Contesting the peace and dignity of the apartheid embassy

Throughout the 1980s the South African Embassy in London regularly complained to the British Government about anti-apartheid protests outside its premises.  In December 1987, staff at the embassy wrote to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office twice in one day to complain about the activities of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group.

A evening protest outside the South African Embassy (Source: Andy Higinbottom)

An evening protest outside the South African Embassy (Source: Andy Higginbottom)

I am writing to you about the intention of the Anti-Apartheid Movement to mount a picket at my residence from 6pm to 8pm on Saturday 19 December.

You are well aware of the numerous fruitless attempts to terminate or contain the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group picket outside South Africa House which to our mind constitutes harassment and impairment of the dignity of the Embassy. I see the projected demonstration at my residence as being aimed at carrying harassment a step further by protesting in a residential area and attempting to inconvenience the household of a resident ambassador.

[Extract from a letter from the South African Ambassador to a FCO official, dated 10 December 1987, released under the Freedom of Information Act].

The Ambassador’s words in this letter are carefully chosen.  By asserting that the Non-Stop Picket constituted an “impairment of the dignity of the Embassy”, the Ambassador was accusing the British Government of failing in its duties under the Vienna Convention (1961) to protect the ‘peace and dignity’ of a diplomatic mission.

In the second letter, an official from the embassy outlined a specific example of this ‘harassment’ when he complained about the treatment that a guest at an Embassy cocktail party received from the protestors outside.

I regret having to write once more about the CLAAG demonstration, particularly at this time of reconciliation and goodwill.

You may have heard that the normal intimidation and verbal abuse were featured outside South Africa House during a cocktail [reception] given on Tuesday evening. I learned yesterday morning that one of the female guests was, in her own words, “pursued down Trafalgar Square by demonstrators shouting obscenities”.

[Extract from a letter from a South African Embassy official to FCO official, dated 10 December 1987, released under the Freedom of Information Act].

Who knows if ‘obscenities’ were shouted at this woman? It is entirely possible. In fact, over time, many picketers developed a certain proficiency in Afrikaans curses – partly for effect, and partly in the hope that the police would not recognise that they were swearing at visiting white South Africans.  The guests at this reception would certainly have been greeted with a loud, angry barrage of anti-apartheid slogans and chanting.  It is likely that the unnamed woman did experience these as intimidating.  It is unlikely that the protestors would have been unduly worried by this.  For them, the Embassy represented an illegitimate regime that had been condemned by the United Nations as a crime against humanity and, hence, deserved no ‘peace and dignity’.

As I have previously suggested on this blog, it appears that, following complaints from the Ambassador to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the Metropolitan Police often experimented with new ways of restricting the activities of the Non-Stop Picket or increased their arrest rates there.  At present, we do not have enough clear evidence to prove a causal link between these events.  However, a retired police officer who regularly policed the Non-Stop Picket at the time recently described how these complaints were shared between authorities.

Nobody on the establishment side wanted them [the Picket] there, well certainly not continuously though the odd demonstration would have been fine, we routinely policed those all over central London but an ongoing 24/7 picket was a drain on our resources, a major source of irritation to the High Commission who shared that frustration with the
government of the day and Westminster City Council who then shared it with the police. (personal communication, 10 December 2012).

However, on this occasion the reply received by the Ambassador appears less sympathetic:

I fully appreciate your desire not to see a repetition of the demonstration that took place in 1985 and your concern at the continuing picket outside your Embassy by the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. I should, however, stress that under British law permission is not required for demonstrations to be held. It follows that it is not possible to prevent a demonstration taking place whether in a residential area or elsewhere. Action against demonstrators  can only be taken in cases where, in the opinion of the senior police officers on duty, an offence has been committed as set out in Sections 4, 5 and 14 of the Public Order Act.

[Extract from a letter from FCO official to the South African Ambassador, dated 15 December 1987, released under the Freedom of Information Act].

Further research will be needed to understand why, in December 1987, the FCO might have wanted to provide a cool response to the South African Ambassador (if not actually be seen to defend the right of anti-apartheid campaigners to protest).  However, as I will explain in subsequent posts, this did not necessarily mean that the Non-Stop Picket was given any greater freedom to protest. Picketers continued to be arrested, sometimes violently, throughout December 1987, and intimidated in other ways. This was one of the periods when City Group made public its own complaints about the treatment of anti-apartheid protestors.  Who had the right to occupy the pavement in front of the South African Embassy and what forms of conduct were acceptable there remained hotly contested that winter.

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About Gavin Brown

Lecturer in Human Geography University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Contesting the peace and dignity of the apartheid embassy

  1. This is very interesting stuff. On the subject of the FCO’s cool response to the SA ambassador, I think that it highlights that the bureaucracy behind the government had competing interests and that the FCO shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a monolithic entity. In my research into the papers of the FCO in the 1970s, I have found some of the most right wing ideas espoused at times but then some very liberal ideas at other times.

    On the subject of protests at embassies, I find it interesting that British law does not specific legislation regulating protests at embassies and consulates. I was trying to find this out a while ago as in Australia, the Liberal Government introduced specific legislation to police protests within the parameter of embassies in the 1970s to protect the US and South African embassies (part 3 of the Public Order (Protection of Persons and Property) Act 1971) . It is fascinating that a similar approach was not taken in the UK in the 1970s, particularly after the Grovesnor Square demo in 1968 which ‘attacked’ the US embassy, I believe.

  2. Pingback: Political responses to assaults on anti-apartheid protestors | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

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

  4. Pingback: PW Botha, police spies, and the South African Embassy Picket Campaign 1984 | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

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