The Phantom of the Opera takes a stand against apartheid

When the leader of the South African National Party (and future President) F.W. De Klerk visited London in June 1989 he was greeted with anti-apartheid protests everywhere he went.  Members of both the national Anti-Apartheid Movement and the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group joined the protests and took direct action against his visit.

On 20 June, as De Klerk flew into London, the AAM mobilised a demonstration of 800 people, at short notice, who marched from the University of London Student Union on Malet Street to Jubilee Gardens on the Southbank led by the ANC Choir.  The rally at the end of the demonstration was addressed by Peter Manning of SWAPO and Aziz Pahad of the ANC.  Albertina Sisulu, representing the United Democratic Front, issued the following call to British supporters:

F.W. De Klerk is trying to convince the international community that he is a reformist…  De Klerk does nothing in South Africa. We know him as an apartheid man. He has supported renewal of the State of Emergency…  I say to you Britons, chase him out of the country. We beg of you. Please press your government whether she [Thatcher] likes it or not. Put pressure for sanctions.

The following day, both City Group and the AAM protested outside the South African Embassy where De Klerk was holding meetings.  The AAM kept a discreet distance from City Group’s Non-Stop Picket.  At 7.15pm, as De Klerk left the embassy by the side door, the noisy protest got even louder, ensuring he could not escape from anti-apartheid slogans.  As he was driven away, Frank, a City Group supporter was arrested trying to reach his car.

ANC members protest alongside City Group outside the South African Embassy (Source: City Group)

De Klerk’s next stop that evening was supposed to be Her Majesty’s Theatre where he was due to attend a performance of The Phantom of the Opera.  City Group were there waiting for him, but De Klerk never showed up.  Presumably, his entourage had been tipped off that the cast of the musical were refusing to entertain him – exercising sanctions against South Africa in the best way they could.

The protests continued, relentlessly, on Friday 23 June.   Early in the morning, two AAM activists were arrested at De Klerk’s hotel for allegedly spraying anti-apartheid graffiti over three floors of the hotel.  Three more AAM activists were arrested later outside Downing Street as they ran towards De Klerk’s car.  At the Embassy, City Group’s Convenor, Carol Brickley and another activist, Amanda, were arrested for highway obstruction, removed to Rochester Row police station and later released without charge. This was interpreted by City Group at the time as a preventative arrest to halt their protest. Subsequently, Carol took legal action against the police for wrongful arrest. Later that evening, following her release, Carol was still protesting.  She led a group of ten City Group activists and a megaphone on a walk around De Klerk’s hotel, still serenading him with anti-apartheid songs and slogans.

Although De Klerk had used his first speech after assuming the leadership of the National Party in February 1989 to call for negotiations with the ANC towards a non-racial South Africa, he was still widely viewed as conservative within the South African establishment.  British anti-apartheid activists vociferously protested his visit to London, as a leading representative of the apartheid regime.  For the ANC, who were already in secret talks with the South African government, the protests were undoubtedly a small but useful bargaining chip.  The long-running tensions between the national Anti-Apartheid Movement and City Group were evident just below the surface of events that week, but in practice, some degree of collaboration occurred on the ground. The exhausting schedule of protests demonstrates something of the urgency and dynamism that City Group fostered amongst its supporters – being non-stop against apartheid – and for that week, even more than normal, that’s what they were.

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About Gavin Brown

Lecturer in Human Geography University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research and tagged , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to The Phantom of the Opera takes a stand against apartheid

  1. I remember the protest at De Klerk’s hotel. We walked around it about 10 times before the police actually realised what we were up to. It was fun, we’d sing and stop as they came to see what was going on and then start again as soon as they disappeared round the corner again. Like I say, great fun.

    There was rather sinister under tones though. Each roof of each building bordering the hotel and the roof of the hotel itself, had armed police plus what appeared to be armed South African officers, you know the kind with “bulges” at the side of their chests. There was a small protest opposite the hotel on the other side of the road – was it the Palace Hotel by Marble Arch? – but we got on to the side the hotel was on by just pushing past the police (wish I could remember who I was with, I know Carol was there, but can’t think who else.) It was eery seeing the faces looking from the roof of the hotel and seeing the marksmen on top of the other buildings was a tad off-putting!

  2. Dave Steward says:

    Well, the protesters were wrong weren’t they? De Klerk did turn out to be a reformist didn’t he? I was in London at the time of the visit and can assure readers that the protests had very little impact on De Klerk. I just hope that all those AAM protesters will oppose anti-democratic and anti-constitutional tendencies in present-day SA with equal vehemence.
    Dave Steward

  3. Is today a slow news day for the FW de Klerk Foundation? What happens, you get google alerts for FW, but you don’t get too many and you don’t have much else to do? Does the FW Foundation pay you a grubby salary to complain about the ANC? I have no idea but i suspect your foundation is full of crap. Here’s an idea that may improve things for the vast majority of South Africans.. maybe start by redistributing the land among the people, just an idea really, instead of whining about your good auld days when you had it all

  4. Pingback: Recent and forthcoming talks | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

  5. Pingback: Under a ‘false flag’: City Group and the troubling case of the SWAPO detainees | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

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