Many of the stories posted on this blog recount tales of daring and defiance or celebrate political victories. It is important to remember those stories, but any attempt to seriously tell the history of a social movement also has to examine the more mundane, possibly boring, aspects of political activism. Protests seldom happen spontaneously; they need organizing. To make a protest happen a whole range of people, ideas and resources need to be mobilized. More than this, even before leaflets can be written, publicity distributed, props assembled and potential participants contacted, the political situation needs to be analysed and assessed, strategic priorities need to be reviewed and tactical decisions reached. In other words, meetings happen…
Over the weekend of 23/24 September 1989, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group held its Annual General Meeting. Although no-one could know for sure at the time, it was to be the last annual general meeting the group held before the end of its Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy. Although the meeting ended up agreeing a busy programme of action for the year ahead, it took place at the end of a tense and disorientating time for City Group. Following de Klerk’s ascension to the leadership of the National Party earlier in the summer, the situation in South Africa was moving fast. City Group had been responding dynamically to these events and had just pulled off one of its most dramatic protests to date, when hundreds of the group’s supporters blocked the road outside the Embassy in protest at the white-only election in South Africa on 6 September. Simultaneously, time was passing slower and slower for many City Group activists as it was becoming increasingly difficult to sustain the Non-Stop Picket as a continuous protest. With some shifts on the Picket’s rota becoming increasingly difficult to cover, and growing numbers of people failing to turn up for their regular shifts (including some high-profile members of the group’s committee) a potent combination of political tension and interpersonal frustration was growing within the group.
Carol Brickley, City Group’s convenor opened the meeting with a speech that analysed recent events in South Africa, reviewed the tasks of a solidarity organisation in Britain and sought to unite the group’s membership behind a programme of action for the coming period. This session of the meeting was attended by Rodwell Mzontane, the Chief Representative of the Pan-Africanist Congress of Azania in the UK at the time. He contributed the perspectives of the PAC to the debate. Carol opened her speech with the following observations:
It has been a year in South Africa where the struggle has again escalated. Events throughout the year have reminded us that the militancy that was demonstrated in the country in ’84/’85 is still there, still exists, and is still ready to come to the fore. The state of emergency and the repression that followed the ’84/’85 uprising has failed to quell the aspirations of the black people in South Africa.
This year has been marked by a major offensive by the imperialists in relation to Southern Africa. The situation within the country and within the region has to be viewed as part of that international imperialist offensive, in particular by US and British imperialism. Thatcher and the Reagan/Bush administration are crusading throughout the world to destroy the influence of socialism and communism. That shouldn’t be seen just as a question of how much they loathe the notion of democracy. It is not a purely ideological question. It is not simply a hatred of socialism that motivates them. What is going on in Southern Africa, and indeed throughout the world, is a drive to establish new markets for capitalist exploitation without which imperialism cannot survive. … So, imperialism is searching for a solution to the question of apartheid, not on behalf of the black people of South Africa but on behalf of its own moneybags, on behalf of its own profits. (Speech reprinted in Non-Stop Against Apartheid 36, pg 5).
The clarity and power of this anti-imperialist analysis is notsurprising – Carol Brickley was a long-standing member of the RevolutionaryCommunist Group. Although City Group was never simply a front organisation forthe Revolutionary Communist Group (as many in the Anti-Apartheid Movement, andmore broadly on the British Left, suggested at the time), they in alliance withNorma and David Kitson ensured that City Group was guided by anti-imperialistperspectives. It is these politics, as much as the group’s dynamic commitmentto street-based politics and direct action, that differentiated City Group from the mainstream Anti-Apartheid Movement.
In the context of that AGM, however, Carol’s analysis served another purpose too. In the weeks and months leading up to the meeting a group of young picketers (myself included) had become increasingly frustrated with the behaviour of some members of the RCG and – for right or wrong – projected all the problems of the Non-Stop Picket on to that group as a whole. Undoubtedly, anti-communist sentiments motivated some of those critiques, but many raising those concerns understood themselves as anti-capitalists in some shape or form. Carol’s speech spoke to them. The message was clear – if you are committed to the liberation of the Black Majority in South Africa, don’t allow ‘imperialism’ to force a wedge between you and your communist comrades. It was an effective strategy. Although the AGM did not resolve all the tensions within the group, it did serve to united the vast majority of City Group’s core activists behind a shared programme of action.
Carol concluded her speech with this call to action
City AA will have a hard task in 1990. Most British people will be easily convinced that apartheid is ending and that it is time to furl our banners. We have a different view. Solidarity with the liberation struggle and our capacity to undermine imperialism in its heartland will be more important in the coming year, as imperialism strives to rescue South Africa for itself at the eleventh hour… We have to go forward to a better organised, better politically focused City Group which is going to prove more than a thorn in apartheid’s side… let us start by making it into a spear in the side of imperialism. (Speech reprinted in Non-Stop Against Apartheid 36, pg 5).
With that challenge ringing in their ears, the fifty activists gathered in that room went on to debate and commit themselves to a punishing schedule of campaigning. They planned a renewed campaign for a consumer boycott of South African goods, committed to continued active protests in support of the sports boycott, and pledged to hold a national demonstration in support of the Upington 14 in March 1990. Even though it is clear in hindsight that many of the activists in the room were experiencing burn-out at the time, after sustaining the Non-Stop Picket continuously for more than three years, the group renewed its commitment to being ‘non-stop against apartheid’. As we record further interviews with former City Group activists over the coming months, we will perhaps gain a clearer picture of the human costs that that renewed commitment entailed. Even so, the September 1989 Annual General Meeting, and Carol Brickley’s speech at it, was successful in re-assembling the different constituencies within City Group to continue working together in solidarity with those resisting apartheid in South Africa.