The third anniversary of the Non-Stop Picket of the South African embassy was celebrated by a crowd of more than six hundred people on 22 April 1989. On this occasion, unlike the first anniversary rally in 1987, the police allowed the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group to set up a stage and a p.a. system on the pavement from which the speakers addressed the crowd.
The rally was opened with a samba performance by Batucada Mandela, who marched down the pavement from Duncannon Street to kick the proceedings off in a lively spirit. There was further music later in the afternoon from the Big Red Band and from the City Group Singers. Music, singing and chanting alternated with speeches and other activities (such as laying flowers on the gates of the embassy) to engage and enliven the crowd.
The event attracted a wide range of speakers from across the political spectrum. There were speakers from different political traditions in South Africa, including representatives of the PAC and Delysia Forbes (herself a City Group activist) whose brother, Ashley, an ANC militant was on trial in South Africa at the time. The rally attracted British anti-racist campaigners from the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign and the Newham Monitoring Project, as well as Celia Stubbs (the partner of Blair Peach, killed by the police during an anti-fascist demonstration in Southall almost a decade to the day earlier). There were speakers from the PLO, the All-African People’s Revolutionary Party, ACT-UP (the AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power), [Liberal] Democrats Against Apartheid and various trade union campaigns. Indeed, so many groups sent representatives to speak at the rally and offer their support, that even some long-standing supporters of the Picket could not be taken to speak before the event ended. Although embarrassing for those chairing the rally to explain to expectant speakers, this situation exemplifies how City Group maintained a radical openness at their events – providing a space for all those who were opposed to apartheid to speak, without condition.
This impressive battery of speakers reflects three further aspects of City Group’s political work: first, its principle of supporting all liberation movements in South Africa in a ‘non-sectarian’ manner; second, its refusal to separate anti-apartheid solidarity work from anti-racist campaigning in Britain; and, third, its openness to seeing the links between anti-apartheid struggle and other campaigns against exploitation and oppression around the world. The speakers’ list also provides a snapshot of broader, interdependent networks of radical and progressive politics in London in the late 1980s.
In addition to those speakers who were present that afternoon, the rally heard messages of support and solidarity from those who could not attend in person. On the day, none of these messages was listened to with as much attention as the one received from Zephaniah Mothopeng, President of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania. ‘Uncle Zeph’ Mothopeng had been released from jail in South Africa late the previous year due to his deteriorating health. He had arrived in London a few days before the rally to undergo medical treatment, but was too ill to attend the rally himself. His message to the rally stated:
This is the third anniversary of the Non-Stop Picket. Three years have passed since you launched your Non-Stop Picket in which you focus on the important theme – the unconditional release of all political prisoners in Azania.
You have in the course of this 1,100 days and nights also rallied for the closure of the racist embassy. Comrades, your militant revolutionary task has made you targets for vicious forms of harassment and attack, but you have been undeterred. Moreover your determination and sacrifice have been crowned with important gains which include my own unconditional release as well as the reprieve of the Sharpeville Six.
Unsurprisingly, this positive endorsement from a leading figure in the anti-apartheid struggle provided a powerful morale boost to City Group activists to continue their ongoing picket of South Africa House.
Many of the larger rallies and demonstrations that City Group organised were reactive. They responded to events in South Africa, whether those were uprisings in the townships, repressive crackdowns by the state, political trials or executions of political prisoners. The anniversary rallies on the Non-Stop Picket (along with the events that marked 100, 500 and 1000 days of the protest) were different. They were a celebration of what anti-apartheid protestors had achieved on the streets of London.