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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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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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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