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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A suitable anniversary: youth and student action to close apartheid’s embassy

It is a joyful coincidence that our book Youth Activism and Solidarity: the Non-Stop Picket against Apartheid has been published on 19 October 2017. On this day, thirty-two years ago, hundreds of students and other young people took mass direct action outside the South African Embassy in London to try to close down apartheid’s diplomatic mission. Here’s how we describe those event, and their significance, in our book:

“Exactly six months to the day before the Non-Stop Picket started, [the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group] led a spectacular protest outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square. On 19 October 1985, 322 people were arrested for blocking the road directly in front of the Embassy.

In the weeks preceding the demonstration, City Group had circulated a call to surround the South African Embassy. On the day, City Group’s numbers were swollen by students participating in a National Union of Students (NUS) demonstration against apartheid in Trafalgar Square. Over the course of the afternoon, hundreds of students relocated from the centre of Trafalgar Square to protest directly outside the South African Embassy and eventually blocked the road in front of it.

Raw footage of the protest held on the Independent Television News (ITN) Archive shows hundreds of young people blocking the road. Both the pavement outside the Embassy and the roadway itself were packed full of people. At the start of the clip, some are standing in the road, and some are sitting. Two buses are caught in the crowd, prevented from moving. A familiar City Group chant is heard coming from the crowd – “Close down the nest of spies! Stop the murder! Stop the lies!” As the police move in to make arrests and clear the road, student protesters make their bodies limp and are carried away. More seasoned City Group activists continue chanting for the release of Nelson Mandela as they are arrested, and a legal observer busily weaves between the police trying to record the names of arrestees. …

The sit down protest on 19 October 1985 demonstrated that hundreds of young people were prepared to take direct action and risk arrest in pursuit of the closure of the South African Embassy. Although City Group probably did not mobilise the majority of participants in the 19 October protest, it is clear that City Group’s vision of what the anti-apartheid protest could be (and their practical intervention amongst the demonstrators) was decisive on the day. The events that afternoon helped consolidate City Group’s reputation for direct action against apartheid in a way that, and six months later, would make the launch of the Non-Stop Picket viable. (Brown and Yaffe 2017: 31-32).

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Students block Trafalgar Square, 19 October 1987 (Photo: Gavin Brown)

This anniversary has particular significance for Gavin as this was the first time he came into contact with City Group and, as a fifteen year old, was excited by the vibrancy and daring of their protest style. If he had not stumbled across their protest on that day, he might never have written this blog or our book.

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“Youth Activism & Solidarity: the Non-Stop Picket against Apartheid” published

We are pleased to announce that our book Youth Activism and Solidarity: the Non-Stop Picket against Apartheid is published, by Routledge, today. From April 1986 until just after Nelson Mandela’s release from prison in February 1990, supporters of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group maintained a continuous protest, day and night, outside the South African Embassy in central London. This book tells the story of the Non-Stop Picket and the experiences and motivations of the (mostly) young people from London and across the world who were inspired to build a direct action-based anti-apartheid solidarity movement in Britain. This book is simultaneously a history of a particular moment in British anti-apartheid activism; a study in the spatiality of solidarity and contentious protest; and a study of the place of young people in those social movements and in the urban landscape of London in the 1980s. Our book offers new insights to the study of social movements and young people’s lives. It theorises solidarity and the processes of adolescent development as social practices to provide a theoretically-informed, argument-led analysis of how young activists build and practice solidarity. A full outline of the book can be found here.

In the annals of late 20th century protest in Britain, the Non-Stop Picket stands out as one of the truly inspirational protests.  To think that people maintained a picket of the embassy night and day through freezing winters and pouring rain, for nearly four years, that’s truly extraordinary and heroic.  I feel in total awe of the people who were there around the clock, 24/7.  They made sure that the anti-apartheid struggle and in particular the demand for the freedom of Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners, was kept constantly in the public eye.  It was an incredibly effective form of protest by a relatively small, but highly motivated, passionate, idealistic people.” (Peter Tatchell, 19 December 2013)

This book 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 managed to track down and interview eight retired police officers, of various ranks, who had been involved in policing City Group’s protests in the mid-1980s.

Image generated by GPL Ghostscript (device=pnmraw)

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 record of their anti-apartheid campaigning. We were lucky enough to be granted privileged access to this privately held archive. 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.

We believe Youth Activism and Solidarity: The Non-Stop Picket Against Apartheid will be of interest to geographers, historians and a wide range of other social scientists concerned with the historical geography of the international anti-apartheid movement, social movement studies, contemporary British history, and young people’s activism and geopolitical agency.

The book is currently only published in hardback and retails for £105 (academic publishers tend to target the institutional library market first). However, if you order it through the Routledge website, you can use the discount code FLR40 to obtain a 20% discount. A more affordable paperback edition will be published next year (at which point, the price of the e-book will reduce too). In the meantime, if you are in a position to order or request a copy for your school, university, or local community library, we would really appreciate your help in bringing the book to a wider audience.

If you are interested in reviewing the book for a newspaper, magazine, blog, or academic journal, review copies can be ordered here (at the publisher’s discretion).

We would like to thank everyone how shared their memories and archives with us, and helped support and encourage our research and writing in multiple other ways.

We hope you enjoy the book and look forward to hearing your feedback on it.

 

 

 

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“It was a dark and stormy night” (against apartheid)

This weekend England is remembering the 30th anniversary of “The Great Storm” of 1987. On the night of 15 October, the South of England and France’s Atlantic coast were hit by one of the most powerful storms in living memory. The strength of the hurricane force winds were said at the time to be a 1 in 200 years event (but, then, those seem to be getting more common, these days!).

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David Wright [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

For many people, as with much of the media coverage currently surrounding the anniversary, the event is mostly remembered for (the television weather forecaster) Michael Fish’s infamous and inaccurate reassurance the evening beforehand that there was no hurricane on the way (watch it here). But, for anyone who was associated with the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy at the time, that night is remembered because the Picket remained continually throughout the storm. While the winds caused huge damage and disruption, not even a hurricane, they remember, could disrupt stop the Non-Stop Picket.

Here is the report that City Group published in the first issue of Non-Stop Against Apartheid after the hurricane. Mike Burgess’s report began with humorous and knowing nod to the much-mocked writing of the 19th century English novelist Edward Bulwer-Lytton (and, we hope, Snoopy). We reproduce the story in full here:

HURRICANE?

Business as usual!

THE ONE THING THE HURRICANE DIDN’T FLATTEN WAS THE NON-STOP PICKET

It was a dark and stormy night… Penny and I were due on the picket at 4am. She drove us through a hail of tree timber to arrive at 4.20. “Hold your hands in front of you, Mike, in case the windscreen shatters!” In strong winds it is not uncommon for the odd country road to be closed due to fallen trees, but Northumberland Avenue? … Chelsea Embankment?

The picket was three strong: Patrick, Martin, and Steve Kitson who was holding the furled banner against his shoulder and looking to all the world like something blown inland from the Cromer lifeboat. They had seen scaffold planks and twenty foot hoardings blown down from the front of the National Gallery. The police of course were tucked up snugly in their white van with the headlights on and the engine running – winter hibernation. Penny let Martin have her car keys so that he could doss down in shelter for an hour or so.

So when Steve went, there were three of us. At 4.30 the lights went out. I mean all the lights. Ten minutes later the Embassy lights came on again. They have their own generator. We had brought two flasks of coffee, which was useful until the cups blew away. And we stood holding the soggy banner and trying to stay upright in the wind.

At ten to six Penny had to go to work. She’s a bus driver. But the buses didn’t run, the cafes and the banks didn’t open. Brixton tube station didn’t open but Theo walked to the picket to relieve me at 6.45am. Only on the Non-Stop Picket was it business as usual.

It’s a story of determination, told with humour. Published as it was, in the public-facing newsletter of a protest that had been running continuously for almost exactly 18 months at that point, the story was used to demonstrate the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s worthiness and commitment to the anti-apartheid cause. When the rest of London ground to a halt, their activists were so determined that they battled through the winds to ensure the protest remained ‘non-stop against apartheid’. Over the next 28 months, whenever numbers dwindled, energy flagged, or tempers flared, the story of that ‘dark and stormy night’ was often retold to remind picketers of their collective commitment.

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Lost Legends: Leicester’s Black History

Lost Legends is a project celebrating thirty years of Black History Month in Leicester. At the heart of the project is a current exhibition at Newarke Houses museum in the city. The exhibition aims to celebrate the achievements and contributions of African and African Caribbean heritage people in the city. But it does a great job of contextualizing those achievements in wider social, cultural and political changes in Britain and beyond.

Earlier in the year, Gavin was approached to advise the Lost Legends project on the history of anti-apartheid campaigning in Leicester. He was happy to share with them stories about a number of key events and campaigns within the city and to signpost their researcher team to people and places who could give more detailed information.

The Lost Legends exhibition contains a number of stories about anti-apartheid campaigning in the city – from the renaming of Welford Road Recreation Ground as Nelson Mandela Park in the 1980s; the campaign to make the Highfields area of the city an ‘apartheid free zone’; and recurring controversies about the Leicester Tigers Rugby Club’s links with South African rugby teams in contravention of the international sports boycott of apartheid-era South Africa. In this context, it was great to see details in the exhibition of a couple of stories that came directly from our Non-Stop Against Apartheid research.

The exhibition remembers how striking SARMCOL workers from South Africa, on a speaking tour of Britain in early 1990, participated in a demonstration in Leicester’s Town Hall Square against the Poll Tax.

BHM Sarmcol text.jpg

Here are a couple photos of them at that demonstration :

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While it was interesting to see this story included in the exhibition, it was a shame that (as far as we could see), the exhibition didn’t acknowledge the stories of the many more South African and Namibian anti-apartheid campaigners who spent time in exile in the UK and passed through either of Leicester’s two universities (often using British Council scholarships as a means of legitimately leaving their home countries). Several future parliamentarians and senior diplomats from both South Africa and Namibia spent time studying in Leicester before the end of apartheid. For a while, in the late 1980s, the UK offices of the South West African National Union (SWANU) – a Namibian national liberation movement – were based in Leicester’s West End (although, sadly, this too seems to have been overlooked in the Lost Legends exhibition). While I think it is important to examine the role of anti-apartheid campaigning within Black British history, as Elizabeth Williams has shown, sometimes telling the story of the Black British contribution to anti-apartheid solidarity can mean challenging the ANC’s dominant retelling of anti-apartheid history, and recognizing the resonance that Black Consciousness and Pan-African liberation movements had with many Afrocentric activists in Britain in the 1970s and 1980s. There are other Lost Legends still to be remembered here.

 

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Youth Activism and Solidarity: A step closer to publication

Yesterday the copy editor’s comments and queries on the manuscript for our book Youth Activism and Solidarity: the Non-Stop Picket against Apartheid arrived. I’ve spent the last day attentively working through every bit of changed formatting, spelling, and punctuation, to ensure the manuscript is in a good state.

copyedits

This book has been a long-time coming – Helen Yaffe and I started our research about the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in 2011, and it has taken nearly three years from start to finish to produce the book. We are expecting to carry out a final, detailed check of the page proofs at the end of August. All being well, the book is due for publication early in 2018.

A couple of weeks ago, one of the former activists that we interviewed for the research, who had officially been part of our project advisory group, asked to see a copy of the manuscript. There’s always a moment of trepidation whenever you handover a piece of writing to someone who is potentially heavily invested in what it does (or doesn’t) say. That’s further exaggerated when sharing academic writing with non-academic audiences. Luckily, I needn’t have worried – a few hours later a message arrived on Facebook to say “I read a few pages and it’s all readable, not academic speak!” Given that our ambition was to write an academically rigorous book that was interesting and engaging for those who participated in the Non-Stop Picket, that’s a great endorsement to receive!

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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.

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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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