In July 1988 the Anti-Apartheid Movement held a vast fund-raising concert at Wembley Stadium to celebrate Nelson Mandela’s 70th birthday in the company of George Michael, Whitney Houston and other international stars.
The country’s second-largest anti-apartheid benefit concert of the year took place a month earlier at the Fridge in Brixton. On 9 June, 1400 people gathered in Brixton to hear The Wedding Present headline a benefit for the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. All tickets for the gig sold-out before the doors opened. The line up also featured The Gargoyles (two former members of The Housemartins). Tony Smith from Radio London and Chris McHallem (at that time playing ‘Rod’ in Eastenders) D.J.’d. The bands wore Non-Stop Picket t-shirts and encouraged their fans to join the Picket and, especially, to join the ‘Surround the Embassy’ protest planned for 16 June. While undoubtedly many fans just turned up for the music, this was a political benefit gig and it was relatively difficult to avoid its political message.
Previously, City Group’s fundraising benefits had been quite modest affairs, mostly consisting of amateur musicians who were already associated with the group in some shape or form. To line up one of the biggest indie bands of the time in a major music venue (rather than the auditorium of a civic building or the backroom of a pub) was a major coup for the group. Unlike the AAM’s Wembley extravaganza, the City Group benefit was organised by young volunteers from the group rather than professional event organisers.
While the funds raised on the night were modest compared to what the Mandela birthday concert collected, they were still significant for City Group. And, significantly, most of the profits were sent directly to South African liberation movements. In line with the group’s non-sectarian approach to solidarity, £1000 was sent to the ANC, £1000 to the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania, and £500 to the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania. The cheques were sent with the clear indication that there were no conditions placed on what the money could be spent on (a coded consent that the funds could be used for military purposes).
Benefit gigs are strange affairs. When organised well, they can be an effective means of raising funds for a campaigning organisation or, in the case of solidarity organisations, the groups and individuals they support. The additional funds sent to the PAC and BCMA as a result of this gig were appreciated and needed (it is less clear whether the ANC actually ever cashed the cheque sent to them…). I am less convinced about how effective benefits are as a means of spreading a political message to new audiences (or, more importantly, mobilizing that audience to take political action). The Surround the Embassy protest on 16 June 1988 was large and some new people were attracted to it and the Non-Stop Picket as a result of attending the gig. How many continued their involvement after that is open to question. Still, this gig was a major achievement for City Group and demonstrated the reputation that the Non-Stop Picket had gathered over the previous two years.
Here is photo of part of the large banner Dominic mentions in his comments on this post. The banner was painted originally as the backdrop for the benefit gig at the Fridge. This part of it was found, with many of the archival papers we have been analyzing for the research, in a cupboard at Larkin Publications that had not been opened for nearly twenty years. When we discovered it we could not place it at first, as it is far larger than any of the banners produced for display on the Non-Stop Picket.