Over the last year, the Non-Stop Against Apartheid research project has collected many stories from people who participated in the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in London between April 1986 and February 1990. Those stories have come through interviews we’ve recorded, email correspondence and comments left on this blog. There are still many more to collect, but we are getting a broad picture of life on the Non-Stop Picket from the picketers’ perspective.
What we have been less successful in recording are the perspectives of other people who were affected in different ways by the Non-Stop Picket: the embassy staff, the police who guarded the embassy, and the other Londoners who lived and worked in the area of Trafalgar Square at the time. We’ve put some work into addressing all of these areas, but so far without much to show for our efforts.
Our attempt to contact retired Cannon Row police officers through their retired staff association led to flat denials that Cannon Row had anything to do with policing protests at the South African Embassy (despite one or two comments on their website remembering how the irritation of dealing with the picketers was off-set by the large amounts of overtime earned). A Freedom of Information Act request to the Metropolitan Police Service has so far yielded nothing.
Luckily, the archival material we have access to does offer some partial glimpses into how the Non-Stop Picket was viewed by the police and the Embassy. Amongst the legal papers retained in the City Group archive are witness statements by police officers responsible for arresting picketers at various times. Read in conjunction with the statements of the arrestees and other witnesses, these provide the opportunity to reconstruct events from multiple perspectives. What they don’t offer us, though, is an insight into what it felt like to police the Picket over that four-year period. If, by chance, you are a retired police officer reading this who served at Cannon Row or Bow Street in the period (1986 – 1990) and regularly guarded South Africa House, please get in touch to share your story.
The archival material also offers us some clues as to how the Embassy staff experienced the Non-Stop Picket on their doorstep. The following is an extract from a letter (released by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office under a Freedom of Information Act request a few years ago) from a civil servant at the FCO to their counterpart in the Home Office, reporting concerns raised by the Embassy in August 1986:
As you know, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (CLAAG) has been mounting a “vigil” since late April outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square. The CLAAG has said that it will maintain the demonstration until Nelson Mandela is released. The group involved is small (normally less than a dozen people) but makes frequent and vociferous use of a loud-hailer.
The South African Ambassador has complained many times since April to the Foreign Office about the noise (the demonstrators are on the pavement beneath the Ambassador’s window. ___ has also complained about the abusive slogans chanted by demonstrators and about their banners
Of course, in addition to sharing information about the history of apartheid and current events in South Africa, the Non-Stop Picket’s use of the megaphone was intended to disrupt the normal business of the South African Embassy. Few who participated in the protest will be unhappy or embarrassed that they caused the Ambassador and his staff irritation and discomfort. Given that one of the key demands of the Picket was the closure of the Embassy, that was their aim. But the vociferous noise of the protests will have impacted on the lives of other people in the area.
We know that many people who lived and worked in the Trafalgar Square/Charing Cross/Leicester Square area were supportive of the Non-Stop Picket and some joined it. Others took sport in vocally opposing it and debating the merits of apartheid with participants. Many people will have been more ambivalent towards the Picket. If you lived or worked in the area at the time, we would love to hear your memories of the Non-Stop Picket – what did you think of it and the people who were involved? Did you have any contact with it? How, if at all, did it impact on your life? Please complete the short form here and share your memories.