Forging a spear in the side of imperialism (and re-assembling burnt-out activists)

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.

City Group members meet (pre- Non-Stop Picket) (Source: City 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.


About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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5 Responses to Forging a spear in the side of imperialism (and re-assembling burnt-out activists)


    Gavin was a lively one. He was always up to something. In the early days and months of the Non-Stop Picket he was still at school and had yet to complete his A-levels but he joined the picket and he was as politically motivated as the next man and woman. He was also a social being and he liked to hang out too. His heart was in the right place, he listened to the Smiths and he was a teenager and had a few hang-ups and insecurities. Just like everybody else. Not least this was the mid 1980s, that lost decade of shite and artifice, characterised by the brutalities of the Thatcher regime and the all-round naffness that pervaded much of merrie Englande. Remember for example that the only form of pasta available up until about 1982 was spaghetti, the days of penne and tagliatelle were yet to come.

    Anyway, Gavin became a regular on the NSP and he soon built up a solid Saturday afternoon shift that was populated for the most part by schoolkids, it was a Saturday afternoon after all. And it was a lively shift that mixed the fun stuff with the serious, and he maintained and built it for years. And all was well.

    Momentary interlude: there is much to like in your blog post above and i have done the fb “like” thing on it along with a number of others because it is mostly great. However it is sort of very slightly disingenuous to suggest that City AA was basically the Kitson family and the RCG and that was it. City Group was truly a broad church. There were the Kitsons and the RCG, but there were also Humanists, the WRP, little auld ladies from the CPGB, churchy types, liberals, anarchists, homeless people, schoolchildren, students, squatters. It’s not hyperbole when i say that there were some nights when the picket was dominated by drag queens who could not afford a taxi home and would wait till the first tube. And for example when Derek Hatton was in court (or maybe being expelled from the Labour Party, i can’t remember exactly) then those mornings there would be comrades from Militant who had come down from Liverpool to support him.

    Now, where your thing about the RCG is not at all disingenuous, truly, is that yes quite clearly the NSP would not have survived without the commitment of the RCG and the deployment of their resources, ie their people, their discipline etc. That may be controversial for some but fuck em, i don’t care because it’s true.

    One of the disparate types of the people involved in the NSP were the kind of street people. That maybe sounds perjorative but i don’t know how else to put it really. We were all broadly sort of dispossessed types but these guys were among the most dispossessed. They also tended not to be very political but they were for example often on the picket, especially during the difficult overnight shifts and these comrades saw themselves as the backbone of the picket and they had a point but only up to a point. And not least these were difficult times and the cops were hostile to us all until really just before the end. And people did what they could. Some people would stay for days on end. Or for hours on end for months and burn themselves out. Others had jobs or families and would maybe do one hour a week for four years. There were any number of possible permutations of this shift thing. But the picket was not organised from the picket, it was organised from the two weekly meetings and i spose the office too of course.

    I did not intend this to be an essay.

    Back to Gavin, or kind of. We all grew up a bit over the years, both in the traditional sense but also politically. Gavin as much as anybody and let’s not forget he was already a serious kind of a picketer. And there came a day when he wondered out loud whether he wanted to join the RCG. I say he wondered out loud but basically he said he was interested. And the RCG took him seriously, as indeed anybody would have and talked to him about it. But Gavin was also a social creature so he discussed it with his mates too, and that included the schoolchildren and the sort of lumpen street people. “Lumpen” is the wrong word of course but it is close to whatever the right word is. And it would be mean-spirited and uncomradely of me to mention names but this is broadly what went down. And the lumpens said “Nooooo. Communists are bad”.

    And Gavin became understandably conflicted. And this internal conflict got inflated too, and personal problems became political problems and political problems became personal problems. But just as Richard Burton put it in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf: “The huff had a puff but the puff went away”.

    A bit later Gavin became City Group Secretary and gave more and more of his time to the organisation.

    You may not like reading this but you did start it. I don’t mind if you want to delete it. I mean please do if that is what you’d like to do. It would not be a problem. We would still get to hang out once or twice a year and what have you.

    Epilogue: A bit later Nelson Mandela was released from jail. And a bit after that he came to London and walked across Trafalgar Square to the South African embassy hand in hand with Prince Andrew which was a bit of a surprise because Prince Andrew had never been particularly notable for turning up to his shifts on time. City Group were kind of not invited. But we went anyway.

    • Here’s the thing, I really like what Dom has written. There is a lot of truth in what Gavin says; there is a lot of truth in what Dom says. And you are both dear friends and that AGM in 1989 was something of a rallying cry for all of us still “doing stuff” on the picket. Personally at this point I was doing my “creche” shift – Saturday pm – plus Tuesday evening and then Thursday evening, or maybe it was vice versa, whatever. All I know is that as one of the later arrivals on the picket, July 1988, and as a politically naive 31 year old, I most definitely grew up politically during my time there.

      We were a disparate crew as Dom said. Most seemed to be searching for something or lost. Yep, even RCG members. And please don’t get me wrong, I have an immense appreciation for the work our comrades in the RCG put in – I even kinda carry on that appreciation as they continue their struggle to this day. Again though, as Dominic sort of says, having family commitments doesn’t always lend itself to a continued struggle against capitalism in all it’s inglorious might(sic).

      I hope that last paragraph doesn’t sound patronising, it’s certainly not meant to be.

      Like a lot of arrivals on the picket I was hit on by members of the RCG. But I’m not a Communist, I’m not that disciplined. If I had to be nailed down to anything I’d say I was an Anarchist Republican Socialist (of Love) – I have often thought of starting the ARSoLs, but I can’t be arsed.

      What we did outside S A House was immense. I lost count of the times I signed petitions there, before I joined the picket. I loved what we did; what I did. I am proud of it and I love the people I met there, some much more than others of course. I was one of the lost and lonely when I joined and I came away with friendships that have lasted to today, 25 years later. Hell, it was a beautiful thing kids, wasn’t it?


      • Cat Wiener says:

        It was a beautiful thing, but only like any collective act of solidarity is a beautiful thing, whether it was on the miners’ picket lines or amongst the communists of Cuba. If I have some kind of tension with what seems almost a hagiography of everyone’s time on the picket is that for some people is was ‘the beautiful thing’. But it only matters if we stay involved – for some people, like me, that means the RCG, because in the end once you have an anti-imperialist and communist world view, no other form of struggle makes sense – but for other people it might be local campaigns, other organisations, other forms of solidarity. What saddens and frustrates me is that for many, many people it was the last really political, collective and important thing they ever did. And I wonder why? (And don’t anyone give me the jobs/keeping a roof over your head/young children thing because I and others have been there too)

  2. Daniel Jewesbury says:

    That seems a bit sweeping Cat. I imagine that very many people who did good work on the picket (or work, at least, we can’t stand in judgement of its worth or merit here, at least not in these parentheses in this reply to your comment) have continued to fight in the ways they know. Or which are available to them. It strikes me as kind of unempirical to assert that loads of folk just gave up. One thing that cannot be underestimated is the importance of City Group’s organisational discipline. I have remained politically active but I have never been involved in another grouping with the same dynamism and power, I would venture that none of us, including those who are still members of the RCG or whoever. What political success can anyone, organised or not, anarchist, communist or socialist, point to in the last 20 years? Apart from Selman of course, that whole New Labour thing was kind of amazing…

  3. Pingback: Under a ‘false flag’: City Group and the troubling case of the SWAPO detainees | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

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