Let’s face it, although there was lots of excitement to be had on the Non-Stop Picket, sometimes the hours dragged by slowly and picketing could be boring. But, that wasn’t always a bad thing. Sometimes periods of boredom led to moments of creativity. On Tuesday 4 September, I spoke at an event in Bristol on Creative practice, activism and place-identities. My talk was called”Creating solidarity: performance and material culture in British anti-apartheid direct action” Originally I planned just to celebrate the songs, banners, placards and creative acts of protest that were used and developed on the Non-Stop Picket – but, as I came to think further about my talk and start writing it, boredom crept in.
I ended up talking about how this set of creative practices contributed to the distinct culture of solidarity articulated through the Picket. But, I also attempted to describe the temporality of being ‘non-stop against apartheid’ and consider how different experiences of time on the Picket might have contributed to that culture of creative solidarity. The seminar participants were treated to photos of the Picket and some of the surviving banners, alongside audio clips of City Group Singers singing. Although I suspect some of the sound clips and imagery I presented as part of the talk looked and sounded quite exciting, I also also tried to introduce boredom into my presentation. In talking about boredom, I wanted to recognise that time committed to the Picket could move tediously slowly and that creative forms of activism were generated to break or alleviate these moments of boredom.
Singing and dancing helped pass the time and helped picketers to keep warm through long winter shifts. When there were few passers-by around to engage in political discussion, or ask to sign the petition for Mandela’s release, picketers sometimes made up songs and raps about the anti-apartheid struggle, or celebrating their own experiences of being on the Picket. On hearing the news of the assassination of President Samora Machel of Mozambique (by South African forces), the picketers spontaneously devised a simple, haunting song in his memory. On another occasion, the picketers generated their own lyrics to the tune of Spitting Image’s ‘Chicken Song’ (itself a parody of Black Lace’s summer holiday hit ‘Agadoo”).
Hold a tyre in the air
And a match in the other hand
Get the petrol out and then burn the racist rand
Support the striking miners and blow up a train
if you do it wrong
You can start it all again…
– the lyrics evolved over time, charting some of the more ludicrous arrests on the Picket “throw a daffodil and get charged with police assault… .” There were also raps celebrating the women on the Picket and pillorying some of the more aggressive and notorious officers from Cannon Row police station responsible for policing the Picket. Although not all of these songs might have been developed on the Picket in dull moments, they are indicative of how humour and other creative expressions were used there.
Although the theme of the seminar was ostensibly about creative activism and place, several of the other speakers also addressed issues of time and temporality. These topics were picked up in Paul Routledge’s keynote ‘Manifesto for creative activism’ which implored activists never to wait (or ask permission) before taking action (amongst much, much more). In a different register, the passing of time was also addressed in J-D Dewsbury’s paper on timing and repetition in the humour of Stewart Lee. That talk approached took an unconventional definition of activism, and yet contained some interesting reflections on the micropolitics of humour.
In summary, then, I argued that the Non-Stop Picket was colourful and noisy. Visual imagery, craft production and song were central to the Picket’s culture of solidarity. The Picket’s minimal physical infrastructure of banners, placards and few storage boxes was used to maximum effect to communicate its opposition to apartheid. Singing and chanting were used to disrupt the work of the embassy, express solidarity with those resisting apartheid in South Africa, but also to pass the time. Many of the songs sung on the Picket came from the struggle in South Africa and were sung in London as an act of solidarity with distant cultures of resistance, but new songs and raps were developed on the Picket, often during quiet night shifts.
This creative activism was as entangled with the affects and temporalities of sustaining the Non-Stop Picket as a long-term activist project, as much as it stemmed from a desire to communicate a political cause in accessible forms. Those picketers who were involved for the duration were committed to keeping the Non-Stop Picket going ‘non-stop’ until Mandela was released. That was an urgent task for them, but it became a far longer project than most expected at the beginning. Although regular shifts on the Picket could be fun, could be exciting, time could also drag and shifts could be boring. Creative expressions of solidarity both helped attract new participants and strengthen the bonds and shared commitments between existing picketers. They had a performative effect in gelling the group as a solidarity collective. Over time, songs and chants were repeated so frequently that they are amongst the aspects of the Picket that participants remember most clearly.