The Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London (1986 – 1990) existed to call for the release of Nelson Mandela (and all other political prisoners in apartheid South Africa). As I wrote last year, 18 July, Mandela’s birthday was a focus for protests and celebration on the Picket.
On Mandela’s 71st birthday in 1989, the words “Happy Birthday Mandela” were spray-painted in the black, green and gold colours of the ANC on the south wall of the South African Embassy. By painting those birthday greetings on the fabric of the Embassy, its legitimacy was challenged, with Mandela and the ANC, as representatives of the Black majority in South Africa, symbolically displacing the representatives of apartheid.
Celebrating Mandela’s birthday was an opportunity to acknowledge his contribution to the struggle against apartheid, but also to draw attention to the length of his imprisonment, marking the passing of time. To celebrate an imprisoned political leader’s birthday, though, is very different from many other forms of protest. By having a political birthday celebration, at times even including a birthday cake, the Non-Stop Picketers both renewed the focus of their protest and personalized it. Birthday celebrations tend to be intimate affairs shared by friends and family. When they are made public this intimacy is transformed, but not entirely lost. Although the national Anti-Apartheid Movement used the occasion of Mandela’s 70th birthday to highlight his case and gain both publicity and funds for the anti-apartheid cause, I would suggest that the celebrations on the Non-Stop Picket were different. Young people who had made a regular commitment of time to maintain a protest outside the South African Embassy until Mandela was released from jail were expressing a shared personal commitment to him and the cause he represented for them. These birthday celebrations forged a sense of personal connection between the picketers and Mandela.