Rituals of Remembrance and Protest

It’s 11.00 on the 11th November as I start writing this.  The campus has just slipped into observing a two-minute silence to mark Armistice Day and I’ve slipped into the silent rage that these celebrations of imperialist slaughter always provoke in me.  To shift my mood a little, I remember instead two rituals of remembrance that I associate with the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy back in the 1980s.

Remembrance Sunday was always a tense day on the Non-Stop Picket.  Situated in Trafalgar Square it was less than a mile away from the Cenotaph on Whitehall, the focus for state rituals of remembrance.  Sometimes the hordes of passing former servicemen and women passing the Picket on their way to or from the ceremony at the Cenotaph could be antagonistic towards the anti-apartheid cause (although that was not universally the case).  Those retired soldiers were never the real problem, though. The threat posed to the Non-Stop Picket on Remembrance Sunday was the annual parade passed the Cenotaph later in the day by the motley membership of the neo-fascist National Front and/or British National Party.  They definitely didn’t like anti-racists protesting against apartheid, and had a tendency to either try to launch full on assaults against the Picket or, more ‘subtly’, attempt to provoke violent arguments with picketers.  In response, each year on Remembrance Sunday large numbers of City Group supporters and other anti-fascists would mobilise and gather on the Non-Stop Picket to defend it against potential attack.  On 13th November 1988 in particular, hundreds gathered outside the Embassy in response to heightened fear of fascist attack.  In parallel to these mobilizations, activists from the Non-Stop Picket would often patrol the area with Anti-Fascist Action to spot and head off groups of fascists heading towards the Picket.

These anti-fascist mobilizations to defend the safety and integrity of the Non-Stop Picket once again highlight the ways in which, for the members of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, the politics of anti-apartheid solidarity activism could never be separated from anti-racist and anti-fascist work in Britain.

Weaving flowers into the Embassy Gates, Summer 1986 (Source: author)

There is one further way in which I want to remember rituals of remembrance associated with the Non-Stop Picket.  That is to consider the ritual practices that City Group developed to remember those freedom fighters killed by the apartheid regime.  When apartheid prisoners were executed, anti-apartheid activists were assassinated by South African agents, or the South African Defence Force (sic) massacred youth in the townships, City Group would respond to witness that act of state violence.  Very often this involved a ritual of placing flowers on the imposing, monumental gates of South Africa House.  Sometimes this would be a modest and spontaneous act by the protestors gathered on the Picket for a particular shift, but during the weekly Friday night rallies or other large gatherings, a dignified queue would form as scores of protestors waited to add their flowers to the Embassy gates until they were bedecked in  flowers of remembrance.  More often than not, the picketers would sustain the haunting melody of Senzenina, a song sung at political funerals in South Africa, throughout this act of witness, mourning and remembrance. 

If poppy-wearing and the official two-minute silences of Armistice Day and Remembrance Sunday serve as nationalistic rituals that reproduce public support for continued military intervention around the world through the remembrance the fallen soldiers of past wars; then, the laying of flowers on the gates of the South African Embassy and the singing of Senzenina renewed the commitment of the picketers to stand in solidarity with those resisting apartheid in southern Africa.

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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.

10 Responses to Rituals of Remembrance and Protest

  1. Lindsay River says:

    Gavin – great blog. But I don’t see Armistice commemoration as necessarily ‘celebrations of imperialist slaughter’. I see them in a different light as commemoration of the horrors of the wars and recognition of the dead who usually did not have any choice whether to be involved, shot for cowardice, bombed etc. However I bought a strange item last weekend. A metal match book cover from WW1 saying ‘a souvenir of the greatest war of all time’ and with a pic of I think Kitchener. It was produced during WW1 because it only gives the start date. It IS glorifying that war for sure. I bought it from a kind of political motive of deconstruction etc. etc. I shall probably give it to my nephew who is an artist, It is a strange and chilling souvenir.

  2. Gav, I struggle so hard on this one. As I think you know my dad was a glider pilot in WWII and, being jewish, the consequences of him being captured by the Nazis would have been horrendous – not least of which is I probably wouldn’t have been born! I don’t wear a poppy, but understand the wearing of such when taking into consideration the bravery and dignity of men like my father who fought against National Socialism.

    What I despise is the glorification of the interventions “we” have made since WWII. I can not think of one instance where British service men have been justifiably sent anywhere in the world. Least of all, Iraq and Afghanistan, where my nephew “served” only last year. He posted a picture of himself on his Facebook page with an enormous gun – don’t know what the hell it was – and wrote, ” I’m gonna kill me some A-rabs!” One of his none soldier mates said, “Well, you’d better go 3,000 miles west then mate, ‘cos there’s no Arabs in Afghanistan.” Won’t repeat what he replied because it embarrasses me to think that he is my flesh and blood. He ain’t my friend no more!

    Our “brave boys and girls”, who sign up for “service” know they could go off anywhere to do the dirty, they face the consequences of being sent off wherever. They are human beings with minds of their own, they don’t have to do anything in blind obedience to the imperialists. It sickens me to think there are some in this stupid country of ours who are commemorating the “wars” of recent times, because, no matter what one may think, it’s the wars today that are celebrated as much as the poor buggers/idiots who are killed.

    Peace and love, Hare Krishna!!!

  3. Paul Brookes says:

    I think Remembrance Sunday glorifies war and is an official approval of imperialism, and the poppy is a symbol of militarism, my-country-right-or-wrong, and obeying orders and doing what your told.

    I would go as far as to support a protest at the Remembrance Sunday ceremony and burning of the poppy. However most people don’t even see the absurdity of seeing the generals, establishment, and politicians at the event; wars are fought to protect and extend the interests of the ruling elite and the “canon fodder” seem willing to do their “duty” and “serve” by killing and maiming.

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  6. luciesmoker says:

    Gavin, your honoring the dead in South Africa sounds like such a beautiful and touching event. And the attacks by neo-Nazis don’t at all surprise me. Like some of the posters above, I am torn on the anti-war part. I think our countries go to war far too often–especially mine. And I totally agree that Iraq was nothing more than a war for oil–abominable! But I also believe that someone had to stop the Nazis and,while I oppose the death penalty, I applauded the recent killing of Bin Laden. So maybe I’m a walking, talking contradiction. In other words, a thoughtful person.

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