Chris Menges’ film A World Apart was released in the UK in October 1988. The film, set in Johannesburg in 1963, was written by Shawn Slovo and ostensibly tells the tale of her parents Ruth First and Joe Slovo – both Jewish South Africans committed to the struggle against apartheid and members of the South African Communist Party.
The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group saw an opportunity to do political work around the film and seized it. During the first few weeks that the film was showing in the West End, City Group tried to ensure that its members greeted the audience as soon as they left the cinema – capitalizing on the affective power of the film and its political message. City Group activists waited outside the cinema with an anti-apartheid petition to sign, leaflets about forthcoming rallies to attend and, crucially, a collecting tin to donate in. The intention was to activate the audience’s anger about apartheid and provide them with an opportunity to get involved with anti-apartheid solidarity work. I don’t know how many people, if any, joined the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy (or other anti-apartheid groups) as a result of their chance encounter with a City Group activist as they left an emotionally charged film showing, but these nightly bursts of gentle activism outside West End cinemas raised hundreds of pounds.
In doing this political work around A World Apart, City Group were repeating their successful political and fundraising efforts from the previous year when Richard Attenborough’s film, Cry Freedom, about the friendship between Steve Biko and the journalist Donald Woods, was released. Both films have their faults. Both films can be critiqued for their tendency to place white folk at the centre of the struggle against apartheid. But they showed the brutality and injustice of apartheid, and provoked many in their audiences to want to do something about it (even if that was little more than throw a few coins in a collecting tin).
The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, whether on the Non-Stop Picket, outside a cinema or at other events, was very skilled at fund-raising. Much of the money raised on the Picket did go on keeping the Picket going – printing leaflets and newsletters that were used to educate people about apartheid; organising events and rallies; and, providing legal support to activists who had been arrested. Even so, City Group sent significant donations to anti-apartheid organisations in South Africa, as well as to political prisoners and their families. In the first eighteen months of the Picket, City Group claimed that over £7000 was donated in this way (Non-Stop News, December 1987).