Our friend, Andrew Privett died unexpectedly on Sunday 21st October. Andy (who used the name Gardner at the time) was a member of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, playing an active role in the Non-Stop Picket for most of its duration and contributing to key City Group campaigns in the years after the Non-Stop Picket ended. Andy recorded an interview for the Non-Stop Against Apartheid project in March of this year, and this obituary draws heavily on the stories he told that afternoon.
Andy stumbled across the Non-Stop Picket in June 1986, just a couple of months after it started. At the time, he was working as a residential social worker with adults with physical disabilities and complex needs. This was shift work and prevented him from committing to a single, regular shift on the Picket; nevertheless, he quickly committed to the Picket.
I started going to the Non-Stop Picket on a fairly regular basis in an informal way – I wasn’t on the rota. … I worked full-time and worked shifts. At some point in the day I would either be in the City Group office, at a meeting, or on the Non-Stop Picket. Everyday. It was very intense. I got caught up in City Group. It was like an extended family – I met some very interesting and important people in my life at the time. It educated me a great deal and that education has impacted on everything I’ve done since.
Quite quickly Andy took on responsibility as a chief steward on the Picket and later served as a ‘non-portfolio’ officer on City Group’s committee. I asked him to explain what it was about the Picket (apart from its anti-apartheid message) that was important to him at the time. Here’s what he said,
Wow! Over time, with that level of commitment to something, it becomes essential to your lifestyle. That shared experience – not just being on the Non-Stop Picket, but all that went with that – when you’ve been in a cell with someone, in a police van, or dragged off by the police with a group of people, your perspective and relationship transcends friendship – it’s comradeship (and I use that term specifically). You knew that if you were held at Cannon Row [Police Station], there would be people outside demonstrating – that gives you strength and was one of the most important things about City Group. It gave me a sense of importance and strength that I have carried with me into other politics. I remember why I’m doing it – because it’s right. That created a particular attitude to the police – not necessarily antagonistic, but I learned early on that, if you’re going to arrest me, you’re doing it for political reasons. … I’ll know what my rights are and expect dignity. That gave a huge sense of empowerment (individually and collectively).
Like many City Group activists, Andy did spend more than his fair share of time in the cells at Cannon Row and other police stations. He calculated that he had probably been arrested around a dozen times on the Picket – twice for police obstruction, four times for noise pollution (which was not technically an arrestable offence), and twice for threatening behaviour. When City Group was banned from protesting directly outside the Embassy in May 1987, and the Picket was forced to relocate to the steps of St. Martin-in-the-fields Church for two months, Andy was one of the activists who defied the ban, crossed the road, and attempted to re-establish the Picket’s right to protest where it chose. He was arrested six times for ‘disregarding Commissioner’s Directions’. As Andy said,
It was very daunting being arrested the first time – but I was carried through it by the empowering experience (I was seldom arrested alone) of singing in the cells, and people waiting outside for my release.
During his time in City Group, Andy took part in several direct actions. He remembered, in particular, the time when he and two others attempted to enact a citizen’s arrest on Pik Botha, the South African Foreign Minister during the final years of apartheid.
We did our research and found that visiting foreign ministers don’t have diplomatic immunity. He visited the South African Embassy and used the side entrance. The police had created a sterile area with barriers. We jumped over the barriers and ran towards him – I got within a foot. It was worrying, as I recall his security reaching under their jackets! I got grabbed by a policeman who started smashing my head against the embassy wall saying “Calm down! calm down!”
Andy’s most serious arrest in the course of his anti-apartheid activism came in November 1992 (after the end of the Non-Stop Picket). The South African Springboks rugby team were touring Britain. City Group (along with others) maintained that, despite the ongoing multi-party talks in South Africa, apartheid was not over, and the tour constituted a breach of the international sports boycott. They formed the Springbok Reception Committee. Andy was one of a group of nine activists – who became known as the Springbok 9 – arrested in the vicinity of the Welford Road rugby stadium in Leicester, where the Springboks were due to play a match. Here’s how Andy told the story:
The South African rugby team was coming to Leicester to play Leicester Tigers – to this day, the only time I go to Leicester is for demos or political meetings (although, banged up in a cell for three days, you don’t see so much of it!). We were saying nothing has changed – people are still living under apartheid, despite the thaw. The Springbok rugby team was an icon of apartheid South Africa – a very valid target. The background was that in the 1970s Peter Hain threw glass and nails onto a rugby pitch for the same reason. Our intention… was to do much the same. Nine of us drove up in a minibus with a conveniently fixed ladder on the back. But we were stopped by the police – someone had tipped them off. We were arrested and charged with “being in possession of articles likely to cause damage to the Leicester Rugby Football Ground”. It sounds innocuous enough, but it carried a maximum penalty of 10 years in prison. It was quite an experience! I was held for three days in Leicester, partly in Syston Street (now closed) and at Charles Street. We were released on bail with stringent conditions preventing our participation in any demonstration. We also had to report to the police on a regular basis – it was effectively a banning order. There was a two-week Crown court trial. We argued a political case. I remember arriving in court on the last day, carrying a little bag with my toothbrush in, fully expecting to get sent to prison – but there was a hung jury and the judge bound us over to keep the peace for two years – again, for two years my political activity was constrained.
At the time, it was quite a scary experience. But I have no regrets and I am extremely proud of my involvement in City Group.
Soon after the end of the Springbok 9 trial, with apartheid finally coming to an end, City Group ceased campaigning. Andy acknowledged that after such an extended period of intense activism he was burnt out and felt a sense of bereavement for the intense bonds fostered by the group over the years. For a while, partly as a result of his bind-over, Andy dropped out of active political campaigning, but that desire to fight injustice never left him. He spent five years living in France, where he had some involvement in local politics, before returning to the UK to live in Nottingham, where he cared for his elderly mother. In recent years, Andy had been highly active again, playing a key (and vocal, as ever) role in Nottingham Uncut and the local Unite Against Fascism branch, which he chaired. When a group of former City Group activists gathered at the Occupy London encampment outside St Paul’s Cathedral in late 2011, Andy was there and joined in singing South African freedom songs.
Andy claimed that his time in City Group had,
Shaped everything I do politically – direct action, non-sectarian solidarity, looking at broader perspectives and linking things.
Andy will be remembered by many people as a generous friend and loyal comrade, as well as for his loud voice, used to great effect on countless demonstrations over the last 25 years.