I wrote recently about the complex temporal rhythms that marked time on the Non-Stop Picket, noting that certain dates in the calendar structured the political life of anti-apartheid activism. So, for instance, rallies and special events were regularly held on 21 March to commemorate the 1960 Sharpeville massacre; on 16 June the 1976 Soweto uprising was remembered; and City Group celebrated its own history with events to celebrate the founding of the Non-Stop Picket each 19 April.
As I conduct this research, reading through archival material and the transcripts of our early interviews, other patterns become noticeable. Seemingly random events re-occur with synchronicity on certain dates across the years – 24 February is one of those dates. Last week I posted about the last day of the Non-Stop Picket on 24 February 1990. This week I want to write about events that occurred on two other 24 Februaries.
On 24 February 1988, in response to increasing protests inside the country, the South African government banned 18 anti-apartheid organisations, including the United Democratic Front, the Azanian Peoples Organisation (AZAPO) and the South African Youth Congress, as well as many local groups. The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) was banned from all political activity and restricted to trade union work alone. In response, City Group escalated its existing ‘Participate in ’88‘ action programme by launching a new campaign ‘No Rights? No Flights!’ which targeted tourism to South Africa and particularly the state-owned South African Airways.
On 4 March 1988, as part of this campaign, City Group members occupied the offices of South African Airways in Oxford Circus. Standing in the window of the airline’s offices, the occupiers held hand-drawn posters naming the recently banned anti-apartheid organisations in South Africa. A report in the March 1988 issue (#27, page 3) of Non-Stop Against Apartheid described the occupation in the following terms:
Our placards called for the people’s organisations to be unbanned, and our South African freedom songs rang in the ears of the international operators on the line to Johannesburg and Pretoria. People passing SAA raised their fists in solidarity and took our leaflets.
There were more occupations of the SAA offices over the weeks and months to come and I shall write more about them in the near future.
In February the following year, debate and scandal was raging in South Africa and around the world concerning the revelations about the Mandela United Football Club, which acted as Winnie Mandela’s personal security detail and was implicated in the kidnapping and murder of a 14-year-old activist, Stompie Moeketsi. Like other anti-apartheid activists around the world, City Group members on the Non-Stop Picket were confused and trying to make sense of the claims, counterclaims and allegations that were coming out of South Africa. Some activists were highly critical of Winnie Mandela, others were ready to dismiss all the allegations as part of a South African plot to discredit her and spread disunity within the anti-apartheid movement.
On 24 February 1989, City Group discovered that a bogus leaflet had been circulated, in their name, commenting on the Mandela United affair. A member of the public picked up a copy of the leaflet, entitled ‘No Cover Ups’, near the Non-Stop Picket and took it there in confusion. Whoever had produced the leaflet – and in all likelihood it was agents working for (or at arm’s-length from) the South African government – had done a good job. The leaflet mimicked City Group’s design template and the text was written in a style that could easily have been penned by the group:
‘The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group calls upon those in the ANC and all others involved in the struggle to express their solidarity with the internal Mass Democratic Movement in condemning the actions of the so-called ‘Mandela United Football Team’ and Winnie Mandela. We must not allow the racist regime to be able to smear our struggle with allegations of nepotism and favouritism.’ (text from bogus leaflet distributed February 1989).
This was not the first time a bogus leaflet had been distributed in City Group’s name – another had circulated at the Nelson Mandela 70th Birthday concert the previous July. Both leaflets capitalized on City Group’s strained relationship with ANC, its expulsion from the national Anti-Apartheid Movement, and its radical rhetoric. It was also not the only dubious leaflet to circulate in London at the time of the Mandela United FC scandal. In early March 1989, City Group, the national Anti-Apartheid Movement, and a number of high-profile individual supporters of the Non-Stop Picket were sent copies of a leaflet comparing Winnie Mandela and the child murderer Myra Hindley. These ‘false flag’ propaganda actions by supporters of the South African regime did foster confusion in the ranks of the Non-Stop Picket. The fact that copies of the second leaflet were sent to named individuals stoked the paranoia of some activists. But, generally, they served to reinforce a belief amongst many on the Non-Stop Picket that they must be doing something right if apartheid agents were seeking to discredit City Group. Two decades later it is still too easy (for me) to fall into this mode of analysis – City Group was definitely targeted by South African agents in various ways, but increasingly I think a very complex game was being played, by multiple actors, and it will take further work to disentangle it adequately.
There is, of course, nothing more than random synchronicity that links these three incidents on successive 24 Februaries. All of the incidents that occurred on that day (in 1988, 1989 and 1990) were responses to very different events in South Africa, but those events shaped the activities of a group of young activists in London in very different ways. No doubt, as the research project progresses, we will find more synchronous rhythms like this. Each time, I think a little bit more about the temporalities of being non-stop against apartheid.