On Saturday 14 January 1989 the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group celebrated the 1000th day of its Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy with a twelve-hour rally. The actual 1000th day of the Picket was two days earlier on 12 January and on that day a delegation from the group delivered half a million signatures to Downing Street on the petition calling for Mandela’s unconditional release from jail.
City Group had been building for this celebration for months. Stickers and posters advertising the rally had been posted around London, thousands of leaflets were distributed, and the Picket itself was adorned with a special banner in the week running up to the event.
The rally served several functions. It was a celebration of the stamina and determination of the Picketers. It was an opportunity to use this story of endurance to gain publicity both for the Picket itself and to draw renewed attention to the struggle against apartheid in South Africa. Finally, on the back of this show of commitment and the publicity surrounding it, the rally provided an opportunity to strengthen the Picket by encouraging new people to pledge a regular shift on the rota and to bring former activists back into the fold.
The 1000 days rally did attract considerable media attention, including a live broadcast from the Picket by Soviet television. Perhaps not surprisingly, many of the media reports focused on the ‘human interest’ aspects of life on the Picket, profiling individual picketers, as much as they addressed the political reasons for the Picket’s existence. One report in City Limits magazine noted the seeming permanence of the Picket within the landscape of central London:
The non-stop picket has established itself as a part of London life since it was started by City AA on April 19 1986. It features on the tourist circuit. Guides on open-topped double deckers point it out to their camera-wielding passengers as they cruise by. Travellers from all over the world take a photograph for the album, sign the ‘Free Mandela’ petition and throw a few coins in the collecting bucket. (O’Neill 1989: 7).
This report went on to suggest that the Picket seemed to have become “a ready-made focus for protest when events in South Africa grab the headlines,” noting that more than 600 arrests had occurred there since the Picket started. Although not entirely neglecting its politics, a report in the Guardian mainly focused on the practicalities of organising the Picket rota and the question of where picketers went to the toilet during overnight shifts. While quoting several picketers, including Carol Brickley, Richard Roques and Delyshia Forbes, the Guardian focused on Rene Waller’s commitment to the Picket as its human interest story:
Rene Waller, aged 75, has been on the picket since it began. She became involved in the movement after her friend, David Kitson, was arrested in South Africa. “I won’t be put off by the weather, even though I have arthritis, because we can’t let down the people in South Africa. They’re facing much more than bad weather, aren’t they?” (Guardian, 13 January 1989).
Not surprisingly, a more political assessment of the role of the Non-Stop Picket appear in Workers Press who published an extended interview with Amandla Kitson. She noted the success of City Group’s 86-day picket in 1982, which resulted in her father and other prisoners being moved from death row to better conditions, as one of the inspirations for the Non-Stop Picket. She argued,
Basically, because I am the daughter of somebody who was in prison, I know at first hand that the picket is not just a gesture, but is a vital part of actively giving solidarity to the fighting people of South Africa/Azania. (Workers Press, 14 January 1989).
If sustaining the Non-Stop Picket for a thousand days and nights was an achievement, then sustaining the celebration rally for twelve hours was also a challenge. To help structure the rally, and to provide a focus for mobilising different constituencies amongst City Group’s supporters, each of the group’s themed sub-groups took responsibility for organising specific periods of the day: 1-3pm focused on trade unions in South Africa; 3-4pm celebrated women in struggle; 4-5pm had a focus on youth and the struggle against apartheid; 5-6pm acknowledged the growing role of lesbian and gay activists in resisting apartheid; while the theme from 6pm was “Smash Apartheid, Smash Racism”. Throughout the day there were political speeches and messages of solidarity from representatives of the liberation movements in South Africa, from British politicians and from campaigning organisations that supported the Picket. The day was also punctuated by music and performances, not just from the City Group Singers, and Picket regulars like the Batucada Mandela samba troupe or the Horns of Jericho, but also from musicians and poets including the Mint Juleps, Sarah-Jane Morris and Sister Netifa.
The Picket was all about engaging people in action against apartheid, so throughout the day there was activities and low-level direct actions to offer participants something to do. At 1pm and 7pm flowers were laid on the gates of the Embassy to remember those who had died in the struggle against apartheid. Several times during the day the rally went mobile and marched around the perimeter of South Africa House. At 3pm a thousand black balloons, one for each day of the Picket, were released in a highly visual celebration of the Picket’s duration.
City Group approached the 1000 days rally as an opportunity to attract new resources and energy to its campaigning. On the day, pledge cards were circulated through the crowd which encouraged all those attending to sign up for a regular shift on the picket rota. The front page of pledge card displayed a photo of Nelson Mandela accompanied by a quote from him “I cannot and will not give any undertaking at a time when I and you, the people are not free. Your freedom and mine cannot be separated. I will return“. Mandela’s commitment to the struggle against apartheid was used here both as a reminder of the Picket’s purpose, but also to encourage sympathisers to follow his lead and make a commitment of their own (to the Picket). The words “I will return” were printed in bold, encouraging protesters to return themselves.
One of those who pledged to return that day was Rikke from Denmark:
I was on my way to the National Gallery, when I heard noise and saw a lot of people outside SA House, so I went over to see what was happening. It was the 1000 days & nights, and I just joined in and stayed until late and came back the next day and the next and the next…
She was not alone. The publicity surrounding the rally and the success of the event itself served as a morale booster for regular participants in the Picket, but the increasing number of rota pledges (and standing order donations) solicited at the rally breathed new life and energy into City Group’s work.