It is no secret that, in addition to researching the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy, I was a participant in that protest as a teenager. It is no secret either that in the final years of the Picket I was on the committee of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group that organised the protest. It is no secret (and probably no surprise) that there were people I picketed alongside who I had personal and political differences with (and they with me). Even at a distance of more than two decades some of those personal and political entanglements can be tricky to negotiate through the research process.
I have noticed (and other people have pointed out to me) that the pronouns I use when writing this blog shift from time to time. Frequently, I write about City Group and the Non-Stop Picket in the third person – they; sometimes I am consciously reflecting on my own experiences and write in the first person singular – I; but, occasionally, I slip into the first person plural, including myself in the ‘we‘ of the Non-Stop Picket. That is, perhaps, inevitable – as well as having an intense political commitment to the Picket’s cause, the longer I participated in it, the more it became the centre of my social life during those years. The more time I spend around ex-City Group people, the more I realise that (even after twenty years) I still feel part of that collective, that ‘we’. These are people I shared intense experiences with; people I share common political assumptions with (even though we have all followed different trajectories in the intervening years); and, people I trust. Balancing those close political and emotional bonds with my role as a critical academic researcher can be fraught. We all want to share the good memories, but thinking through our failures and the things we could have done better or differently is a painful and touchy subject (for us all).
Writing in a disembodied, dispassionate way about the Picket was never really going to happen for me, but there have been times over the last year when attempting to write critically about those times has been harder than I anticipated. From the start of the project, I recognised that I would find it almost impossible to offer anything approaching an objective assessment of what the Non-Stop Picket achieved. I was most interested in retrieving and recording the history of the Non-Stop Picket, collecting narratives from participants and considering what impact being ‘non-stop against apartheid’ has had on their (our) subsequent lives. Recognising that the Non-Stop Picket played an infinitesimal small role in securing the release of Nelson Mandela and ending apartheid, does not diminish the transformative effect that standing in solidarity outside the embassy had on the lives of picketers. Neither does it deny that the existence and persistence of the Picket was a boost to those South Africans resisting apartheid who managed to hear about it. The Non-Stop Picket’s solidarity had material effects in London, South Africa and elsewhere and it helped generate new ways of understanding and engaging with the world for many of the people who came into contact with it. Understanding those processes and outcomes is what I am most interested in, rather than either measuring the Picket’s ‘success’ or assessing the validity of its political stance.
A year into this research, though, I realise how much I was fooling myself that I could avoid being drawn back into political arguments from those days. The personal and political tensions with other Non-Stop Picketers have mellowed considerably (for me, at least), but I find I am still passionate about many aspects of the politics City Group espoused and the way it framed its solidarity work. I find myself reappraising (and, occasionally, re-energised by) political concepts I thought I had rejected long ago. I still believe that City Group was correct to offer ‘non-sectarian’ solidarity to all those fighting apartheid in South Africa and to refuse to be complicit in the side-lining and silencing of those anti-apartheid militants who did not share the ANC leadership’s political perspectives. Even though I may not agree with all aspects of their politics (now or then), I am proud that City Group extended solidarity to members of the Pan-Africanist Congress, the Black Consciousness Movement and AZAPO, and others outside the ANC mainstream. In these respects, I am still very much part of the City Group ‘we’, even if in hindsight I now have more complex understandings of these debates than I did at the time.
The four years I spent on the Non-Stop Picket played a powerful role in shaping the political perspectives I have carried with me throughout my adult live. Those have developed and changed over the years, but I can trace the roots of many of my beliefs to that period. Inevitably, as we have conducted the archival phase of the project, I have found references to my teenage self in the papers – notes I wrote in the picket logbook, notes about me in the same log, and letters I drafted and signed on behalf of the group. Re-reading those letters I realise how empowered I felt to be part of the Non-Stop Picket, how it allowed me to develop and practice a range of skills I have used in the decades since. But I also squirm at times, as I realise how that empowered teenager could also be quite pompous and officious. I feel twangs of guilt (and sometimes irritation) when I find myself confronted by records of events when others felt I had let them down. When I read those papers in conjunction with my personal diary from the time, I remember that I was fundamentally still a teenager – having wild and slightly risky adventures with his mates, pushing the boundaries of what I could get away with, and caught up in late adolescent conflicts with my parents. Looking back, I have more understanding of (and sympathy for) the concerns they voiced about my involvement with the Picket at the time.
The Non-Stop Picket offered me a space in which to develop my emerging political beliefs and commitments. It gave me a space where I felt I belonged and where I could experiment with being the person I wanted to be. It was also a space where I could escape from aspects of my life that I didn’t like. While I value so much of what I learned in the process, looking back I also wish I’d done more to confront (rather than avoid) some of the things I was running away from at the time. The process of researching and writing about the Picket continues to be a complex personal, political and intellectual journey through the different time-spaces of my life. While it is uncomfortable at times, I have relished the opportunity for reflection and reappraisal. I also appreciate how, through comments posted on this site and conversations elsewhere, other City Group veterans have continued to make that a collective process. We may not always agree with each other, but we are still a ‘we’.