The day being ‘Non-Stop’ stopped

After 1408 days and nights, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group ended its Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy on Saturday 24 February 1990.  When the Picket started, with a march from Kings Cross to Trafalgar Square, on 19 April 1986, City Group pledged to maintain the Non-Stop Picket until Nelson Mandela was released from jail.  With his release on 11 February 1990, the Picket had to come to an end.  By keeping going for another thirteen days after his release, City Group created space to celebrate the achievements of the Non-Stop Picket and close it down on their own terms.

Commemorative issue (City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, February 1990)

To mark the end of the Picket a special issue of the group’s newsletter, Non-Stop Against Apartheid,was produced.  On its front page, surrounding the now iconic photo of Nelson Mandela walking out of Victor-Verster Prison, hand in hand with Winnie Mandela, both of them giving clenched fist salutes, the headline was a call to further action.

On the back cover, City Group offered a more thorough assessment of the situation in South Africa and renewed their pledge to continue campaigning:

On 11 February 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from prison. Other veteran prisoners had been released in the previous year, including Walter Sisulu, Govan Mbeki, Ahmed Kathrada of the ANC and Jafta Masemola and President Zephaniah Mothopeng of the PAC.  On 2 February 1990 the ANC, PAC, AZAPO and SACP were unbanned.  City AA welcomes all these reforms, won by the freedom struggle led by the black majority.  Nevertheless we know that there is a long way to go in the struggle. All the main pillars of apartheid remain in place, and majority rule is yet to be won.  Thatcher has quickly moved to lift sanctions against the regime.

We have remained on the Non-Stop Picket, as we pledged to, until Nelson Mandela is free.  Now that the Non-Stop Picket is ending we have pledged ourselves to continue and to escalate our solidarity.

The article went on to list City Group’s planned actions for the coming months – pickets of the Embassy from midday on Saturday until 6.00pm on Sunday every weekend;  a major rally on 21 March 1990 with Jafta Masemola of the PAC to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre; and, a demonstration on 26 May in support of the Upington 14 campaign.  Part of the intention of the Non-Stop Picket ‘victory’ rally was to keep supporters engaged in campaigning against apartheid.  Although the Picket’s focus on calling for Mandela’s release resonated with a wide layer of people and made it (relatively) easy to engage them in anti-apartheid activism, in hindsight, it also made it harder to sustain large numbers of activists in solidarity work during the remaining years of the transition to a post-apartheid state.  City Group continued to campaign against apartheid until 1994, but its membership and the size of the core activist group tailed off in the years after the Picket ended.

The rest of the commemorative issue of Non-Stop Against Apartheid mostly contains photos of key events from the four years of the Non-Stop Picket, along with short, year-by-year commentaries on City Group’s campaigning.  Many of the events noted in the issue will be familiar to regular readers of this blog (and others will become so over the coming months), but they give a good indication of the events that City Group activists viewed as significant at the time. 

For 1986, the start of the Non-Stop Picket was of course central, but the newsletter also charts the Picket’s struggle to establish itself, physically and politically, contending with police attempts to restrict the amount of space it could take up, curtail the collection of donations and the use of megaphones.  The newsletter records how picketers survived during the coldest winter in 47 years (1986/87), including the attempts to light a brazier on nights when the temperature was sub-zero.

Events from 1987 noted in the newsletter largely centre on the removal of the Picket from outside the gates of the Embassy, and City Group’s successful campaign to defend their right to protest there.  But 1987 was an eventful year and City Group’s intervention in the Anti-Apartheid Movement’s Annual General Meeting, the March for Mandela on 14 March 1987, and the campaigning for Moses Mayekiso and the Alex 5, culminating in a demonstration on 10 October 1987, also get remembered. 1987 was the year the Non-Stop Picket was voted ‘Best Demo’ by readers of City Limits magazine. 

Many of the events from 1988 recalled in the newsletter are ones I have yet to cover in this blog, but they included: campaigning for the Sharpeville Six, Ivan Toms and Simon Nkoli; the ‘No Rights? No Flights!’ campaign of direct action against South African Airways; a 700-strong rally on the anniversary of the Sharpeville massacre addressed by Gora Ebrahim of the PAC; and a demonstration to celebrate two years of the Non-Stop Picket.

In 1989, City Group celebrated 1000 days and nights on the Non-Stop Picket.  Not surprisingly, that was a key event celebrated in the commemorative newsletter.  1989 was also the year that City Group repeatedly took direct action against the members of Mike Gatting’s boycott-busting rebel cricket tour of South Africa; surrounded the South African Embassy on 16 June to remember the school children’s uprising in Soweto in 1976; and blocked the road outside the Embassy for two hours on the evening of the last whites-only election in South Africa (6 September 1989).

Graffiti on pavement from last day of the Non-Stop Picket (Source: Gavin Brown)

Out of the hundreds of photos of the Non-Stop Picket that I have examined so far during this research project, there are only two that I can definitively place as being from the last day of the Picket.  They are both shots of graffiti scrawled on the pavement beneath the Picket by picketers who were screened from police surveillance by the weight of the crowd at that closing rally. These entangled texts, written in black indelible ink, link the Picket’s political cause closely to its location.  The first proclaims “We won the fight, Amandla!” quickly followed by the promise “If your [sic] lying we’ll be back!!”  The South African slogan, ‘amandla!’ (power) and the threat that the Picket would return, if necessary, demonstrates the stretched spatiality of the Non-Stop Picket, linking the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa with solidarity activists in the heart of London.  The second piece of graffiti celebrates the duration of the Picket – “City AA ’86 – 90” – but stakes a territorial claim over that stretch of pavement, indeed the whole of Trafalgar Square – “We won the Square”.  Over the four years of the Non-Stop Picket, that stretch of pavement became more than just the location of a solidarity protest related to a national liberation struggle thousands of miles away, it became a home of sorts to the eclectic mix of (mostly, young) people who joined the protest. 

“We won the Square” graffiti, 24 February 1990 (source: Gavin Brown)

Some of them were deeply committed to the anti-apartheid cause before they joined the Non-Stop Picket; others were angry or lonely and came to understand the issues involved in apartheid through the companionship they found on the Picket.  Whatever else was going on in their lives, for many of the young (and not so young) activists who sustained it, the Picket was somewhere they could feel they belonged.  The prospect of that sense of belonging ending with the end of the Non-Stop Picket was deeply unsettling.

Given how important the Non-Stop Picket was in their lives, I find it fascinating that none of the former activists we have interviewed so far, who were present on that day, have very clear memories of the Picket’s final celebration.  Nicole had the following to say:

Yes I was [there], but I don’t really recall it apart from afterwards where I have recollections of being on the tube singing songs….I’ve no idea where we were heading.

Similarly, Francis recalled,

my memory isn’t totally clear.  We had a march, which included walking down Whitehall. There was a party afterwards, (I can’t remember where) but I do remember that comrade Virman Man was on particularly impressive form as he led City Group Singers with his fine strong bass voice. Comrade Rene turned to me and said “no-one can stop City Group”!

I would suggest that these hazy memories are precisely a measure of the confusion and contradictory emotions many participants experienced that day.  In contrast to the clear memories they hold of other events surrounding the Non-Stop Picket, that final rally was disorienting. While City Group members wanted to celebrate their achievements, many experienced a sense of anti-climax that the Picket was finally over.  Having been ‘non-stop’ for nearly four years, many picketers found themselves contemplating what it would mean to lead their lives at a different pace and without the comforting knowledge that they could always find companionship on a pavement in Trafalgar Square.

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About Gavin Brown

Lecturer in Human Geography University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research, Interview material, Uncategorized and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to The day being ‘Non-Stop’ stopped

  1. kellan farshéa says:

    i found this deeply moving. I remember going to the non stop picket on many occasions. and the support they gave to ACT UP was unstinting during the years we were active. when organisations/events come to an end, there is a strange sensation, there is victory but there is also dissipation, the group become individuals again and the collective power drifts off like balloons into the sky

  2. “Balloons into the sky”. Yep, that kind of sums up what happened to City Group too. But, my last real memory is of when Mandela came over on his first visit to the UK. We all gathered outside the gates at Downing Street – I think there was about 30/40 of us and the police asked us to move, even though there was an area put aside for demonstrations or, more likely, on-lookers.

    The cops, in their inimitable style then proceeded to remove us from the area to across the other side of Whitehall to a place by the MoD building. It was the last time I was man handled by our dear friends from Canon Row, only this time they surpassed themselves by throwing me over some barriers on to the pavement. I remember saying, “We just want to see Mandela!” Over and over.

    It was a tremendous day in many ways but also a dreadful let down as all we saw of the great man was a hand in the back of his car.

    Amandla!

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