I’ve written previously about the fall-out from the paint-throwing direct action taken by three City of London Anti-Apartheid Group activists against the South African Embassy on 6 May 1987. The Metropolitan Police used this action as an excuse to ban anti-apartheid protesters from demonstrating outside the embassy. City Group, of course, contested this ban through further direct action and eventually won back their right to protest directly in front of the apartheid embassy.
Today (30 September) marks the anniversary of another key moment in the chain of events unleashed as that large volume of red paint was thrown over the embassy doors in protest at 1987’s whites-only election in South Africa. On this day, a jury at Southwark Crown Court refused to convict the three activists (Adam Bowles and sisters Liz and Irene Minczer), despite an instruction to do so by the presiding judge. Adam, Liz and Irene had been charged with criminal damage to the embassy doors, a policeman’s uniform and his long-johns.
Like all trials of activists from the Non-Stop Picket, City Group organised the legal defence for the defendants. This trial in particular was fought politically. Adam, Irene and Liz did not deny that they had thrown paint over the embassy entrance; but they pleaded not guilty, arguing that they taken their action to prevent the (greater) crimes of the apartheid regime’s agents operating out of the embassy. A number of expert witnesses were arranged to speak in their defence at the trial. David Leigh of The Observer gave evidence about the illegal activities of the Embassy and its staff, including their involvement in the bombing of the London offices of the ANC in 1982 (when explosives and detonators were smuggled into the UK in diplomatic bags). Zolile (Hamilton) Keke, Chief Representative of the PAC in London, and Norma Kitson gave evidence about their experiences of torture in South Africa. These and other testimonies were enough to convince the jury that they could not (and would not) convict the three of criminal damage.
City Group activists were fond of paint (and paint stripper). The paint-throwing action on 6 May 1987 was one of a small number of open and overt actions of this kind. More often the Embassy, its cars and other property associated with the apartheid regime’s representatives in London were targeted covertly under cover of darkness. On these occasions, the actions were often claimed by the pseudonymous ‘Chuck Paint’ of ‘Red Reprisal’. These minor acts of sabotage might have been little more than an inconvenience to the embassy, but they boosted the morale of City Group supporters. The overt action against the embassy in May 1987 (and the political use of the resulting trial) are more interesting in what they reveal about the modes of solidarity practised on the Non-Stop Picket. This action functioned in several registers. Visually the red paint covering the embassy doors was highly symbolic of the blood split by the apartheid regime. In this respect, the action served to bear witness to the violence of apartheid. The action also served to disrupt the normal functioning of the embassy. Finally, the action (including the trial) was a publicity stunt that provided an opportunity to educate the public about the reality of life under apartheid and the lengths to which the apartheid regime was prepared to go to silence anti-apartheid opposition (both within and beyond its national borders).