Solidarity through sanitary towels

Another year, another South African Women’s Day protest…  In 1986, the Non-Stop Picket celebrated South African Women’s Day with a rally on 9th August.  As part of this protest, City Group organised a collection of sanitary towels to send as material aid to exiled South African women living in ANC and PAC bases across southern Africa. 

At this point in the summer of 1986 the Metropolitan Police, under pressure from the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (who were in turn fielding frequent complaints from the South African Embassy), were engaged in almost daily harassment of the Non-Stop Picket.  In one of their more petty acts of harassment, they confiscated the box of sanitary products that had been donated at the rally, thereby disrupting the practical material aid that City Group supporters were extending to women resisting apartheid.

This story does more than remember the numerous ways in which the Metropolitan Police attempted to disrupt the Non-Stop Picket;  it also highlights the numerous ways in which the Non-Stop Picket did solidarity.  By its very presence outside the South African Embassy, the Picket was an act of political solidarity with those resisting apartheid in South Africa and Namibia.  It drew attention to the issue of apartheid, by drawing attention to the Embassy. 

This political solidarity took many forms – the Picket attempted to disrupt the work of the embassy; it campaigned for Britain to sever links with apartheid; and, it educated members of the public about apartheid and specific events in South Africa.  Crucially, as with the 1986 South African Women’s Day protest, it also offered practical material aid to members of the liberation movements and to the families of prisoners and detainees.  This box of sanitary towels may never have made it to southern Africa, but over the years City Group donated thousands of pounds to the ANC, PAC and BCMA (usually with no conditions set on what those funds could be spent on).

City Group’s practices of solidarity operated at multiple scales and faced in several directions simultaneously.  This solidarity was not just something extended to distant others resisting apartheid half way around the world.  City Group’s political orientation repeatedly linked apartheid in South Africa to racism and political injustice in Britain; folding near and far together. By collectively responding to police harassment and supporting those picketers who were arrested and victimized by the police, City Group also practiced a strong bonding solidarity within its network of supporters.  One of the key aims of our current research project is to consider how these different forms and scales of solidarity worked together.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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