To commemorate the school students’ uprising in Soweto in 1976, British youth attempted to surround the South African embassy in London on 16 June 1988 and again the following year.
Young people were the backbone of the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy at the time, so it is not surprising that commemorations of the Soweto uprising should become the focus for their anti-apartheid solidarity. In this post I will recount the events of 16 June 1988 and 1989, but I start by examining the publicity material for these events to consider what that reveals about the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s approach to solidarity.
The leaflet for the 1989 Surround the Embassy protest opened with the following text:
At 7am on Wednesday 16 June 1976, thousands of black students assembled for a march through Soweto in South Africa in protest at Bantu Education – the enforced teaching of Afrikaans, the racist wite [sic] minority’s oppressor language. The students began to march to the Orlando Stadium when the ‘Security’ Forces opened fire with guns and grenades on a crowd armed with banners, placards and slogans. Hector Peterson, 13 years old, was the first to be murdered.
The anger of the demonstrators then exploded. They built barricades, stoned the police, put government buildings and property to flame, they burnt down the offices of the Bantu administration. The uprisings continued for three days and spread up and down the country, while police massacred more than 1000 youth.
In many ways, this is a fairly standard summary of the events in Soweto that day. The story, at least as told in the opening paragraph, has been told many times in similar terms. The second paragraph begins to take a different turn. It presents the school students of Soweto as active agents of resistance to apartheid, not passive victims. They fought back and escalated the rebellion, we are told. As Eric Selbin (2010) has recently argued, the stories told about struggles against injustice powerfully shape how other people respond to those events. The school students of Soweto are presented here as rebellious political actors, not simply as the victims of an oppressive injustice. British youth are, by implication, invited to emulate them and take action against apartheid, rather than offer humanitarian sympathy.
The next paragraph of the flier is equally significant, both in terms of how it presents the Sowetan youth, and for its presentation of City Group’s approach to solidarity:
Many thousands of youth secretly left the country in the following months to join the armed struggle with APLA and Umkhonto we Sizwe. Steve Biko was murdered for his part in organising the demonstration. Zephania Mothopeng, President of the Pan Africanist Congress, has only just recently been released from prison for his part in organising the demonstration.
City Group and the Non-Stop Picket were committed to offering ‘non-sectarian’ solidarity to all political tendencies fighting apartheid in South Africa. That commitment is exemplified in this text. APLA, the military wing of the Pan-Africanist Congress, are mentioned before the (better known) armed wing of the ANC. The significant role of leaders from the Black Consciousness and Pan-Africanist traditions in inspiring the uprising is unambiguously acknowledged through the naming of Biko and Mothopeng. In practice, although City Group genuinely supported all political tendencies in the liberation movement, by the time this text was written (1989), as the London ANC continued to distance itself from the Non-Stop Picket, a very close working relationship had developed between City Group’s core activists and exiled members of both the PAC and BCM(A).
Of the two protests I’m focusing on here, the 1988 attempt to surround the embassy was the more successful (although whether it was actually ‘surrounded’ is open to debate). That Thursday evening, 1500 people gathered outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square. The numbers were undoubtedly swelled by the publicity that had accompanied the previous week’s benefit gig by The Wedding Present. In the spirit of the Soweto uprising, as the rally opened it was chaired by Daniel, an active member of City Group’s Youth and Student subgroup, then aged 15. He introduced a variety of speakers that evening including, Zolile Keke from the PAC, Norma Kitson, Peter Tatchell and John Mitchell (the General Secretary of the Irish trade union IDATU). In between these speakers, and enlivened by the music of Batucada Mandela and the Horns of Jericho, a crowd of several hundred people encircled the embassy three times, before flowers were laid on its gates and 600 black balloons were released. At this point, the Metropolitan Police’s Territorial Support Group were brought in and used to move protestors from in front of the embassy gates. They forcefully pushed and dragged peaceful protestors out of the way. Some were physically picked up and thrown over the crowd control barriers and one was dragged backwards by the placard strung round her neck. Four key City Group activists were arrested in the process, with a fifth being arrested later in the evening. John Mitchell said at the time, “the savagery of the police attack on the peaceful picket was the worst I have witnessed since I saw Marcos’ troops batter workers in the Philippines,” (Non-Stop Against Apartheid, No 19, July 1988).
The following year’s Soweto commemoration rally was a smaller affair, attracting a crowd of around 400. On this occasion, City Group could not even pretend to have surrounded the embassy (although that had been its intention). However, once again the bulk of the crowd did march around the perimeter of the Embassy before seventeen volunteers (myself included) lined up in front of the embassy gates and turned round the generic placards we were holding to spell out “Free the Upington 26.” Under cover of this visual (decoy) protest, three activists chained themselves to the embassy gates before being quickly cut loose by the police. There were no arrests.
The Soweto commemoration rallies on the Non-Stop Picket provided a focus for British youth to show their solidarity with young people resisting apartheid in South Africa. In the months running up to 16 June each year, City Group activists toured youth groups and student unions mobilising support for their actions. In remembering the youth of Soweto, the Surround the Embassy protests provided City Group with the opportunity to publicly practice its non-sectarian approach to anti-apartheid solidarity and acknowledge the achievements of the Black Consciousness tradition and the Pan Africanist Congress.