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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About Gavin Brown

Lecturer in Human Geography University of Leicester
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One Response to On (not) being a heckler inside South Africa House

  1. Helen says:

    ‘The launch event itself was interesting, but uneventful.’

    So, you didn’t heckle then, Gav?
    Shame.

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