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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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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Thinking about Youthful Resistance in Leicester

On Saturday 10 January 2015 Gavin Brown ran an afternoon of discussions about ‘Youthful Resistance‘ for Leicester People’s University. This free event, held in the basement of a popular bar in the city centre, was attended by about twenty people. The afternoon started with Gavin talking about the history of young people’s involvement in the Non-Stop Picket, and their relationship to the struggles of South African youth against apartheid. In taking this focus, Gavin was not suggesting that only young people participated in the Non-Stop Picket – in fact, he explicitly explored the importance of young people’s interactions and friendships with picketers from a different generations. He explored these themes through the stories of five young picketers who were interviewed for this research.

Gavin Brown speaking at Leicester People's University (Photographers: Ambrose Musiyiwa and Emma Racz)

Gavin Brown speaking at Leicester People’s University (Photographers: Ambrose Musiyiwa and Emma Racz)

Displaying the history of the Non-Stop Picket at Leicester People's University (Photographers: Ambrose Musiyiwa and Emma Racz)

Displaying the history of the Non-Stop Picket at Leicester People’s University (Photographers: Ambrose Musiyiwa and Emma Racz)

The rest of the afternoon was far more participatory and engaged the audience in actively sharing their knowledge and experiences about youthful resistance in different time periods and in different national contexts. We explored the relationship between youth subcultures and the political movements that young people engage with in a particular period – recognizing that, although these seldom neatly and completely map onto each other, they are frequently related nonetheless.

Leicester People's University participants map youthful resistance (Photographers: Ambrose Musiyiwa and Emma Racz)

Leicester People’s University participants map youthful resistance (Photographers: Ambrose Musiyiwa and Emma Racz)

A timeline of youthful resistance (Photographers: Ambrose Musiyiwa and Emma Racz)

A timeline of youthful resistance (Photographers: Ambrose Musiyiwa and Emma Racz)

In the final session, Gavin revisited stories from the Non-Stop Picket to think about the former picketers reflections on the skills, knowledge and values that they carried with them after the Picket ended in 1990. These themes were then further explored through the experiences and life histories of the people in the room – thinking about the continuities and changes that occur in individuals’ activism and political engagements as they age. We acknowledged that while few people maintain a constant engagement in activism throughout their lives, neither do people who have been active in their youth necessarily give it all up as their circumstances change. Both the Non-Stop Picket research and the experiences of participants in the Leicester People’s University suggest that people find inventive ways of fitting political and community engagements around their other commitments.

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Teaching about the Non-Stop Picket in South Africa

We have just arranged for a document from the Non-Stop Picket to be reproduced in a South African politics textbook. The book, Politics: A Southern African Introduction (by Joleen Steyn Kotze, David Welsh, Xolela Mangcu, Nicola de Jager, Vicky Graham, Thabisi Hoeane, Aubrey Matshiqi, Vusi Gumede, and Theo Neethling) will be published by Oxford University Press Southern Africa in March 2015. It is an introductory textbook aimed specifically at first year Politics and International Relations students attending South African universities. The image they will reproduce is the original leaflet used to publicise the launch of the Non-Stop Picket in April 1986. It will be interesting to see how they frame the Non-Stop Picket and its demands, in the context of the international campaign against apartheid, to their student readers.

Leaflet promoting the launch of the Non-Stop Picket (City Group, 1986)

Leaflet promoting the launch of the Non-Stop Picket (City Group, 1986)

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Revolutionary Britain: Art, Power and Politics (an exhibition)

Photos of the Non-Stop Picket by Jon Kempster are being exhibited in South London on 16 and 17 January, as part of a show called Revolutionary Britain: Art, Power and Politics. Regular readers of this blog will recognize many of Jon’s photos from these pages and I reprint a couple here.

Surround the Embassy 16 June 1988  (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

Surround the Embassy 16 June 1988 (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

The exhibition takes place at Harts Lane Studios, 17 Harts Lane, New Cross Gate, SE14 5UP. This is an inclusive art space and entrance is free. In addition to displaying this archival collection of photography from the Non-Stop Picket, the exhibition also contains additional artwork, discussions and a library space. It is open 6-9pm on Friday 16 January and 12-6pm on Saturday 17 January. Further details of the show, including the timings of various film showings and performances, can be found here. The exhibition has been organised by supporters of the Revolutionary Communist Group who played a significant role in organising and sustaining the Non-Stop Picket.

The day of Nelson Mandela's release (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

The day of Nelson Mandela’s release (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

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Youthful Resistance: a free workshop in Leicester

This blog has been a little dormant for the last few months, squeezed by multiple other demands on my time. To the extent that I do New Year’s Resolutions at all, one of the things that I want to try to achieve this year is to get back into the habit of regularly writing for this site. To get me started with that process, I wanted to share details of a workshop I am running, in Leicester, on Saturday 10 January 2015.

The workshop is on the theme of Youthful Resistance and has been organised by Leicester People’s University. They offer free, higher education activities once a month for a general audience. The event takes place from 1.30 – 5.30 pm in the basement at the Exchange bar in Leicester.

Leicester Peoples Uni poster

Here’s some information about the scope of my session:

Why do some young people engage in political resistance? What other forms of resistance do young people engage in? And, is it inevitable that people become more conservative as they grow older? This session explores the different forms that youthful resistance can take. Gavin will begin by drawing on hisrecent research about a group of young people who were active in anti-apartheid solidarity activism in London in the 1980s. Through the stories of individual activists, he suggests that (socially, culturally and politically) they were resisting far more than just British support for apartheid. He compares their youthful resistance with the experiences of other generations of activists that they stood alongside – thinking about the longer term legacies of their activism as they aged. Based on this case study, Gavin will suggest some news ways in which we might think about what young people gain through their involvement in different forms of activism and resistance. Together we will explore and test out these ideas in relation to knowledge and experience that participants bring to the session (as well as different life stages beyond ‘youth’).

If you’re in the Leicester area this weekend, with some free time on Saturday afternoon, I hope you will pop along and take part. I will post a report on the session next week.

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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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