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 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)
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.
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.