The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group celebrated the second anniversary of their Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy on Saturday 16 April 1988 (three days before the actual anniversary). On this occasion, they marked the event with a march to the Embassy in Trafalgar Square from Marble Arch near Hyde Park – a traditional route for political demonstrations in London.
The demonstration, like the Non-Stop Picket itself, exemplified City Group’s ‘non-sectarian’ approach to solidarity activism – it was addressed by speakers from the three main South African liberation movements. Amongst the initial speakers at Marble Arch, as the demonstration was gathering, was Molefe Pheto from the Black Consciousness Movement. Issue 27 of City Group’s newsletter Non-Stop Against Apartheid, published later that month, reported that he made the following address to the crowd:
In the past several groups were sectional in their approach about who should be supported in the liberation struggle. City Group has cut across that. The struggle belongs to all of us here. It belongs to City Group. It does not belong to just one liberation movement. We thank you City of London Anti-Apartheid Group.
The demonstrators would have understood that he was referring to the attitudes of the national Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain which reserved its solidarity purely for the ANC and its allies. Of course, there were a minority of dissident voices within the ANC tradition who contested this approach. David Kitson, a (suspended) South African Communist Party member who had been the longest-serving white political prisoner in South Africa for his part in the leadership of Umkhonto we Siswe (the armed wing of the ANC) made the following speech that day:
Every freedom fighter in South Africa and every political prisoner in South Africa is watching this picket keenly because they regard it as part of their struggle for liberation.
These speeches, alongside those of Rodwell Mzotane of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania and others, served a specific purpose in the context of the anniversary rally – they were intended to reassure picketers that they were making a difference and, in the process, ensure that they recommitted themselves to continuing the ongoing protest. The speeches attempted to affirm the correctness of City Group’s particular brand of solidarity activism – non-sectarian in its support for all liberation movements, and directed at disrupting British support for apartheid and apartheid’s representatives in Britain. They made a link between event in South Africa and events in Britain.
By 4pm that afternoon, the demonstration had arrived at the Non-Stop Picket in Trafalgar Square and more speeches were underway. At a certain point, David Reed from the Revolutionary Communist Group (whose members had helped found City Group) was speaking. David is a fine orator, but his words were lost on this occasion as a cheer roared through the crowd and their attention shifted elsewhere – in quite the opposite direction, in fact. Two City Group activists, Gary Rose and Dave Kenny had climbed scaffolding in front of the National Gallery on the north side of Trafalgar Square and unfurled a banner calling for the release of the Sharpeville Six (anti-apartheid activists who were on death row in South Africa at the time).
If that excitement wasn’t enough, half an hour later City Group struck again, as two more activists draped a ‘Non-Stop for Mandela’ banner from the central portico of the gallery building. They then lowered the ‘Union Jack’ from the gallery’s flagpole and raised the anti-apartheid slogan in its place. There followed a nerve-wracking moment when police officers appeared through a skylight and pursued the pair across the gallery’s roof before arresting them for breach of the peace.
Direct actions like this, during large rallies, played a similar affective role to the political speeches. They were expressions of anger at apartheid, but they were intended to inspire protesters to take action themselves. It worked on this occasion – the crowd responded to the arrest of the second banner-drop duo by engaging in a large sit-down protest on the roadway in front of the embassy. This didn’t happen with great regularity, but neither was it an unheard of occurrence. Once or twice, the police took a tactical (or perhaps a political) decision to allow these sit-downs to run their course, rather than make mass arrests. That was not the case in April 1988. The police responded quickly and efficiently in clearing the road, arresting 31 protesters for highway obstruction in the process. For City Group, like other social movements, such acts of civil disobedience were both a show of strength, an attempt to make a political point by disrupting normal business on the city’s streets, and an opportunity to potentially gain media coverage for their cause. It is not clear whether City Group gained press or television coverage for this action. Nevertheless, City Group was a group with a commitment to direct action against apartheid, and what better way to celebrate two years of being non-stop against apartheid than to demonstrate in practice what they did best?