A day of people’s sanctions against apartheid

Earlier this week I had coffee with Ross Galbraith and began to put in place part of the story of the Non-Stop Picket that stretches to Leicester.  Ross and his colleague, Gary Sheriff were sacked in 1989 from the Leicester factory where they worked for refusing to handle an order bound for South Africa.  The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group supported their campaign and Ross and Gary collaborated with City Group on several campaigns over the next few years.  I’ll report more about their case in the months to come, once I’ve had a chance to interview Ross properly and review the archive of material he has stored away from the campaign.

The case of Ross and Gary reminded me that although City Group called on the British Government and the wider international community to impose tough sanctions against the apartheid regime in South Africa, they also took their own actions to build grassroots boycotts of South Africa.  Supporters of the Non-Stop Picket heeded the call for people’s sanctions, issued in May 1986 by James Motlatse and Cyril Ramaphosa, two leaders of the South African mineworkers’ union, during a visit to Britain.  They said, “if your government will not impose sanctions, then you much act over their heads”.

On Saturday 25 October 1986, City Group organised a day of action for People’s Sanctions.  At 11.30 that morning, City Group supporters carried out six simultaneous actions for a consumer boycott of South African goods at supermarkets around inner London.  The actions took place at Safeways on the Seven Sisters Road, Tescos in Ladbrooke Grove, Prestos and Sainsburys in Peckham Rye, International Stores in Leyton and the Safeways store in the Brunswick Centre in central London. They took their message to multi-ethnic working class communities in north, east, south, west and central London.  These locations were targeted because they were situated in communities where City Group felt they could mobilise support for local campaigns.  They also partly reflect the spatial distribution of where clusters of active supporters of the Non-Stop Picket lived at the time.

People's Sanctions action at Safeways, Brunswick Centre (Source: author's own collection)

At each of these supermarkets, multiple teams of activists went inside the stores posing as shoppers and filled their trolleys with South African goods.  With their trolleys overflowing with Outspan oranges, grapes from the Cape, John West tuna and other products, the teams would join the queues for the checkouts.  Each team would join a different queue, with the intention that they would each reach the till in quick succession.  As the supermarket staff finished ringing up the cost of one trolley’s worth of shopping at one till, the activist-shoppers would realise their ‘mistake’ and refuse to pay for those South African goods.  In a piece of political street theatre they would loudly exclaim their reasoning for refusing to buy South African produce to the other shoppers in the store.  If the activists had got their timings right then at about this point another team, at another checkout would also refuse to buy the South African goods in their trolley and the action would escalate.  Sometimes multiple pairs of activists would be protesting at several different checkouts simultaneously.  Inevitably, the manager would be called, as would the in-store security and the activist-shoppers would eventually be ejected from the supermarkets. There they would join other activists in holding a protest street meeting to educate the passing public and potential shoppers about the realities of apartheid and the case for boycotting South African produce.

The theatricality of these actions could be very effective in how they challenged bystanders to think about apartheid.  It was no uncommon for these trolley push actions to inspire and empower shoppers to challenge the store managers about their continued sale of South African produce.  Other shoppers would be provoked to review and reconsider the goods they had in their shopping baskets and trolleys.  Still other shoppers might express their frustration and anger that their Saturday morning shopping trip was being disrupted in this way.  It was often harder to gauge the reactions of shop staff, although some would find ways to express their support for the action and their sympathy for a boycott of South African goods.  If the Non-Stop Picket was a quite exceptional protest directed at the representatives of apartheid in Britain; these actions for people’s sanctions took resistance to apartheid directly into the everyday lives of ordinary Londoners.

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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.

One Response to A day of people’s sanctions against apartheid

  1. Pingback: Forging a spear in the side of imperialism (and re-assembling burnt-out activists) | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

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