As Londoners vote in the mayoral elections today, I am reminded of an entirely different election campaign that took place on the streets of London in early May 1987. On 6 May 1987, there were parliamentary elections in South Africa. With apartheid still in place, and anti-apartheid leaders like Nelson Mandela still imprisoned, the Black majority were denied a vote in these elections. In response and protest, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group organised an alternative, just election – an opportunity to ‘vote’ for Mandela.
In preparation for this campaign, the group produced ‘voting cards’ in the form of a postcard (above). The front of the card, alongside a photo of a young Mandela and a free-form ‘X’ symbolizing the act of voting, contained the following text:
On Wednesday 6 May Apartheid South Africa will hold a General Election to elect a white-only parliament and a white President[.] Black people do not have the vote. The leaders of the majority black population are imprisoned, detained and in exile.
In solidarity with the black people of South Africa and their struggle against apartheid, we are voting, on 6 May, to register our demand for the immediate release of Nelson Mandela and all South African Political Prisoners. VOTE TO FREE MANDELA.
Overleaf, ‘voters’ were instructed to put their name to the demand “I/We call for the immediate release of Nelson Mandela and all South African political prisoners and detainees”. They were encouraged to post their vote back directly to the Non-Stop Picket for the Release of Nelson Mandela on the pavement outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square (rather than City Group’s normal postal address). The election result was planned to be announced at a special protest rally on the Picket on the evening of the election in South Africa.
In the week running up to the election, ‘voting booths’ were set up in schools, colleges and workplaces across London (and, I believe, elsewhere in the country). They were also set up at street meetings in busy markets and shopping centres in inner London on Saturday 2 May. Although a relatively simple concept, this campaign was a sophisticated piece of political (street) theatre and took a high degree of organisation to pull off. City Group took the lead in organizing some of the voting booths in key places around London, but the beauty of this initiative was the element of decentralisation – anyone could request a stack of postcards and organize their own vote where they were. Through the Non-Stop Picket, City Group sought to provide a focus for people to get actively involved in taking action against apartheid, and initiatives such as the Vote Mandela campaign provided additional opportunities for supporters to engage with their friends, colleagues and local communities to draw more people into action.
The archive of City Group papers that we have been working with is impressively comprehensive; but, a quarter of a century on, we have not been able to verify exactly how many ‘votes’ were returned in this election. We do know that the post office obligingly delivered many of the postcards to the Non-Stop Picket – a measure, perhaps, thirteen months into its existence, of how much it had come to be seen as a permanent feature of the urban landscape. The outcome of the election, of course, was never in question – Londoners voted to free Mandela. But, by the time the results were announced at the rally that evening, other events had overtaken the Non-Stop Picket (as I shall explain in my next post).
Do you remember City Group’s Vote Mandela campaign in 1987? How were you involved? Please leave a comment.