On 14 March 1987 5000 people marched six miles across London on the ‘March for Mandela’ called by the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. The demonstration started at Whittington Park in North London and ended at the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square, carried by the rhythms of the Batucada Mandela samba troupe. It was one of the largest protests that City Group ever organised.
In the months preceding the demonstration, City Group had been extremely busy mobilising support – letters had been sent to at least 200 trade union branches and countless other campaigning organisations and progressive community groups. City Group activists had toured the country speaking at student union meetings and other events. They spoke at fifty meetings in Brighton, Hull, Lancaster, Leeds and Manchester, as well as around London. When Simone spoke to a mass meeting of students at Liverpool University on 27 February 1987, the ongoing tensions between City Group, the national Anti-Apartheid Movement and the ANC in Britain raised their head. AAM and ANC speakers argued that Liverpool students should not support the March for Mandela. Nevertheless, the meeting voted to support the demonstration, a Merseyside Non-Stop Against Apartheid group was established and two coachloads of students from Liverpool attended the March.
The participants in the March for Mandela were described by Carol Brickley, City Group’s Convenor, in her speech on the day as “Thatcher’s rejects”. In many ways they were, the demonstration included contingents of miners from Hatfield Main NUM branch, from the Viraj Mendis Defence Campaign and other anti-deportation groups, radical lesbian and gay activists from the Wombourne 12 Defence Campaign, and students fresh from the anti-apartheid occupation at the LSE. Brought together by the impassioned speeches of City Group activists and the persuasive argument of the group’s letters and propaganda, those attending the demonstration represented a temporary coalition of those who had been either marginalised, repressed or radicalized by eight years of Thatcherism. The March for Mandela provides a snapshot of British radicalism in the 1980s and insights into the flows of mutual solidarity that circulated at the time.
The demonstration also elicited support and solidarity from outside Britain. A message of support was received and read out from the Dunnes Stores Strikers in Dublin, who had been sacked from the retail chain for refusing to handle South African goods nearly three years earlier. The Free South Africa Movement in California also sent a message of support. In recent years, academic researchers have written about the ways in which the ANC in exile and their preferred solidarity organisations in different countries cohered an international social movement against apartheid. Through this research on the Non-Stop Picket, we are interested in examining how the international anti-apartheid movement exceeded these ‘official’ networks and included a broader web of groups that were prepared to take direct action against apartheid. Often these groups did not restrict their solidarity to the ANC and its allies, but supported all tendencies within the liberation movement. Although a small, modest act, the exchange of messages of support between such groups helped cohere those networks and facilitate the flow of information and practical support between smaller social movements.
It had not originally been City Group’s intention to finish the demonstration on the Non-Stop Picket. They had hoped to end with a rally actually in Trafalgar Square, below Nelson’s Column. City Group had twice applied for permission to use the square and both applications had been refused. The Secretary of State for the Environment at the time, William Waldegrave MP, refused permission for the rally on the grounds of public safety, because Nelson’s Column was undergoing extensive cleaning and maintenance. In typical fashion, City Group did not take this refusal at face value and mobilized supportive parliamentarians to ask awkward questions. Clare Short MP wrote to the minister and established that while two other organisations (the National Union of Students and the Coordinating Committee for British Withdrawal from Ireland) had been refused permission to use Trafalgar Square during the work on the Column, over 50 other events had been agreed, including the traditional New Year’s Eve celebrations. An Early Day Motion was tabled in Parliament on 11 March 1987 condemning this apparently political ban on City Group’s use of Trafalgar Square, but it only received six signatures. Although committed to direct action against apartheid, City Group was not averse to tactically relying on supportive MPs to utilise parliamentary procedure when it could aid their cause or generate publicity.
When the March for Mandela finally reached the edge of Trafalgar Square there were already several hundred people waiting on the Non-Stop Picket to greet it. The marchers joined the Non-Stop Picket for a closing rally, with the crowd spilling over into the roadway. In many ways, for a small group of activists, mobilizing 5000 people for this demonstration was a real achievement for the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. Little more than a month later, they were able to draw another significant crowd to Trafalgar Square to celebrate the first anniversary of the Non-Stop Picket.