying the ban on the Non-Stop Picket. Although the election day protest failed to achieve its goals, the ensuing campaign to defend the right to protest outside the embassy galvanised considerable support its cause and ultimately strengthened the Non-Stop Picket. For many picketers, the paint throwing incident (and all that followed it) was one of the most memorable events from the four years spent protesting non-stop against apartheid.

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“I’m only doing my job”: a grandmother’s protest

South African Freedom Day has long been celebrated on 26 June. The day commemorates the general strike and national day of protest that the African National Congress called on 26 June 1950. It also remembers the signing of the Freedom Charter on that day in 1955. On 26 June 1987, Mary Barnett, a 71 year-old grandmother from London protested against apartheid in London.  Shortly after the protest, Mary wrote an account of her experience. Here I tell Mary’s story, in her own words – her statement was amongst the papers (relating to the work of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group) that Norma Kitson deposited in the Mayibuye Archive in South Africa, and which I began to explore last week.

Last Friday I watched on the box Becker go down and Lendl cling on. It showed how much it mattered to them. Yet they were only doing their job.

A very little while later I was under arrest. Banged up for nearly four hours in a starkly bare cell at Rochester Row Police Station. I told the policeman who finally let me out it was the first time I’d ever been held in a cell, he said he hoped it would be the last. I couldn’t say Amen to that. It’s a matter of principle, I told him. He said he understood, but he was only doing his job. (MCH95 Folder 1 8.10)

Norma Kitson prior to her arrest, 26 June 1987 (Source: Gavin Brown)

Norma Kitson prior to her arrest, 26 June 1987 (Source: Gavin Brown)

This may have been the first time that Mary had been arrested, but she had been active in radical politics for several decades. Norma and David Kitson had known Mary and her husband, Henry, during their time in the British Communist Party’s Hornsey branch in the 1950s. When Norma returned to London with her children in the mid-1960s, following David’s imprisonment in South Africa, Mary and Henry were among the friends and comrades who rallied round to support her family. Mary was an early supporter of City Group and participated in the 86-day non-stop picket in 1982. When funding for David’s fellowship at Ruskin College was withdrawn, she became a stalwart of the Justice for Kitson Campaign.

As a former press reporter I’ve seen the insides of many police stations, ancient and modern, and had dealings with the police. I thought I knew it all. The reality was much worse than what I imagined I knew.

As the jailer clanged the bolts and turned the keys on me in my roughly eight-by-eight [foot] cell I experienced a new and dreadful feeling. Claustrophobia, I suppose, with fantasies of flood, fire, my own sudden illness. I wanted to shout ‘let me out’. It would have made no difference. Ashamed of myself I took Forster’s life of Charles Dickens out of my handbag to read and try to calm myself. Dickens had a lot to say about prisons and prisoners. Apparently it hasn’t made much difference.

… I decided I must speak to someone and began to pound on the door. I was not the only prisoner beating a tattoo and it was sometime before the jailer returned and called a woman PC.

She did not open the door but mouthed that she could not hear me, My requests melted into incoherence. “I want to phone my husband; I know it’s my right, a phone call. I do want a solicitor after all. I can’t reach the bell. I’m dying of heat in here.” She seemed not to hear and just went away.

She was only doing her job. But was she? Were the police really doing their job by arresting me and 34 others for an alleged offence that had already been tested in the courts and found not to be illegal, namely picketing opposite the portals of the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square?” (MCH95 Folder 1 8.10)

Mary goes on, at length, to tell how in June 1984, on the eve of a visit to Britain by President Botha, the Metropolitan Police took action to prevent protests directly in front of South Africa House. She recounts the story of the South African Embassy Picket Campaign through which members and supporters of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group defied the police’s ban and kept returning to protest there. She remembers the many arrests, on numerous different charges, and the legal test case against charges of obstructing the police (in the execution of their duty to protect ‘the peace and dignity’ of the embassy). Finally, she remembers that,

Mr David Hopkin, chief stipendiary magistrate, dismissed the charge and said the police had exceeded their duties. He upheld the right of Londoners to protest outside the embassy. (MCH95 Folder 1 8.10).

One of the 34 arrests on 26 June 1987 (Source: City Group)

One of the 35 arrests on 26 June 1987 (Source: City Group)

In the context of this precedent, Mary began to explain the circumstances of her own arrest on South African Freedom Day 1987:

In May this year the police cleared the non-stop picket from outside the embassy. They took up their stance on the steps of St. Martin’s Church and the group began a peaceful protest to win back the pitch. Every Friday pickets cross the road from the church steps to stand outside the embassy until the police cart them off to the police station.

… I have picketed the South African Embassy on and off for years with City Group and the national Anti-Apartheid Group – I belong to both – and I reckoned it was up to me to join in. Along with the others I was charged with refusing to comply with the Police Commissioner’s directions (which negates the right to picket the Embassy) and with obstructing the police in the course of their duties.

None of us resisted arrest and I heard that Norma Kitson, who has been arrested more times that I can remember, was grabbed from behind and thrown into a police van in the course of her ‘non-violent’ arrest and had to summon a doctor at the police station. There have been other similar incidents, particularly against the black activists and there have been strip searches. (MCH95 Folder 1 8.10)

The significance of 26 June in the history of the South African liberation movement undoubtedly explains why so many British anti-apartheid activists (and one enthusiastic Canadian tourist who joined in off his own back) defied the ban on that Friday evening. Although we have several photographs that we can date to that protest, sadly none of them appear to include Mary Barnett.

Mary goes on to describe the indignities of her treatment in the custody suite – like many other City Group activists in a similar situation, she complains about being fingerprinted and asked for personal details that she was not obliged to provide. But, she seems most affronted at being called by her first name (rather than a more formal salutation); and complains that the lighting in her cell “made reading a penance”.

Throughout this project, we have often emphasized the youth of many of City Group’s core activists and the dozens of others who were the backbone of the Non-Stop Picket’s weekly rota. Mary Barnett’s testimony serves as an important reminder that City Group had supporters from many walks of life and a wide variety of ages. When they felt it was important, City Group’s pensioner-comrades were just as prepared to engage in acts of civil disobedience and direct action. Mary’s statement gives a sense of how she was motivated to take action and risk arrest as a result of her long-standing opposition to apartheid, her socialist ethics, and her personal loyalty to the Kitson family. She ends her piece with the following call to action, linking the struggle against apartheid in South Africa with the fight to defend the right to protest in Britain:

The old saying has it that for injustice to triumph it is only necessary for good people to do nothing. It behoves us in Britain, for the sake of the South African people and for our own sake, to be there outside the South African Embassy. (MCH95 Folder 1 8.10).

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A parcel from Cape Town (and a letter from Robben Island)

A thick envelope covered in South African stamps arrived in my office just before Easter. It contained copies of correspondence relating to the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group from the Mayibuye Archive at the University of Western Cape. We have to thank Evan Smith from Flinders University in Australia for looking them out during his own research there. In this post I offer an overview of the material Evan sent us, and focus on three letters in particular for what they reveal about networks of anti-apartheid solidarity.

When Helen and I started work on the Non-Stop Against Apartheid project, back in July 2011, we always intended to visit South Africa to look for material about the Non-Stop Picket in archives over there. For a variety of reasons we never made it. Once we discovered that the entire contents of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s office had been preserved and stored privately since 1994, our priority was making sense of the material that was there. It now appears that much of the material deposited in the Mayibuye Archive by Norma and David Kitson (such as copies of Non-Stop News and fliers for particular protests) is duplicated in the City Group papers we are working with in London.

The letters that Evan sent to me are a different matter – I had only seen one of them before. The first set of papers in the package are from late October and early November 1984. They report on the Anti-Apartheid Movement’s Annual General Meeting at which tensions between the national movement and City Group had come to a head. Another batch of correspondence date from the early summer of 1986 and relate to the early days of the second Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy. They include letters from Norma Kitson and another correspondent rebutting claims made about City Group by Sarah Benton in an article published in the New Statesman. Finally, there is an annotated draft of an account written my Mary Barnett, a “grandmother aged 71″ about her arrest for defying the ban on protests outside the South African Embassy in June 1987. All these items deserve to be examined in length and I will return to them over the coming weeks. For now, though, I concentrate on three letters that illustrate the ways in which City Group’s anti-apartheid solidarity wove material connections between London and South Africa.

Norma Kitson protesting against apartheid, June 1987

Norma Kitson protesting against apartheid, June 1987 (Source: City Group)

The first of these letters was sent to Norma Kitson, in June 1986, from Robben Island Prison. Its author was Wilton Mkwayi who had been part of the second national High Command of Umkhonto weSiswe with David Kitson and one of his co-defendants in the 1964 ‘Little Rivonia Trial’.

Dearest Norma,

1964. It’s only like yesterday since we last met. Well in a place like this one whose things appear stationary it is really only like yesterday. It is interesting and heartening how much you still think of me. I wonder if you’ll ever recognize me in a crowd the day I come out  – even if I’m without my collar as Mfundisi [while underground, Mkwayi has disguised himself as a priest]. I have touches of grey and one or two wrinkles but I haven’t changed much, Talk about changing? My back has changed a little after an operation which resulted in a slight limp on the left foot. Therefore with that change I don’t think I’ll still be the same BRI-BRI you used to know. But you try me in a game of tennis… I mean you not Navratilova. Anyway, I’m still the same old self.

Irene told me about your help. I’m so grateful. It has dawned on me that Ian could not help remembering me – although the other trade unionists seem to have forgotten about me. Could it be that Maggie’s iron blows have disorientated them? Could be – who knows. Your assistance has made it much easy for me to obtain a few items around here: toiletries, newspapers, magazines and monthly groceries. Your help came at a time of crisis in that Irene, who is my sole help has retired two years ago from work due to a persistent pain in the leg which was broken through a car accident.

Thank you very much Norma and Dave.

Well, there’s not much I can say about my small world here on the Island which you don’t know. As for news about your islands (Britain) I am a bit informed about them due to the Guardian which arrives periodically.

Please Norma if you can try to collect for me all books written by Jack Woddis. I did meet him in 1961 in Prague. If he is willing to donate them you can send them to Irene. Thank you.

How much ‘little’ Steve has grown! As for Amandla – I left her when she was as tall as my tea flask! Ha! Ha!! Ha!!! But now she’s like a skyscraper and much taller than you! This is my impression after seeing her picture the last time she visited us.

I hope you will reply to my letter.

Pass greetings to all of them and everybody. (MCH95 Folder 7 5.5)

Written with an eye to the prison censors, this letter is chatty and affectionate. It speaks of two families entwined by the struggle against apartheid, but separated by two decades of imprisonment (and, then, exile). It is clear from the letter that Norma had previously arranged for some material assistance to be sent to Mkwayi via his partner, Irene. But, useful as these funds were, for the purchase of ‘toiletries, newspapers, magazines and monthly groceries, Mkwayi makes a request for books by a British communist theoretician famous for his writings on colonialism. There is also an implication that promised assistance from the (international) trade union movement had not been forthcoming. While Norma’s letter sustains connections between South Africa and London, the suggestion is that other connections have been disrupted or left untended.

Norma Kitson continued her efforts in London to arrange material support for Irene and Wilton Mkwayi, as the next letter testifies. It is clear that she sought out and cajoled allies who she thought could offer practical assistance. This letter (from 1 August 1986) was sent to Irene’s home in Soweto by Keith Veness, the Branch Secretary of the Hackney Officers branch of the National Union of Public Employees:

We saw a copy of your letter to our close friend Norma Kitson about the problems you are having at the moment.

Can we first of all send our best wishes to you, and all the people of Azania, struggling for freedom and justice.

The trades unions in Britain have not forgotten the debt we owe to you in Southern Africa and our struggle against Thatcher is intimately linked with your struggle in Soweto and it is in both of our interests that you and we win our respective battles.

If it is agreeable to you, our union in Hackney would like to do something positive to assist you in this fight. Our shop stewards have met and we have agreed to raise a money levy between us to send to you monthly. This will probably be between £30 and £40 each month – not a lot but Norma tells us that this money goes a lot further in Soweto than it does in London and at least it is something PRACTICAL we can do.

You should receive the first money in the next month or so if this is acceptable to you. We will write and tell you more about us all over the next few months, but you will find we are a pretty average group of working class Londoners – young and old, black and white, men and women. What we have in common is the belief in our union and a wish to fight for justice for our members – something we share with you.

Best wishes in your fight – Amandla! (MCH95 Folder 7 5.6)

The relationship between Wilton and Irene Mkwayi is particularly poignant. They were not married at the time Wilton was sentenced to life imprisonment. Each year he petitioned the authorities to allow them to marry; but each year his request was denied.  They were eventually allowed to marry, in prison, in 1987. Six months later, Irene died of cancer. Wilton Mkwayi was released from gaol in October 1989 – part of the group of ANC and PAC leaders whose release tested the political waters for the release of Mandela a few months later. In a situation where Irene had retired and her health was already declining, the practical solidarity that Norma Kitson mobilized for her was particularly important.

The final letter was sent to Andy Higginbottom, City Group’s Secretary, “and all my comrades at City AA and its associates” by Sam (Shafeeq Meer) on 16 May 1988. Sam was a South African supporter of the United Democratic Front who had spent nearly a year on and around the Non-Stop Picket during an extended ‘holiday’ in London. He wrote,

It is now the period which sadly make it inevitable that I must leave your country. … Your hospitality afforded towards me will be remembered, your comradeship is greatly appreciated … My thanks to you for allowing me to be with you, but I shall now slip out of your lives here but I will try and retain a close relationship with you personally and your organisation by phone and mail depending on the restrictions in my country. (MCH95 Folder 6 8.2.2)
 

Shafeeq (Sam) on the Non-Stop Picket, 1987 (Source: Gavin Brown)

In his letter from May 1988, Shafeeq alludes to the tensions between City Group and the broader Anti-Apartheid Movement. He pledged to try to challenge and dispel some of the rumours spread about City Group:

I myself will try and promote City AA in my country as much as it is possible within the restrictions that exist. The antagonists against your body exist in Azania only because of the misinformation received from the London groups as such, and it will mainly be through these people that I will try my hardest to change their attitude.

The fruits of my struggle then may have a direct effect with the controlling body’s [sic] here in London that hinder your rapid progress. My person stay here was a memorable one, hectic, tiring, but never the less a period in my life that will not be erased.  (MCH95 Folder 6 8.2.2)

In the last year or so, Shafeeq reestablished contact with former City Group activists. Following Mandela’s death, he and his family delivered a tribute from former picketers to Mandela’s Houghton home. They helped rekindle networks of solidarity from two decades earlier.

Solidarity is not an abstract political concept; it is practiced through the building of particular types of relationships. Mutual support and solidarity between people can be built through shared experiences and time spent together, as Wilton Mkwayi’s letter to Norma Kitson, and Shafeeq’s letter to his friends in City Group demonstrate. Bonds of solidarity can also be forged across physical difference too – through the offer of the NUPE shop stewards not only to pay a levy for Irene Mkwayi, but to tell her about themselves. However, relationships of solidarity need to be sustained through repeated contact – making the difference, for Wilton Mkwayi, between the Kitson family’s support and that of the unnamed trade unionists who “seem to have forgotten about me”.  Protests and symbolic acts of solidarity are important, but the delivery of practical assistance (whether in the form of money for groceries or books on colonialism) really helps to materialize relationships of solidarity. The letters requesting, accompanying, and acknowledging this solidarity allow us to retrace those connections decades later.

 

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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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