The Non-Stop Against Apartheid research project has been officially running for a little over four months now and we thought we’d give interested readers an update on what we’ve been doing.
To date, most of Helen’s work has involved organising and cataloguing the large ‘archive’ of papers relating to the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and the Non-Stop Picket that has been held privately by the Revolutionary Communist Group since City Group ceased to exist in 1994. This archive has turned out to be far larger and more comprehensive than anyone thought. Helen keeps finding more and more material relating to this period including, in the last few days, two filing cabinet drawers full of photos from the Non-Stop Picket. The archive contains posters, fliers and newsletters produced by City Group, minutes of meetings, and significant amounts of correspondence between the group, South African liberation movements and various supportive trade unions, politicians and other anti-racist campaigns. We have also found a large amount of material relating to the many legal cases taken against City Group activists as a result of their involvement in the Non-Stop Picket. As well as revealing much about the activist networks that City Group fostered and maintained, these documents will give us an excellent insight into the group’s internal political life and practices.
Most excitingly, perhaps, we have found an almost complete set of the stewards’ books from the Picket. On each shift, one picketer was designated as Chief Steward and they held responsibility for the political integrity of the protests. They were the main point of contact and negotiation between the police and the protestors. They were also responsible and accountable for any financial donations made on their shift. One of their duties was to keep a contemporaneous record of who was on the Picket and any noteworthy incidents and events that occurred. These records played a key role in the legal defence of arrested picketers. They will be a rich resource for our research – almost like four year’s of ethnographic field notes about the everyday life of the Non-Stop Picket – and we can’t wait to immerse ourselves in this rich set of material.
In addition to this main archive of material, other former City Group activists have been very generous in lending us photographs and documents that they hold from the time. Helen will undertake a further piece of archival research later this month when she visits the Bodleian Library in Oxford to examine documents held in the official archive of the Anti-Apartheid Movement about its tense relationship with City Group and the events that led to City Group’s expulsion from the national movement.
Over the last three months we have continued to trace and make contact with former Non-Stop Picketers, both in the UK and around the world. We had originally planned to interview just 25 former activists, but it is now looking as if we could have a minimum of 50 people willing to be interviewed about their involvement in the Picket (possibly many more). The enthusiasm of former picketers for the project is very encouraging. We do not plan to start the bulk of these interviews until next year, but we have already begun conducting ’email interviews’ with a group of 20 former activists who now live in Australia, Brazil, France, Iraq, the Netherlands and Taiwan (amongst other countries). The six interviews that have already been completed through this online research method have provided some fantastic anecdotes about life on and around the Picket as well as some very nuanced (and, at times, unexpected) reflections on the social and political dynamics within City Group. For now, I don’t want to say too much more about the details of those interviews, but some interesting themes are emerging from this material.
Finally, as with any research project, there have been a few totally unexpected developments along the way. We are currently working with Christian Juri and a team of independent film-makers who are interested in making a documentary, in parallel with our research, about the Non-Stop Picket. Over the coming weeks they will be filming a small number of preliminary interviews with former City Group activists that can be worked up into a trailer to use in attracting funding for the longer film project. We are also exploring the possibility for academic collaborations with the team over at the Protest Camps blog and hope that this might lead to a joint session at the Royal Geographical Society annual conference next July and seminar on contemporary and historical protest camps at the University of Leicester in the new year.