This last week has also marked the fifteenth anniversary of the untimely death of Steven Kitson. Steve, the son of Norma and David Kitson, died of cancer at the age of 40 on 12 November 1997. Like his parents, Steve was a fervent campaigner against apartheid. He was a keen amateur musician and it is through his music that Steve may have made his most lasting impact on British social movement activism.
Steve was born in London; but, as an infant, returned to South Africa with his parents in 1959, when they decided to deepen their involvement in the anti-apartheid struggle. His father, a member of the second High Command of Umkhonto we Siswe (the armed wing of the ANC), was arrested in 1963 and sentenced to twenty years in gaol the following year. Along with his mother and sister, Amandla, Steve endured two years of constant police harassment in South Africa following his father’s imprisonment before Norma moved her young family to London. Each December, from the age of sixteen, he used the holiday period to return to South Africa to visit David.
On 6 January 1982, while visiting his father in gaol in Pretoria, Steve was detained by the South African authorities, accused of being an ANC courier and breaching prison security by sketching the institution. Steve was violently interrogated – tortured – during his detention. Norma and her colleague at Red Lion Setters, Carol Brickley (a member of the Revolutionary Communist Group), quickly mobilised everyone they could think of to demand Steve’s freedom. The Free Steven Kitson Campaign was a success and he was released after six days. Within hours of phoning London with news of his release, Steve’s aunt, Joan Weinberg (Norma’s older sister), was murdered in her flat in Johannesburg. With Norma and the children in London, Joan had been David’s most frequent visitor throughout his imprisonment. Her killers were never found; indeed, they were never sought.
During its brief existence, the Free Steven Kitson Campaign drew scores of new people into anti-apartheid campaigning for the first time. In order not to lose this momentum, it was decided to transform the campaign into the City Of London Anti-Apartheid Group. Steve played an active role in City Group over the years. On both the 86-day picket of the South African Embassy in 1982 and the Non-Stop Picket four years later, as well as many protests in between, Steve taught picketers South African liberation songs. He frequently performed with City Group Singers. For many years he was a member of City Group’s committee, often working tirelessly in the office on the group’s financial and membership records, as well as contributing to its political leadership. He used his software skills to develop a membership database for the group at a time when few comparable organisations could invest in such technology.
Like other leading members of City Group, he was often targeted by the police. On 19 April 1987, at a rally to mark the first anniversary of the Non-Stop Picket, Steve was knocked unconscious as the Territorial Support Group attempted to confiscate a small, ‘unauthorised’ stage from which the speakers were addressing the crowd. After considerable delay by the police, Steve was taken to hospital, where he was kept overnight.
A couple of weeks later, on 6 May 1987, Steve was amongst twenty City Group activists who took direct action to defy the Metropolitan Police’s attempt to ban the Non-Stop Picket from protesting directly outside the South African Embassy. Steve was amongst the first four of these defendants to go to court, charged under the Public Order Act. He was tried at Highbury Magistrates Court alongside Norma Kitson, Carol Brickley and Adrian States, a Labour councillor on Camden Council. Although all four had been doing the same thing, in the same place, when they were arrested – protesting in front of the South African Embassy – the trial ended in a bizarre result. Norma and Carol were found guilty, while Steve and Adrian were acquitted. The resulting appeal against these convictions set legal precedent for a period.
Steve helped make a lasting impact on British activist tactics in other ways too. He was an early member of the London School of Samba and, along with LSS co-founder Alan Hayman, Steve helped found Batucada Mandela. They were the first protest samba band in Britain. The troupe played at several fundraising benefits for City Group and performed regularly at the larger rallies on the Non-Stop Picket. In April 1990 they participated in the huge march against the Poll Tax, thereby bringing protest samba to a wider audience.
Following Steve’s death, his friends and former comrades organised a memorial event for him on the pavement outside the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square.