The Poll Tax Riot and the burning of the South African Embassy

Trafalgar Square has been a focus for protest and dissent since the 19th Century.  This blog focuses on the history of the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square in the late 1980s, but the square is also remembered for early anti-nuclear protests in the 1950s, protests against the Vietnam War in the 1960s and a host of other demonstrations since.  This brief blog post remembers a protest that took place there on this day (31 March) in 1990 – what became known as the Poll Tax Riot.  Although this occurred after the end of the Non-Stop Picket, the City of Anti-Apartheid Group were still regularly picketing the South African Embassy at this point and were there on the day of the huge poll tax protest.

Francis was stewarding the picket of the South African Embassy on that day and remembers the events of that afternoon in the following terms:

I was acting as chief steward and recorded everything as it unfolded in the steward’s notebook…I hope it still exists. I arrived on the picket quite early in the morning and a police officer walked over to tell me that we may have to move the picket to the steps of St Martin in the Fields if the demonstration turns out to be very big: Ha! Ha! Ha!

[The police] turned out to be real cowards; whenever they retreated, the doors of the racist embassy opened to let them in. Obviously the picket had to move, but I’m very proud to say that with the help of my comrade Hannah Caller, all picket equipment was saved!  From time to time, someone asked if they could use our thick wooden blocks with anti-apartheid slogans as ammunition, (naturally for defensive purposes!) but they always accepted “no” for an answer with good grace. When the square got very crowded with demonstrators, we were moved to the steps of St Martin in the fields. There, Trevor took the megaphone and gave a speech on the history of demonstrations in Trafalgar square.

Former Non-Stop Picket activists tend to remember the day of the Poll Tax for several reasons.  First, that several of them ended up getting arrested during the disturbances.  Second, as Francis mentioned, that during the fighting the police retreated inside the South African Embassy on at least one occasion (thereby confirming for them their long-held views about police collaboration with the agents of apartheid).  Finally, that at the height of the fighting, when the police had lost control of the Square, several attempts were made to set fire to the Embassy when windows in the southern wall of South Africa House (on the Strand) were smashed and the tourism posters were set alight.  Having stood outside the edifice of the Embassy for nearly four years, with its fabric remaining largely untouched throughout (bar that red paint and some other incidents of graffiti), most Non-Stop Picketers celebrated this breach of the Embassy’s integrity.

Riot Police in Trafalgar Square, 31 March 1990, with South Africa House in the background (photographer unknown)

It is measure of how much the Non-Stop Picket had drawn attention to the apartheid Embassy over the previous four years that many accounts of the Poll Tax Riot (by protesters) that exist on the internet note and celebrate the attempt to burn down South Africa House.  Indeed, like Spartacus, they all seem to have been right there at the time.

Note: former City Group members (and others) may want to share their memories of the day in the comments.  But, please don’t attribute any actions on that day to named others – let them choose to tell their own stories.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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10 Responses to The Poll Tax Riot and the burning of the South African Embassy

  1. “Although this occurred after the end of the Non-Stop Picket..” i don’t think that’s true at all

  2. kellan says:

    actually the south african embassy did catch fire. i was right down near the front line at the top of downing street and we could see flames coming out of a broken window on the side of the embassy. I also remember the cheer that rang round the square when the first window was broken. It was a real moment of solidarity

  3. If you say so Gav, if you say so.. There was a time not that long ago when i still had total recall of every single little trivial thing that ever happened, but perhaps those days are over. Who would know? Not me it seems… x

  4. It’s bizarre, I too thought the Non-Stop Picket was still going at the time of the Poll Tax Riot – the mind plays tricks.

    My abiding memory was of an incident very early in the day when I found myself on Whitehall, separated from City Group colleagues. The march had been brilliant, lots of fun, lots of noise and I walked through from the embankment to Whitehall (the original march was due to go passed Downing Street but had been diverted due to a sit-down protest). There were families having picnics on the lawn by the MoD building and then, as one might say, it all kicked off.

    Riot police appeared from nowhere; the fence at the bottom of Downing Street was scaled; people were thrown into panic and I found Jay! We looked at each other and, without even saying a word, started dismantling the barriers and pulled them across Whitehall in an attempt to block the street from the advancing cops. It was one of “those” moments in life when one thinks, “shit, should I run or should I try to do something.” We carried on splitting up the barriers and hauling them across the road and some others joined in. Thankfully the cops were distracted by some “flying objects”, not least of which was a ball bearing that hit me on the shin leaving a loverly multi-coloured bruise.

    I lost Jay just as the police steamed in to protestors outside the Whitehall theatre. The panic that sets in when you lose contact with someone is tangible and I must admit at that point I was shitting myself. Don’t know what happened over the next couple of hours but I joined up with some City Group comrades by about 4/5pm and watched as the building site office opposite South Africa House went up in flames.

    On the Sunday some of us went back to the Square and stood looking at the burnt out window on the south side of SA House. A Scottish Met Sergeant came over to us and said, “I suppose you lot were responsible for this?” I won’t repeat the rest of the conversation basically because it’s boring. Suffice to say I exchanged some explitives with him and was dragged away as he threatened to arrest me under the dear old Section 5 of the Public Order Act thingy we all grew to know so well…

    I think of the Poll Tax Riot as one of the great days of my political activities, but often think, “what was it all about?” I got arrested outside Brixton knick on a protest in support of those arrested on the day of the riot in October of that year. As with so many of our arrests through those years the result was case dismissed, costs against the Met.

    Happy Daze indeed…

  5. Can somebody put up that dramatic photo which graced Time magazine or Newsweek of picketer Richard R as he was arrested with the portakabins burning in the background on Trafalgar Square. He has explained that he is shouting out his name- good Non- Stop Picket training there!

  6. Tunde Forest says:

    VIVAS to all those who took parts in the fight against apartheid, racism and poll tax, I was one of the faces of the picket outside the South African embassy till the late 1989, but was also present during the poll tax march from kennington park. but soon as the trouble started I immediately left as i could afforded to be arrested any more. Over the years, I had been arrested at least, more than 30 times outside the embassy with over 2 dozzen charges and ended up with about 6 conviction against my name, even though, I never provoked nor taunted the police in any way or form. But still those years was probably the best period of my life as I was more or less a star outside the embassy and also proud to make my contributions to the struggles in the UK as well as against apartheid South Africa.


  7. Shane Kelly says:

    I remember the flames coming from the South African Embassy window and the deafening cheer that went up. Most of the people there that day were good solid people, all hated injustice and apartheid was rightly the focus of much anger. I remember the police with the same numbers on their uniforms, some with no numbers at all, and seeing a guy turned out of his wheelchair during one of the baton charges when there was no way back, we all having been paclked into the square like sardines with police both ends shoving, punching and kicking and shouting “go back” when there was nowhere to go back to. Something was gonna snap and it did. I’m proud to have been there for the long overdue expression of our class’s anger and hope this unelected millionaire coalition will be taken down just as dramatically as the Thatcherites.

  8. Peter Harding says:

    I took that photo.

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