I’ve written over the last couple of weeks about two events from January 1989 that impacted on the network of activists around the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy. Quite soon after the deportation of Viraj Mendis and the death of Terry O’Halloran, a third trauma struck the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. On 2 February 1989 (the same day as Terry O’Halloran’s funeral), two City Group activists, Dave and Simon, were sentenced to 60 and 28 days in jail respectively (although they served far less than this). Their trial at Bow Street Magistrates court resulted from their arrests, along with two others, the previous July when they had defended the Non-Stop Picket from provocation and attack by two disgruntled former picketers.
City Group responded quickly to the imprisonment of Dave and Simon. Behind the scenes, the legal team sprang into action to secure their release. On the streets, City Group demonstrated their solidarity with their imprisoned comrades. The following day, instead of the normal Friday night rally outside the South African Embassy, City Group converged outside the Lambeth Holding Centre. In front of the place where Dave and Simon were detained they held a noisy solidarity picket to let them know they were not forgotten. Although the focus of City Group’s political activism was offering solidarity to those struggling against apartheid in South Africa, at times, the culture of solidarity had to be directed closer to home. This legal solidarity work was (partially) successful. Dave and Simon only served a few days in gaol, but they were released on stringent bail conditions that restricted their political activity.
Our research is not yet at a stage where we can evaluate what impact a deportation, a death and two imprisonments had on City Group’s work and its membership. But, it seems unlikely that these three traumatic events within a few weeks did not have an impact on the morale of the Group and interpersonal dynamics within it.
This case highlights the complex temporalities on life on the Picket. What did it mean to be ‘non-stop’? The Picket, from the start, was inspired by the urgency of ending apartheid. City Group pledged to maintain the Picket until Nelson Mandela was released from gaol. Undoubtedly, that took longer than key activists anticipated when the Picket was launched in 1986. Over the (nearly) four years that the Non-Stop Picket existed, it developed a cycle of annual events that structured its political calendar – Nelson Mandela’s birthday, South African Women’s Day, the anniversary of the Soweto uprising, and the anniversary of the start of the Picket itself. Events were also held to mark milestones in the Picket’s existence – 100, 500 and 1000 days. Life on the Picket was structured by the shifts on the weekly rota. The relative ease of covering these shifts was affected not just by the rhythms of the (working) week, but also by seasonal cycles. When the Picket was well-attended and the sun was shining, a six-hour shift could fly by; but time dragged when there were only two people on a shift and the weather was miserable. But, just as these rhythms and cycles of different duration became somewhat predictable, time also looped in other ways that were less easy to anticipate. As the imprisonment of these two picketers demonstrates, a chance event on the picket one summer afternoon (resulting from an even earlier disagreement) might lead to an arrest that took some time to come to court, with the consequences not being felt until months later. The unexpected imprisonment of two activists required City Group to invest time in their defence. Although people put in ‘extra time’ in response to these emergencies, such events also took time away from other political work. This project was always established with the intention of studying the spatial aspects of the Non-Stop Picket, but as it has progressed I find myself thinking more and more about how time was experienced in that place – its duration, its rhythms and its varying pace.