As I sit and write this, the sun is shining outside and it is a beautiful, mild autumnal day. It’s difficult to remember on days like this that the weather in October is not always this pleasant.
On the night of 15/16 October 1987, England was hit by hurricane force winds. It was the worst storm for nearly three hundred years. Across the country millions of trees were felled by the winds, there was significant damage to buildings, and several people were killed by falling debris. Despite this, in London, anti-apartheid activists maintained their pledge to keep a non-stop picket going outside the South African embassy until Nelson Mandela was released.
What follows are extracts from Mike Burgess’s report of the how the Non-Stop Picket survived the night. It was originally published in the December 1987 issue of Non-Stop News published by the City of London Ant-Apartheid Group. Mike describes the scene that confronted him and Penny when they arrived on the Picket at 4.20am that morning.
“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 important not to romanticise the resolve of the non-stop picketers too much. At times, particularly in the last year of the Picket morale and discipline were low, people would fail to turn up for their shifts and the continuity of the Picket was maintained by a thread. But, at the same time, the response of a small number of picketers to the extraordinary events of that October night in 1987 demonstrate how seriously City Group members took the integrity of the Picket and their pledge to maintain it until Mandela’s release.