The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group was expelled from the national Anti-Apartheid Movement [AAM] in February 1985, but City Group’s members and supporters continued to intervene in the national movement for years after that (as individual members of the AAM). At stake in these often tense exchanges was a political struggle over how best to build an effective anti-apartheid solidarity movement in Britain.
One key intervention for City Group, after its expulsion, took place at the AAM’s Annual General Meeting on 10/11 January 1987. At this AGM, City Group and its supporters argued in several ways for the strengthening of anti-apartheid solidarity activism. They argued for opposition to all British companies investing in apartheid; for campaigns to close down the South African Embassy in London and the Glasgow Consulate; for an escalated campaign to release all political prisoners and detainees in South Africa; and, for ‘non-sectarian’ support for all trade unions opposed to apartheid. But, one of their main interventions concerned the role of Bob Hughes MP, the national Chair of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, who they accused of undermining the principles of anti-apartheid solidarity.
In July 1986, the Commonwealth Games was held in Edinburgh. In protest at the Thatcher government’s support for apartheid and refusal to implement the sports boycott of South Africa, 32 of the 59 Commonwealth nations boycotted the Games. This could have been a great opportunity for the Anti-Apartheid Movement to raise the profile of its boycott campaign. Instead, Bob Hughes (a Scottish Labour Party MP) and Brian Filling, the Scottish Secretary of the AAM, signed a letter organised by the Scottish Trade Union Congress and published in The Scotsman newspaper calling on those Commonwealth nations to call off their boycott.
At the AAM AGM City Group supporters tabled a motion condemning the actions of Hughes and Filling. Although Filling accepted that his action in signing the letter had been a ‘mistake’, Hughes refused to explain his actions. The motion was defeated to noisy protests from the City Group contingent.
Although City Group orchestrated the intervention in the 1987 AAM AGM, they were not alone in their attempts to make the national movement “active, accountable and democratic” (Non-Stop News 16, 23 January 1987, pg 3). Through their high-profile campaigning over the previous four years, City Group had built up a network of supporters in local anti-apartheid groups around the country. Some were supporters of the Revolutionary Communist Group; some were old friends and comrades of the Kitson family; but the majority were rank and file anti-apartheid activists who wanted a more combative national solidarity movement. By January 1987 there were active Non-Stop Picket support groups in Hull and Liverpool, and a network of sympathisers dotted around the country. At the AAM AGM, it was members of Haringey Anti-Apartheid group from north London who proposed a motion calling on the national movement to support the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy. Bob Hughes refused to even allow time at the AGM to debate that motion.
City Group’s intervention in the AAM AGM was planned well in advance. In September 1986, City Group wrote to its members encouraging them to join the national Anti-Apartheid Movement (as individuals) at least three months before the AGM so that they could have voting rights at that meeting. Leading City Group activists toured the country during the autumn both to raise support for the Non-Stop Picket and to gather supporters for their intervention at the AAM AGM. City Group also wrote to their contacts around the country. In addition to this mobilizing effort, City Group supporters were invited to a delegates meeting the night before the national AGM to caucus and plan their intervention.
Ultimately, City Group’s intervention in the AGM was unsuccessful in changing the policies or leadership of the national Anti-Apartheid Movement. It did, however, have propaganda value. Both the arguments presented by the City Group delegates and the reaction to them by the national leadership of the AAM had the effect of winning new supporters to the Non-Stop Picket and City Group’s approach to solidarity work. At the close of business on the Saturday of the AGM, City Group’s supporters marched from the meeting to the Non-Stop Picket. More delegates visited the Picket once the AGM had concluded on the Sunday. Later that week, City Group received a letter from Lyn Roberts of Denbigh Anti-Apartheid group in north Wales. She wrote:
After the AGM on Sunday, two women from Denbigh AA came down to the Non Stop Picket. They told me they were disgusted by the AAM’s behaviour, and would like to organize some support for the Non Stop Picket. They are interested in having a City Group speaker and organizing a group to come down and join the picket sometime.
In a subsequent letter sent a month later, Roberts elaborated further on her experience of attending the AAM AGM:
We are interested to learn about the non-stop picket and your views on solidarity with the people of southern Africa…the [AAM] AGM was the first one that both myself and a comrade had attended. We were neither of us impressed. I congratulate City Group on their attempt to reverse the ruling which forbade distribution of supportive literature if it was not official AAM […]! We were astonished at the role played by Filling and Hughes and the defeat of the censure motion. Last but certainly not least, the refusal of motion 16 – ‘support for the non-stop picket’ only confirmed the hurried and undemocratic way in which the AGM was conducted.
Contrary to the rumours spread by the AAM at the time, City Group did not seek to take over the national Anti-Apartheid Movement, but it did offer an alternative political vision of how anti-apartheid solidarity work could be conducted. This uncompromising approach to anti-apartheid work was supported by a layer of grassroots activists throughout (and beyond) the membership of the AAM.