Today’s story relates to the last major campaign that the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group ran during the Non-Stop Picket (1986-1990). That was the campaign to save the lives of the Upington 14. Although the campaign started in 1989, it continued and peaked after the Picket ended in February 1990.
On 26 May 1989, fourteen residents of Upington in the northern Cape were sentenced to death by hanging. They were convicted of a murder that even the judge at their trial admitted none of them could have committed. They were victims of the notorious ‘common purpose’ doctrine in apartheid-era South African law, which allowed them to be found guilty on the basis that they were found to have had the same intention as the unknown killer(s) of a local policeman. The Upington 14 were thirteen men and a woman and they ranged in age from 23 to 60 years. Twelve others (together forming a wider group of defendants known as the Upington 26) received sentences varying from community service to eight years imprisonment.
Their trial related to events in Paballelo, a black township close to Upington, in November 1985 when the uprisings that had spread throughout townships across the country reached the northern Cape. In early 1985 the Paballelo Youth Organisation was formed and called a school boycott. Later the Paballelo Parents Committee was formed to protest overcrowding, poor living conditions and high unemployment in the township. They called a rent boycott and, by November, rent arrears in Paballelo stood 1.9 million Rand. Evictions, arrests and repression followed. On 10 November 1985 the Paballelo Youth Organisation held a mass meeting to discuss these developments. That night, as she made her way home a pregnant young woman, Mariam Blaauw, was shot dead by police. On 12 November the Paballelo Parents Committee called a rally to protest against the killing and the wider repression in the township. Their rally was declared an ‘illegal gathering’ and police dispersed the crowd with teargas and rubber bullets. A rumour spread that the police would offer an explanation of these events the following day at the local football field. So, on 13 November 1985, a crowd of 4-5000 gathered at the football pitch expecting an official explanation of recent police actions. No sooner had the meeting opened with a prayer, than the police baton-charged the crowd and once again fired teargas. Later a crowd of several hundred people gathered outside the house of a local policeman. He opened fire, shooting a young boy, then tried to flee. He was caught by the crowd, disarmed and struck twice over the head with the butt of his own gun. These blows were fatal. In the months following Lucas ‘Jetta’ Sethwala’s death, the police arrested 39 local residents, seemingly at random, of whom 26 eventually stood trial.
On the first anniversary of their sentencing, 26 May 1990, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group organised a march through London to raise awareness of the Upington 14 and call for their release. The demonstration gathered at Highbury Fields in Islington and marched several miles through north and central London, culminating in a rally outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square.
In South Africa, the Upington 26 Campaign was formed by the friends and families of the accused. They campaigned for their release, but also worked to offer financial, moral and practical support to the families. Apart from legal expenses, the families faced enormous financial costs travelling over 600 miles across the country from Upington to visit their relatives on Death Row in Pretoria Central Prison. From the UK, City Group worked directly with the family campaign and took their lead on what the campaign’s aims and priorities should be from them. As well as campaigning politically for the release of the Upington 14, City Group was involved in fundraising for the families and encouraged its supporters to write to the prisoners.
City Group’s first major rally focused on the case took place on the Non-Stop Picket on 15 December 1989. Plans for the demonstration were put in place before the Non-Stop Picket ended (following Nelson Mandela’s release from jail); but, with the prospect of the Picket ending, the campaign for the Upington 14 became a major focus of City Group’s continuing political work. A special eight-page newsletter focusing solely on the case of the Upington 14 was produced in time for the last day of the Non-Stop Picket and the campaign was used as a hook to keep the group’s supporters involved in anti-apartheid solidarity work.
As part of the campaign, City Group funded a visit to the UK and the Netherlands by a member of the Upington 26 Campaign. Lydia Nompondwana, whose husband Enoch was one of the 26 and had been jailed for eight years, spend most of May 1990 on a speaking tour around the two countries. From 8 – 13 May, she toured the Netherlands hosted, I think, by the Azania Komitee. Her tour of the England and Scotland included meetings with the media, politicians, local anti-apartheid groups, community organisations, student unions and NGOs. The tour was focused on London but took in Newcastle, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Oxford and Dorset as well. Some of the meetings were intended to gain publicity for the campaign [see this report from New Internationalist from the time]; others to mobilize active support for the campaign; and still others had a more practical intention. Meetings with Oxfam and Traidcraft were designed to explore the possibilities for establishing community enterprises in Paballelo. Two days before the demonstration, at which she was the main speaker, Lydia Nompondwana accompanied City Group members to Downing Street to present 25,000 signatures on a petition in support of the Upington 14.
The speaking tour raised nearly £800 for the families’ campaign in Upington. City Group continued to campaign and raise funds for the families over the next two years. A week-long non-stop picket was held in May 1991 to mark the second anniversary of their sentencing.
City Group’s campaign for the Upington 14/26 clearly illustrates how the group operated as a solidarity organisation. They worked to build links with grassroots community campaigns inside South Africa wherever possible, and took their lead from them. Their solidarity work operated in several modes – they offered both political and material, financial, support. The campaign sought to publicize the case of the Upington 14 and, while City Group did not shy away from encouraging MPs, religious leaders and celebrities from intervening on behalf of the people of Upington, their emphasis was on mobilizing people to play an active role in the campaign. In many ways, this campaign also marked a departure for City Group, in addition to seeking immediate fund-raising for the families, they sought opportunities and support that could offer them longer term financial security (although it is not clear whether any of these projects were eventually enacted). The group’s campaigning made a real material difference for the families of the Upington 26. Lydia’s speaking tour enabled many British and Dutch people to hear first hand the experience of ordinary Black South Africans living under apartheid.
If anyone knows what happened to the Upington 26 after their release, or can put us in touch with any of them, Lydia or other former members of their campaign, please get in touch.