On 21 March 1960 69 unarmed protestors were shot dead by South African Police at Sharpeville. They were participating in a demonstration called by the Pan-Africanist Congress against the pass laws, a central facet of the apartheid regime, that regulated were non-whites could live and work. The Sharpeville massacre was a turning point South African history and led to a chain of events that shaped the direction of resistance to apartheid both in South African and internationally.
For the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, like many anti-apartheid campaigns around the world, 21 March was a key date in the protest calendar. The date was particularly important for City Group, given their non-sectarian stance of supporting all anti-apartheid liberation movements, as it provided an opportunity to consolidate their relationship with the London representatives of the PAC. Unusually, given the centrality of the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy to City Group’s work at the time, in the late 1980s Sharpeville commemoration events normally took place away from the embassy picket. In 1988 and 1990, indoor rallies were held at Conway Hall in Holborn; while in 1989 the “Remember Sharpeville, Remember Langa” rally was held at the London School of Economics. These evening meetings could attract several hundred people and normally culminated in a candle-lit march from the venue to the Non-Stop Picket.
The Sharpeville commemoration rally on 21 March 1988 was attended by over 600 people who packed the hall to hear Gora Ebrahim, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs for the PAC speak. He shared the platform with representatives of other Southern African liberation movements who were traditionally sidelined by the national Anti-Apartheid Movement – Oupa Ngwenya of AZAPO and ‘Comrade Vi’ from the Nambian organisation SWANU. The report of the rally produced for City Group’s newsletter,Non-Stop Against Apartheid, stressed how all the speakers celebrated the role of the PAC in organising the protest in Sharpeville as part of their 1960 Positive Action Campaign. Several speakers also reported noted how frequently this fact was overlooked by the main anti-apartheid movements in the UK and elsewhere, who saw themselves primarily aligned with the ANC. Comrade Vi from SWANU noted:
Right across the world, right across the city of London, people are gathered under various roofs and amongst them are people who purport to be talking seriously about the Sharpeville massacres, but who… are labouring by all means necessary to avoid talking about the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania. (NSAA 27 page 8).
Throughout the rally, several speakers noted that it was not the place of British solidarity activists to determine which anti-apartheid forces they would support and which they would not. Speaking for the PAC, Gora Ebrahim stressed the importance of mutual support and the linking of struggles in building effective international solidarity networks:
To link your solidarity with us with your own struggle… racism and exploitation in Britain must be challenged to make solidarity with us both meaningful and effective. (NSAA 27 page 8).
It is perhaps not surprising that representatives of the smaller South(ern) African liberation movements, sidelined by the international prominence of the ANC, should stress the importance of non-sectarian solidarity. That was clearly in their favour. What is more notable is the commonality of the ways in which they spoke about effective international solidarity – that they did not appeal for humanitarian sympathy, but that they stressed the commonality of struggles and the importance of webs of mutual solidarity across national borders. They were not asking for one-directional solidarity flowing to the people of Southern Africa, nor were they necessarily appealing to a common internationalism, but they were committing to more multi-dimensional flows of transnational solidarity between groups experiencing similar (but not identical) oppression and exploitation.
In 1990, City Group’s Sharpeville commemoration rally was addressed by Jafta (Jeff) Masemola, a founding member of the PAC who had been released from jail in South Africa the previous October. Masemola played a key role in establishing Poqo, the PAC’s armed wing. He was jailed for life in 1963 and, after Nelson Mandela, had been the second longest-serving political prisoner in South Africa. Less than a month after he spoke at the City Group rally, he died as a result of a car accident in South Africa. The truck that caused his death disappeared and was never traced. Given the role he had played in revitalising PAC structures inside South Africa in the six months following his release, and that he was touted as a future leader of the organisation, his death has always been viewed with suspicion.
In commemorating an event organised by the PAC, City Group’s Sharpeville anniversary rallies helped them to put into practice their commitment to non-sectarian solidarity. They provided leading members of the PAC with an audience in Britain. These events also consolidated links between progressive movements from around the world who shared a common understanding of transnational solidarity.