Steven Kitson: anti-apartheid activist who introduced protest samba to Britain

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 Kitson negotiates with the police outside South Africa House (Source: Rob Scott http://www.robscottphotography)

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.

Cartoon by Ian Smith about Public Order Act trial (Source: City Group)

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.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Steven Kitson: anti-apartheid activist who introduced protest samba to Britain

  1. VIVA Batucada Mandela! Viva Steve Kitson…

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  5. Yasemin Sami says:

    RIP Steve,backing dance trio of LSS ganza section,always at the back then so no photos!Batucada Mandela,S African songs/rounds on coaches and the JOKES! Will never forget Yas xx

  6. Helen says:

    As Yas said I so remember him teaching us South African songs which thanks to him I’ve loved ever since and am lucky enough to belong to a choir that sings them now ..
    RIP Steve xxx

  7. Pingback: A parcel from Cape Town (and a letter from Robben Island) | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

  8. Ernesto says:

    we still miss Steve, Ernesto Pandeiro

  9. Niall McGowan says:

    I’ve just stumbled on this obituary after searching for a different “Kitson” on google. I’m saddened by this news as it hadn’t reached me until now. I knew Steve Kitson for about a year in 1985 when I worked with him at a local authority in London, following his time at (was it?) Rolls Royce, where he’d won an award which he displayed rather proudly on a shelf in an otherwise unadorned office. In those days before the internet and desk-top computers, there weren’t accessible social media profiles, but Steve told me all that he wanted me to know, which was a little about his father and some of his own protest activities at that time, including the vigils at the South African Embassy. At that time I didn’t think much about how hard things must have been for him, though it did cross my mind in later years. He was a little cagey, understandably, but friendly to me, and we often used to play table tennis in a social club under our offices. I think he hoped I’d get more politicised and he persuaded me to get involved in NALGO, but I was a bit feckless at that young age and more attracted to the pursuits of London’s night-life, having just arrived in the big city. It did seem to me during our brief acquaintance that he was looking for kindred spirits, and that perhaps his experiences – as well as his intellect which shone brightly in an uninspiring workplace – set him apart a little from his colleagues, whose lives were generally more sedate. I liked him and was rather in awe of his brainpower and analytical skills, but he was ahead of his time where we worked, and perhaps not fully appreciated. He also told me he was related to Hank Wangford, who was gigging a lot at that time. Then I changed jobs and I heard nothing more of him until I saw this article and photo, which brought that whole 1980s protest era back to me. So I’ve written this small tribute, in case it adds to the stuff that his friends already know. Best wishes Steve…

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  11. Paul Teedon says:

    For some strange reason I was thinking about the non-stop picket today and Steven in particular. We were never friends as such though we did get drunk one night after an evening on the Picket. I was doing a PhD at the time in the Midlands and often went to London to use libraries there and to hook up with a friend of mine who progressively became more and more involved with city group, the RCP and publishing FRFI. Steven was invariably there leading the singing (I can still remember the songs!) I would go to the non-stop picket whenever I could and what struck me about him was his resoluteness. He was not brash or a grandstander. There was something about him that recognised this might be a long haul – to many of us (secretly) the idea that Apartheid would be gone within a decade would have seemed fanciful at the time. So if there were hotheads around who wanted to indulge in acts of destruction he would calmly invite them to think about it, but put the onus on them to decide. He certainly was not going to get involved in anything pointless like that.

    After my PhD came to an end my visits to London dropped off and I lost touch with my friend. It was only many years later I was told of Steven’s death and I was deeply shocked. But what I will always remember about him was that he was in a different league to most political ‘activists’ I have met, because for many they behave like children playing a game. It was no ‘game’ for Steven as I remember him describing how his aunt had been dangled by her ankles by South African Police several floors up over a banister rail.

    Seeing this site made me look through many of the images from the picket and a thousand memories flood back: Stop the Torture, Stop the Lies, Tear Down this Nest of Spies…

    Thank you for providing this space
    Paul Teedon

  12. Clive Foden says:

    Steve was a good friend, a fellow Sambista, singer, traveller and a peerless raconteur. He was without a doubt the most generous person I ever met. He threw his Amsterdam flat open to a loose collection of international drummers on every Queen’s Day in pursuit of the ultimate bateria. He already gave us the arcane name of The Queen’s Armpits. His energy for equality and fairness (and fun) was boundless. Steve died far too soon. I miss him lots…..

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