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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Youth Activism and Solidarity: The Non-Stop Picket Against Apartheid book manuscript submitted

Today we have finally submitted the manuscript of Youth Activism and Solidarity, our book about the anti-apartheid Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy, to our publishers. The book will now go through a process of peer review. All being well, after some further edits this summer, the book will go into production and be published by Routledge, as part of their Spaces of Childhood and Youth book series, in early 2018.

Our book is the result of research Gavin Brown and Helen Yaffe have been conducting since 2011, which was funded by a research project grant [RPG-072] from the Leverhulme Trust. It draws on interviews with former participants in the Non-Stop Picket and a range of archival material from that time. In the end, we interviewed 85 people who had been regular participants in the Non-Stop Picket. They were involved for varying lengths of time and with different levels of intensity and commitment. We also interviewed eight people who were close supporters of the picket – not necessarily people who spent a lot of time there, but high profile politicians and public figures who attended periodically and could be relied on for vocal support at key times. They include some of the solicitors who helped defend arrested picketers in court. Although it had not been part of our initial plan, we also managed to track down and interview eight retired officers, of various ranks, who had been involved in policing City Group’s protests in the mid-1980s.

When City Group ceased to operate at the end of apartheid, some of the remaining members of the group made plans to preserve the group’s archive with a view to publishing their story. That publication never happened, but we benefited from the decision to preserve a historic record of their anti-apartheid campaigning. For nearly 20 years, all of City Group’s accumulated paperwork from their office – an archive spanning twelve years of activity (1982 – 1994) – had been in storage. We were lucky enough to be granted privileged access to this material. In addition to the Group’s correspondence, minutes of their meetings, membership records, and publicity material, there were witness statements from court cases, banners, and hundreds of photographs. Some of these photos were copies of images taken by sympathetic photojournalists, but many were photos taken by picketers outside the South African Embassy to record their protests, or witness arrests. We supplemented our analysis of City Group’s archive with material from the AAM Archives at Oxford University; Norma Kitson’s papers deposited in the Mayibuye Archives at the University of Western Cape; Steven Kitson’s personal papers (which were loaned to us by his sister, Amandla); and a number of news media archives.

IMG_0836

Placard announces the Non-Stop Picket (Source: City Group)

Although some of this will undoubtedly change a little, as we revise the manuscript in the light of comments from our commissioning editor, the book series editors, and reviewers, here is a flavour of the structure of the book and its contents (in the form of the working abstracts for each chapter):

Chapter 1: South Africa and Britain in the 1980s

The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group organised a continuous non-stop protest outside the South African Embassy in London to demand the release of Nelson Mandela. It began in April 1986 and ended following Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990. This introductory chapter contextualizes the Non-Stop Picket in relation to the history of apartheid in South Africa; the resistance to apartheid in South Africa by the African National Congress, Pan African Congress and other organisations and communities; and anti-apartheid solidarity campaigning in Britain since the 1950s. It also locates it in relation to the social, cultural and political events in Britain and South Africa in the 1980s, especially the heightened level of civil disobedience and insurrectionary uprisings on the streets of South Africa. In particular, it considers how the Non-Stop Picket fitted into the changing geographies of young people’s lives in London in the mid-1980s. The chapter also provides an overview of the scope of the research underpinning the book, which draws on interviews with over 80 participants in the Non-Stop Picket and some of the police officers involved, as well as an archive of previously unstudied primary documents.

Chapter 2: A non-stop protest in a non-stop world

The story of David and Norma Kitson – two white South African communists – and their family is central to understanding the history of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. Chapter 2 provides an overview of the Kitson family’s involvement in anti-apartheid activity in South Africa and Britain. David was imprisoned in South Africa for his role in the second High Command of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the armed wing of the African National Congress and South African Communist Party. In exile in London, David’s wife, Norma, and their children Steven and Amandla were centrally involved in forming the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (City Group, for short) in 1982. The chapter examines how, by 1986, City Group had developed the capacity to launch and sustain a four-year long Non-Stop Picket of the South African embassy in London. Finally, the chapter articulates a theoretical framework for thinking geographically about solidarity and considering being in solidarity as a social practice.

Chapter 3: Becoming non-stop

Compared to the imposing edifice of South Africa House, the infrastructure of the Non-Stop Picket was flimsy and ephemeral – a banner and a few boxes – yet picketers succeeded in making their protest highly visible and audible, day and night. Positioned on the pavement directly in front of the South African Embassy, the Non-Stop Picket was strategically placed to draw attention to apartheid’s representatives in Britain. Chapter 3 does two things: first, it examines how the Non-Stop Picket inserted itself into the geography of central London to quickly become a (seemingly) permanent feature of the city; and, second, it examines how its non-stop presence enabled a diverse group of young people to become involved in its cause. The Non-Stop Picket benefitted from the South African embassy’s location in Trafalgar Square. The square’s multiple functions as a tourist destination, gateway into the West End, and a public transport hub helped to make the Non-Stop Picket visible and accessible. The picket developed a set of practices to amplify its message and present itself as interesting, enticing and welcoming. The chapter surveys the range of participants who were attracted to the Non-Stop Picket, as well as how, and why they got involved.

Chapter 4: Being non-stop against apartheid

To spend time on the Non-Stop Picket was to experience time in a very particular way. For nearly four years, it was non-stop. It worked with (and sometimes against) the rhythms of urban life to practice its solidarity with the people of South Africa. Although the Picket was a constant presence (and was structured around a core set of activities), how it looked, how it functioned and what it was like to be there changed throughout the day and across the week. Maintaining a ‘non-stop’ protest around an ‘urgent’ global issue required non-stop commitment from core activists that was frequently hard to sustain. In addition to considering the temporalities of life on the Non-Stop Picket, Chapter 4 considers how that pace of activity fits with the experience of youth and the transition to adulthood. To maintain momentum the Picket was structured around particular weekly rituals and an annual calendar of events. The Picket 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, Chapter 4 examines the different rhythms of the protest – its daily, weekly and annual cycles.

Chapter 5: Defending the right to protest

The Non-Stop Picket actively sought to disrupt the business of the South African Embassy. In response, the Embassy applied diplomatic pressure on the British Government and the Metropolitan Police to curtail their protest. In this context, Chapter 5 examines the Picket’s relationship with the police. Key points of contention between the Picket, the police, and the embassy are examined in this chapter (drawing on our interviews with retired police officers, as well as picketers). Consequently, Chapter 5 charts the various ways in which City Group defended their right to protest against apartheid in the location and manner of their choice. In particular, this chapter examines how, through a two-month campaign of civil disobedience, picketers regained the right to protest directly outside the embassy gates after the Metropolitan Police forcibly moved them in May 1987. Through their non-violent, but confrontational political stance, the young picketers learned to think and act against the (British) state, using their bodies in unruly ways.

Chapter 6: Being unruly

City Group fostered a culture of direct action against the representatives of the apartheid regime (and their supporters) in Britain that was expressed both on and off the Non-Stop Picket. Chapter 6 examines how picketers learned to be unruly in various ways, through the direct actions they took in support of the economic and sporting boycotts of South Africa. In particular, this chapter recalls the group’s ‘No Rights? No Flights!’ campaign, which attempted to shut down the offices of the (state-owned) South African Airways offices in London through repeated occupations. The chapter also examines a series of demonstrations on cricket pitches around Britain protesting against a British rebel cricket tour of South Africa captained by Mike Gatting. In these contexts, we examine the practices through which City Group offered political and legal support to those arrested on its protests. These practices were particularly effective – of the more than 700 arrests associated with the Non-Stop Picket, over 90% of cases were (eventually) won by the defendants.

Chapter 7: Growing up through protest

Children and young people were central to sustaining the Non-Stop Picket. Through their shared commitment to anti-apartheid solidarity, young people from diverse backgrounds grew up together and learned to cope with the everyday pressures of youth. The anti-apartheid cause was not a backdrop to these young people’s lives; they grew up through their political engagement. Chapter 7 argues that young activists’ political commitments are always entangled with the everyday politics of youth; that (in the context of the Non-Stop Picket) to practice solidarity was also to develop competences and resources that contributed to the process of growing-up. Although this chapter focuses on the experiences of teenagers and young adults, it also argues that ‘youthfulness’ and practices of ‘growing-up’ are relational and not age-specific. Several picketers who joined their protest in their thirties describe how their involvement with the social and political life of the Non-Stop Picket gave them opportunities to ‘grow-up’ anew. There were also a small number of very committed elderly picketers, but few of them were still alive by the time we conducted our research.

Chapter 8: ‘Until Mandela is free…’

The release of Mandela from prison after 27 years was a moment of elation and celebration for those who had maintained a Non-Stop Picket outside the South African embassy for so long. They felt a sense of achievement and vindication. The primary demand of the Non-Stop Picket was the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela. When Mandela was released in February 1990 the Non-Stop Picket had achieved its main goal and had to come to an end. Mandela’s release was celebrated as a ‘victory’; but, for many participants the abrupt end of the Picket also felt like a loss. The protest that had become the focus of their lives for (up to) four years was gone, and the close bond of comradeship they had developed there were threatened. Chapter 8 analyses activists’ ambivalent experiences of victory. It also sets out some of the ways in which former picketers have reflected on the post-apartheid settlement in South Africa.

Chapter 9: Lessons and reflections

The concluding chapter examines the impact that participating in the Non-Stop Picket has had on the personal and political lives of former picketers (now that most have reached early middle-age). We explore how both the comradely relations of care that developed on the Picket and many of the constituent practices of non-stop picketing endure in their lives. Consistent with our earlier argument that young activists’ political commitments are always entangled with the everyday politics of growing-up, we suggest that youthful activism can be a valuable resource for socially-engaged adulthood. The chapter makes a strong case for a social practices approach to activism that offers new possibilities for understanding the dynamic ways in which activist practices become bundled with other aspects of life and lifecourse transitions. In doing so, it extends the reach of recent debates about the transformative effects of practising solidarity. The book concludes by examining what lessons can be learnt from the Non-Stop Picket for academics and activists interested in urban social movements, protest camps, young people’s activism, and the history of the international movement against apartheid.

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The Non-Stop Picket and the solidarity of the British Far Left

Today is the anniversary of the launch of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London. The ways in which City Group provided solidarity with those resisting apartheid in South Africa both drew on longer histories of British anti-apartheid campaigning and was quite distinct from the ways in which the British Left had previously campaigned about apartheid.

Against the Grain coverI have a chapter forthcoming in Evan Smith and Matthew Worley’s new book Waiting for the Revolution: The British Far Left from 1956, which is due out later in the year, published by Manchester University Press. It is, in some ways, a sequel to their earlier, excellent collection, Against the Grain: The British far left from 1956. You can get a sense of the new book’s contents here.

My chapter, ‘Anti-apartheid solidarity in the perspectives and practices of the British far left in the 1970s and ’80s’, examines the relationship of three different far Left tendencies to the anti-apartheid struggle. It contrasts the politics and practices of the Communist Party of Great Britain [CPGB], two currents in British Trotskyism (Militant and the IS/SWP tradition), as well as the smaller Revolutionary Communist Group, who were centrally involved in the formation and leadership of the Non-Stop Picket. These groups identified different agents of revolutionary change in South Africa; had different geopolitical understandings of South Africa’s place in the world; and their specific conceptualizations of internationalism shaped how they practised solidarity with those resisting apartheid.

The four organisations discussed in the chapter were chosen because, between them, they exemplify three of the main political approaches to anti-apartheid campaigning adopted by the (white) far Left in Britain. From the origins of the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain in 1959, the Communist Party of Great Britain, in alliance with exiled members of the South African Communist Party, played a significant role in every level of the movement. Their support was crucial to ensuring that the AAM accepted the ANC’s authority as the ‘sole legitimate’ liberation movement representing the majority of the South African people. In following the ANC/SACP line, the AAM prioritized defeating apartheid before contesting capitalism. This was the opposite of the position taken by Trotskyist and anti-imperialist tendencies. As such, the AAM was ideologically opposed to the politics presented by different strands of the far Left in Britain (and their allies in South Africa). As both the struggle against apartheid inside South Africa and the international solidarity campaign intensified in the 1980s, these political disputes became particularly fierce and time-consuming within the anti-apartheid movement.

The CPGB mobilized its members to play an active role in the AAM, and to build support for it within the trade unions and the National Union of Students. They were active in campaigning for the release of Mandela and other political prisoners, worked to build consumer boycotts in their communities, and they raised funds to send as material aid to the ANC. This was important campaigning work, but it accepted the AAM’s twin role as a pressure group, which sought to influence British (and international) foreign policy on South Africa; and a source of political and material support for the ANC in its struggle for democracy and national self-determination.

In contrast, the other political tendencies discussed in this chapter, framed their solidarity in anti-capitalist terms. The Revolutionary Communist Group and their allies in City Group (and other local AAM groups) sought to build an anti-imperialist tendency within the AAM. They believed that the overthrow of apartheid in South Africa would significantly weaken British imperialism (at home and globally). To this end, they sought to mobilize ‘the most oppressed sections of the working class’ in Britain to participate in a mass anti-apartheid solidarity movement which was capable of taking direct action to break Britain’s political and economic links with South Africa. They believed that it was the duty of solidarity activists in Britain to support all those fighting against apartheid in South Africa. They supported the ANC, but they also offered solidarity to (and built close links with) Pan-Africanists, Black Consciousness organisations, and the ‘workerist’ tendencies within the independent trade union movement in South Africa.

A very different position was taken by Militant and the Socialist Workers Party. Both these Trotskyist organisations believed that the guerrilla tactics of the ANC and PAC were a ‘blind alley’ for the South African working class. These organisations challenged any notion that socialist revolution should be subordinated to achieving national self-determination and non-racial democracy in South Africa. To this end, they largely side-stepped any significant commitment of personnel to work within the AAM, and chose to build direct links with working class militants in South Africa. Militant, in particular, used their influence within the Labour Party Young Socialists and certain British trade unions to build solidarity with their allies in the Marxist Workers’ Tendency in South Africa. For them, the purpose of international solidarity was to support the growth of revolutionary socialist currents within the South African working class (a project which was, perhaps inevitably, tied to the party building efforts of their own tendency).

When the anti-apartheid solidarity practices of different British far Left groups are compared, as they are in my chapter, they offer a valuable insight into how those groups understood internationalism, practised solidarity, and who they understood as the agents of revolutionary change in the ‘Third World’ during the Cold War period. You’ll be able to read my full analysis later in the year.

 

 

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New book on protest camps in international context

I have a new book, just out, on protest camps and political activism. I co-edited ‘Protest Camps in International Context: spaces, infrastructures, and media of resistance’, with my colleague, Fabian Frenzel from the University of Leicester School of Business, alongside Anna Feigenbaum from Bournemouth University and Patrick McCurdy from the University of Ottawa. The book draws together an international collection of authors and case studies to examine how the practice of protest camping has spread over the last decade.

Brown_Protest camps in international context

Since the pro-democracy gatherings of the Arab Spring and the Occupy movement in 2011, protest camps have been prominent in many recent expressions of contentious politics, covering a diverse range of demands for social change.

Our new book presents international and interdisciplinary case studies from five continents and is the first collection to focus on protest camps as a unique organisational form that transcends the context and histories of specific social movements.

The collaboration that led to us editing Protest Camps in International Context started around the time I began my research into the anti-apartheid Non-Stop Picket of the South African embassy in London, and Anna, Fabian and Patrick were working on their earlier book about protest camps. Workshops and a writing retreat which helped us develop the ideas for the book, and brought many of the individual contributors into dialogue with each other, were generously supported by the Department of Geography and the School of Management (now Business) at the University of Leicester.

As the book’s back cover states: “Whether they are erected in a park in Istanbul or a street in Mexico City, the significance of political encampments rests in their position as distinctive spaces, where people come together to imagine alternative ways of organising society and the world.”

We believe that the interdisciplinary nature of this collection helps examine and understand the multiple different ways in which protest camps are assembled, take form, occupy space, function, and communicate their political message.

For Fabian, “One of the key contributions of this book is an exploration of the links and similarities between contentious protest camps and other forms of informal settlement and encampments. Unlike other forms of political protest, as a result of their long-term, emplaced nature, protest camps are forced to address questions of shelter, sustenance, and sanitation.”

Further information about Protest Camps in International Context: spaces, infrastructures, and media of resistance can be found at: http://policypress.co.uk/protest-camps-in-international-context

Protest Camps in International Context: spaces, infrastructures, and media of resistance was published by Policy Press on 29 March price £75. It is available at 20% discount from their website or 35% discount if you join their mailing list. We hope that a cheaper, paperback edition will be published in due course.

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Opposing apartheid then, defending human rights now

On Tuesday 8 December (at 18.30), as part of the Leicester Human Rights Arts and Film Festival, Gavin Brown will be giving a talk, at the Secular Hall, exploring what anti-apartheid campaigning in the 1980s can teach human rights defenders today.

For four years in the 1980s, anti-apartheid activists established a Non-Stop Picket outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square which called for Nelson Mandela’s release and expressed solidarity with those who opposed apartheid. The picket ran from 1986 until Nelson Mandela’s release in 1990.

Gavin Brown said: “People had been protesting outside the South African embassy since the 1960s; but in the mid-1980s, it became the focus of continuous anti-apartheid protests. As a permanent protest, the Non-Stop Picket drew in campaigners from all walks of life, and gave people the opportunity to fit their campaigning around their other commitments. The South Africans put enormous pressure on the British government to ban the protest. The Non-Stop Picket only survived because it was highly organised and its supporters were prepared to defy every attempt to curtail their protests. Some of the Picket’s successes were specific to the anti-apartheid cause and the location of South Africa House, but I believe there are many practical and political lessons from the Non-Stop Picket which are relevant for human rights campaigners today.”

IMG_0835As part of the event, there will also be a photo exhibition outlining the history of the picket. The display charts the history of the Non-Stop Picket and some of the key events that occurred there over the four years of its existence.

Gavin Brown is also due to appear on BBC Radio Leicester’s weekly programme for the African and Caribbean communities on Sunday 29 November to discuss his talk and promote the Human Rights Arts and Film Festival.

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Research request: women in the Anti-Apartheid Movement

Dr Kate Law a South African-based historian has asked me to help her recruit participants for a new research project she is working on about women in the British Anti-Apartheid Movement in the 1980s. This is what Kate has to say about her research:

My new research project: ‘Fighting Fertility: The British Anti-Apartheid Movement and the Politics of Race and Contraception in South Africa c. 1980-1994′, is partially funded by a Wellcome Trust Grant. This research examines the role that the women’s section of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) played in South Africa’s banning from the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) in the 1980s.

I am looking to interview women who were involved in the British AAM in the 1980s, especially those who worked on the anti Depo-Provera campaign. The research has received full “ethical clearance” from the university where I work, The University of the Free State, South Africa.

If you, or anyone you know, were involved in this campaign with the AAM and are happy to be interviewed then please drop Kate an email on lawkv@ufs.ac.za

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Stopping the Non-Stop Picket, 24 February 1990

Today is the 25th anniversary of the end of the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London. The Non-Stop Picket had lasted 1408 days and nights, calling for the release of Nelson Mandela and other anti-apartheid demands. In the end, the Picket continued for thirteen days after Mandela’s release. The group argued that this extra time was a buffer to ensure that Mandela’s freedom was genuine. However, it also allowed them time to decide their future and to organize a celebration of their own success, ending the Picket on their own terms.

Celebratory issue of Non-Stop Against Apartheid issued on 24 February 1990 (Source: City Group)

Celebratory issue of Non-Stop Against Apartheid issued on 24 February 1990 (Source: City Group)

I have written previously about the last day of the Non-Stop Picket, charting how the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group produced a special issue of their newsletter, Non-Stop Against Apartheid, celebrating the key achievements of the Picket over the four years of its existence. When I first wrote about the end of the Non-Stop Picket (back in 2012) we had interviewed relatively few former picketers for our research project. What was apparent in those early interviews was that while people remembered the celebrations of Mandela’s release, very few people could recall the details of the Picket’s closing rally (or even if they had been there). For many the day was clouded in a confusing mix of emotions. In this post, I draw on the full set of interviews to draw out two themes that were entwined in people’s memories about the decision to end the Non-Stop Picket. The first theme captures a sense of exhaustion with maintaining a continuous protest on the streets of London for four years. The second theme responds to the first, but recounts the group’s debates about how best to continue campaigning against apartheid in the wake of Mandela’s release. For many people, the end of the Non-Stop Picket continues to be an event that they have ambiguous feelings about.

Nicole, who had participated in the Picket for most of its existence, remembered the final day of the Picket as a positive and celebratory event after a tiring final few months of the protest.

The day the picket ended, I don’t recall exactly what we did, but everyone was extremely happy. I know the last few months were tough with people not showing up and not as much interest, so it could have been quite a damp ending with no real celebration of success. But it wasn’t, it was a real positive occasion. (Nicole)

Women picketers celebrate South African Women's Day, 1988 (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

Women picketers celebrate South African Women’s Day, 1988 (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

Hannah made a pertinent observation that how people reacted to the prospect of ending the Non-Stop Picket was in part a reflection on the length (and intensity) of their involvement. Having joined the Picket in 1988, she placed herself near the middle of a spectrum of emotional responses.

It was very complicated.  Because for some people it was like the end of an entire period of their life where they had given everything day and night, and it was quite weird.  And for some people it was clearly the end of their contribution because they didn’t know what they were going to do next.  And for people who had come more lately, I suppose it was just the beginning of something as well.  For me it was sort of half-half.  I didn’t have the whole thing about being there at the beginning, but I did have something about how significant it had been for a couple of years. (Hannah)

Andy Privett and unknown picketer place flowers on the embassy gates, summer 1986 (Photographer: Gavin Brown)

Andy Privett and unknown picketer place flowers on the embassy gates, summer 1986 (Photographer: Gavin Brown)

Even so, some people who joined the Picket after Hannah still felt unsettled at the prospect of their circle of friends dispersing.

And I suppose there was some level of concern personally, what was going to happen next, what was going to happen and what was going to happen to all of us? (Deirdre)

Other picketers acknowledged that this may well have been inevitable, as it was the Picket that had brought this ‘motley crew‘ together in the first place.

I felt that it was the cause that gave us meaning – and that is why the final meeting (with the vote on whether to continue the picket), and the final day of protest, seemed so confused and awkward.  Our reason for being together was slipping away. (Mark B).

For Cat, who had been involved with the Picket since its first day, it was important to claim Mandela’s release as a victory, and be realistic about how the group should continue to operate. She gives a real sense of the mix of emotions and political commitments which were entangled in these debates.

I think his release had come out of the struggle, I think I remember a certain wariness of what will happen next, and I think also that although it was the Non-Stop Picket for the release of Nelson Mandela it was never just about Mandela, it was about all the political prisoners and it was about far wider issues.  And I think there was an argument in fact about whether we should stop the picket or not, because people said apartheid’s not over yet, [and] we should [continue] non-stop until everyone has the vote. We said no, you have to claim your victories. We said we’d be here until Mandela was released, and Mandela was released and, you know, the picket was struggling a bit by that point as well.  And I think it was absolutely right to say well done us, we said we’d do this and we did. (Cat).
Three picketers (Photographer: Gavin brown)

Three picketers framed against South Africa House (Photographer: Gavin brown)

Shereen, a South African who came into contact with the Picket when she arrived in London in 1986, reflected in her interview on the political importance of claiming Mandela’s release as a victory, and ending the Picket (as a non-stop protest) on that positive and victorious note. However, she also recognized that, having made Mandela the focus of their campaigning over the previous four years, the group faced a challenge in conveying to the public that Mandela’s release did not equate to the end of apartheid.

Yeah, and that was another debate, as to whether we should continue or not.  Because we were arguing that Mandela’s freedom wasn’t… [that] he wasn’t the only political prisoner, and that it was symbolic, picketing until Mandela is free is symbolic, and that what we really mean is now we’ll get a picket until all of the political [prisoners are free], and so on and so forth, you know.  But it should be, but we were on a hiding to nothing because people did want… they were getting tired, and they did want to end it, and end it on a high note.  So those were the choices.  Rather than fizzling out, because of a commitment, which at the time, despite Mandela’s release, it did seem as though it would be an ongoing thing, you know, and people weren’t prepared to be picketing for the whole of the rest of their lives, you know, until South Africa was free kind of thing.  And so maybe they were right to end it on a high note, to end it with a victory. (Shereen)

In Shereen’s interview, as in many others, there is a real sense that there was a danger that the Picket could just ‘fizzle out’ if the group attempted to press on with a continuous, 24-hour protest. For other key activists, like Andre, even though they acknowledged that the Picket was unsustainable in its existing form, the decision to end it still felt awkward.

It was a bit strange, it just didn’t feel real.  I remember the decision was made and I agreed with it, because it wouldn’t be sustainable beyond Mandela’s release.  It was just a bit, yeah, you didn’t want to let go in a way.  But apart from that I can’t remember, I remember marching away with lots of flags and banners. (Andre)

Several picketers, including Mark F, who had been one of the Picket’s key organizers over its final year, were more blunt about their feelings.

Relief.  …  Really I wanted it to stop.  After Mandela was released, I wanted it to stop.  Sometimes I changed my mind but generally I think it had to, and it just dragged on with that weekend picket and I know people were saying the weekend picket had to happen because that’s where all the funds came from and if we didn’t have the weekend picket we wouldn’t have the money to carry on doing other stuff.  But I think it just, it’s always that thing with NGOs and, you know, they never want to stop doing what they’re doing or shut themselves down.  …  So I think it would have been better just to have stopped right there than sort of struggle on with that.  I’m not sure what we really achieved after the Mandela release and the weekend picket.  I’m not sure that there were any successes you could point to by carrying on.  We were still raising money but I don’t know what we were doing with it. (Mark F).

Anti-apartheid protesters watch from the steps of St. Martin-in-the-fields Church, as others defy the ban on protests outside the South African Embassy, 6 May 1987 (Source: City Group)

Anti-apartheid protesters watch from the steps of St. Martin-in-the-fields Church, as others defy the ban on protests outside the South African Embassy, 6 May 1987 (Source: City Group)

When the Non-Stop Picket ended on 24 February 1990 it ended ‘victorious’. The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group had started the Picket in April 1986 claiming that they would stay outside the South African Embassy until Nelson Mandela was released from gaol. It took nearly four years, but they managed to stay there, as a continuous anti-apartheid protest until (just after) his release. As many of the voices quoted here remember, although that was a major achievement, it was also an exhausting one. The final few months of the Picket had been difficult and many core activists felt relief when they no longer had to keep it going on a daily basis. City Group did continue to protest outside South Africa House for another four years, until apartheid ended, but (as many predicted in February 1990) their numbers dwindled. People had made a commitment to picket the embassy until Mandela was free and saw that commitment out. Even as they felt a sense of grief when the Picket ended, and its tight social bonds began to unravel, many picketers also took it as an opportunity to move on with their lives and to new political commitments. While maintaining a non-stop protest for 1408 days and nights was a major achievement for City Group, and marks out the Non-Stop Picket as a significant moment in British protest history, it is also possible that one of the group’s distinctive achievements was knowing when to stop.

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Disobedient Films present the London Recruits

The Disobedient Objects exhibition at the V&A has now closed (prior to travelling the world over the next few years), but it continues to generate creative explorations of how objects of various kinds have been used in (and as) protest. This week saw the release of an experimental film,linked to the exhibition, by Disobedient Films about the London Recruits – the young British volunteers who went to South Africa in the 1960s and ’70s to conduct covert missions for the African National Congress.

Screen shot of London Recruits in development (Source: Disobedient Films)

Screen shot of London Recruits in development (Source: Disobedient Films)

On many of their missions, the London Recruits constructed ‘bucket bombs’ to remotely distribute ANC leaflets at key sites, like rush hour railway stations, in South African cities. At the time, the South African authorities had largely destroyed the structures of the ANC inside South Africa. By using unknown foreign volunteers, the ANC could ensure their propaganda continued to be distributed inside South Africa and, by doing so, they appeared still to have an active membership operating freely inside the country. This, in itself, was powerful propaganda.

A popular feature of the Disobedient Objects  exhibition was a series of ‘how to’ schematics for visitors to take away, which illustrated how to construct various ‘disobedient objects’. One of these outlined how to make a bucket bomb of the kind that the London Recruits were trained to construct and use in South Africa.

How to Guide: Bucket Pamphlet Bomb. Illustrated by Marwan Kaabour, at Barnbrook. Based on a sketch by Ken Keable, anti-apartheid activist and author of The London Recruit.

How to Guide: Bucket Pamphlet Bomb. Illustrated by Marwan Kaabour, at Barnbrook. Based on a sketch by Ken Keable, anti-apartheid activist and author of The London Recruit.

The bucket bombs are also central to the London Recruits film. As part of the filming process, the film-makers worked with former ‘London Recruits’ to assemble the parts of a bucket bomb. construct it, and set off its small explosive device to distribute reprinted versions of the original propaganda leaflets. Just for that, the film is a fascinating piece of experimental contemporary archaeology. However, the film also features interview footage with Ronnie Kasrils, the ANC official who recruited middle class students and working class members of the Young Communist League to volunteer on missions to South Africa. Also interviewed are some of the surviving London Recruits recounting tales from their covert operations in Africa.

The film is designed to be viewed on the internet (be warned, it can’t play on mobiles). At times, multiple windows open simultaneously, with images of everyday life under apartheid juxtaposed with footage of ANC demonstrations from the 1950s. Overall, the film and the website is structured through a series of parallel pathways telling the story of the volunteers from their recruitment, through their training, their travels to South Africa and the different stages of their mission. It is well worth spending some time exploring the site and learning more about this story of covert anti-apartheid solidarity by young British volunteers (which, until Ken Keable published his book on the subject in 2012, had remained secret for nearly forty years).

Although there is no direct connection between the story of the London Recruits and the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in the 1980s, Gavin did provide some advice to the film-makers early in the production process about the history of anti-apartheid solidarity in Britain. It is nice to see these conversations credited on the film.

Finally, if you watch the film to the end, you get a chance to generate a leaflet for a campaign that matters to you today, and add it to the Disobedient Objects online leaflet bomb.

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