The main focus of this blog is the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy from April 1986 until February 1990. That picket was not, however, the first Non-Stop Picket of the London embassy. At 1pm on 25 August 1982, the City Branch of the Anti-Apartheid Movement (as it was then) launched a Non-Stop Picket of South Africa House calling for the release of David Kitson and all political prisoners in South African jails. The date had been deliberately chosen, it was David’s 63rd birthday.
When Steve Kitson was detained in South Africa in 1981 while visiting his father in jail, Norma Kitson and her friends launched the Free Steve Kitson Campaign to publicly embarrass the South African government and secure his release. That campaign, which was successful, drew scores of new activists into anti-apartheid campaigning through its protests outside the South African Embassy. It led to the formation of what became the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. Although not condemned to death, Dave Kitson had been moved to a cell on death row in Pretoria Central Prison in 1979 as part of a collective punishment for the escape of three political prisoners from Pretoria Local prison. His health rapidly deteriorated and his family became increasingly frustrated by the refusal of the British Foreign Office to intervene on his behalf and secure a move to more appropriate conditions.
As Norma Kitson recounted in her autobiography, Where Sixpence Lives (1987), the idea of picketing the embassy non-stop was first raised by her, in exasperation, during a particularly frustrating phone call with a Foreign Office official. She was, of course, aware that campaigns that raised the profile (outside South Africa) of anti-apartheid political prisoners had effects, and had previously led to improvements in the conditions they were held under. She threatened that if the prisoners were not moved within three months, she would start picketing the embassy. Her children, Steve and Amandla were sold on the idea and they set about convincing City Group members, most of whom were also enthusiastic about the proposal. With three months to plan for the picket, City Group members set about reorganising their lives so that they could commit time to the ongoing protest. Hundreds of letters were sent out to MPs, trade unions and other potential sympathisers mobilizing support for the planned picket.
Norma always claimed that she received clearance to launch the picket from Ruth Mompati, the ANC Chief Representative in London at the time, although Mompati later denied that permission had been granted. After the initial publicity had been circulated, with the slogan “Free all South African political prisoners; Save David Kitson’s life”, Mompati instructed the Kitsons not to circulate further material without her clearance. With Mompati apparently out of the country until after the planned launch of the Picket, Norma Kitson attempted to take guidance from other sources.
In desperation I arranged to see Sonia Bunting, head of the ANC political prisoners committee. She said we could go ahead with a family campaign for David, but not mention the other prisoners – that as the work of her committee. I said I could not separate David from the movement to which he was giving his life. Sonia arranged a meeting with Mike Terry of the Anti-Apartheid Movement. He said if I was campaigning only for David, the AAM could not participate in the picket. The AAM was set up for all political prisoners. It was catch-22. (Kitson 1987: 269)
The Non-Stop Picket went ahead, but within days MPs, councillors and trade unionists started reporting that they had been contacted by the ANC telling them not to support the Picket. Norma Kitson’s attempts to seek further clarification from the London ANC and resolve the matter were, reportedly, met with silence and obstruction.
The first continuous Picket had many similarities with the Non-Stop Picket that started four years later. Much of what became City Group’s approach to solidarity work, including the use of strong, colourful visual material, and a lively, noisy culture of song and chanting developed during the Picket in 1982. There were crucial differences, though. In 1982 the night shift slept on pavement while people took turns on security detail. Thanks to the intervention of Lord Gifford, the police allowed a small cluster of chairs – the lounge – to be used on the picket. Over the course of the Picket, City Group grew and drew in new groups of supporters. As Norma Kitson described,
At first we were a thin line of City Group members and friends of our family, but soon people passing by, students from colleges, schools and dole queues joined us, and stayed. Many came as shy individuals, knowing little about South Africa. Amandla’s powerful voice rang our, chanting slogans and calling on people to sign the petition. Steven and I taught liberation songs, and we soon became a family. (Kitson 1987: 270)
In her autobiography, Norma acknowledges that when the picket started she was scared of many of the young people it attracted and she favoured older, proven campaigners to take the lead in organising the protest. But, she also celebrates the way in which the young picketers (often teenagers) quickly educated themselves about apartheid, took political initiative, and took responsibility for stewarding the picket.
On 8 November 1982,, David Kitson and the other prisoners were moved from death row to more suitable prison accommodation. The picket organised a victory rally to celebrate. Having won its first demand, and in the face of continuing hostility from the London ANC, Norma Kitson and other leading members of City Group proposed that the picket should end. The suggestion was not universally popular – many of the new, younger picketers wanted to keep going. On 18 November, by a slim majority City Group’s membership voted to end the first Non-Stop Picket. It had lasted 86 days, but the culture of solidarity and organising that it had fostered served City Group well as they continued campaigning against apartheid for a further 12 years. The longevity of the 1986-1990 Non-Stop Picket would probably not have been achievable were it not for the lessons learnt in 1982.