Whose vote? Protesting whites-only elections, 1989

The last racially segregated general election conducted under apartheid in South Africa took place on 6th September 1989.  The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group held a day of action to protest this racist election and to call for majority rule in South Africa.  During the day City Group activists carried out an occupation of the South African Airways offices in Oxford Circus.  The main action took place outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square.  On that Wednesday evening up to 1000 people swelled the Non-Stop Picket in an angry challenge to apartheid.

At times in the last year of the Non-Stop Picket  larger rallies were built on a wing and a prayer – publicity material was produced and distributed too late to have an impact and little effort was made to mobilise wider networks of supporters.  That was not the case with the protest against (what turned out to be) the last apartheid election.  City Group had been building for this protest all summer.  Mysterious black and white posters asking simply “Whose vote?” were flyposted widely across inner London.  These, alongside other publicity materials, drew the crowd.  That crowd was angry, militant and prepared to take mass direct action.

Protestors block Trafalgar Square, 6 September 1989 (Source: Guardian 7 September 1989)

 Here’s my account of the protest from the diary I kept at the time:

Led by Batucada Mandela [samba troupe] we surrounded the Embassy (and, oops! one of their windows got smashed).  [They were] followed by a group of volunteers holding Maureen’s huge banner who led a sit down in the road. At first we only blocked the far side of Morliss Hill while the police kept a single line of traffic flowing through a narrow passage on the Embassy side of the road.  But then first Richard, followed by Nick, Terry, Mark, Dom, Hermina and Oli started lying down in front of the oncoming traffic.  Slowly a couple more people joined them and eventually I thought “what the fuck! the only way we’ll block this road is if more of us take the lead…”  At first I dodged the police a couple of times and stood in front of cars and was harshly dragged out of the way by the cops.  But I went back again and again; after a while I started to sit down and eventually I lay down in front of a bus.  That time I was dragged out of the way (slowly) by a lone, petite Asian WPC who left a huge bruise on my left forearm.  But I went back even more times and by now each time there were groups of us lying interwoven on the road.  One time I was lying linked up with Hermina and Simon M when a cop started to pull at my ankle.  He didn’t move me but my shoe came off and he started tickling my foot.  Next time I went in the road we finally blocked it, period, and the cops retreated, diverting traffic.

Once the crowd had secured the road, a band set up on the tarmac and an impromptu street party ensued for the next hour and a half.  Eventually, the protestors vacated the road en masse, at the time of their choosing, singing Nkosi Sikelel’ iAfrika.

During the whole action only three arrests were made.  It seems likely that, despite the significant disruption to rush hour traffic in central London, on this occasion the police were under political orders not to make large numbers of newsworthy arrests at an anti-apartheid protest.  Despite this, the militant protest received widespread TV and newspaper coverage. 

Anti-apartheid protestors take the road (Source: Deirdre Healy)

This second photo, for me, captures not only the atmosphere that evening, but also some of the key themes of this research project.  Here, holding just one corner of the large banner used to initiate the road block are (mostly) young protestors of various ethnicities and several nationalities (at the very least, Australian, French and Irish activists can be seen here alongside their British comrades).  There is a medical student, a musician and a barman. There’s a trans person there too.  A t-shirt bearing the Irish tricolour and a Republican slogan is on display beside the vast banner calling for Black Majority rule in South Africa – the group’s solidarity faced in more than one direction. The Non-Stop Against Apartheid research project asks how this cosmopolitan mix of activists learnt together to use their bodies in unruly ways;  it considers how these transnational activist networks were built and sustained through the Non-Stop Picket; and, it questions what skills, beliefs and dispositions they carried with them as they left the road and walked away from the Picket.

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About Gavin Brown

Lecturer in Human Geography University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Whose vote? Protesting whites-only elections, 1989

  1. Brilliant Gav. This was my first BIG protest – that’s me in the white t-shirt and black shorts in the Guardian pic, far right, at the top of this post. I think it was this night that I realised City Group were the place for me. Proper action; proper politicisation; real politik! I don’t think I enjoyed a protest action more, the cops were crap, that PC who tickled your foot was pathetic. The only cop more of a twonk was our friend Tyson.

    Louise Christian was there and I was talking to her throughout the night. At one point she said, “You’re really enjoying yourself aren’t you?” “YEP!”

    Thanks for all your hard work Gavin, it’s looking really good.

    Simon

    Amandla!!!

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