Organising for militant solidarity: City Group and the 1986 Anti-Apartheid Movement AGM

Over the weekend of 10/11 January 1987 the national Anti-Apartheid Movement held its Annual General Meeting in London.  Although the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group had been ‘disaffiliated’ (expelled) from the Anti-Apartheid Movement two years previously, City Group supporters remained individual members of the AAM and attended the AGM in force.  A year ago, I wrote quite extensively about City Group’s intervention in the AAM AGM in January 1987 (which was, technically, the delayed 1986 Annual General Meeting).  This post updates what I wrote then on the basis of the further archival material we have collected in the last year.

As I explained a year ago:

At this AGM, City Group and its supporters argued in several ways for the strengthening of anti-apartheid solidarity activism.  They argued for opposition to all British companies investing in apartheid; for campaigns to close down the South African Embassy in London and the Glasgow Consulate; for an escalated campaign to release all political prisoners and detainees in South Africa; and, for ‘non-sectarian’ support for all trade unions opposed to apartheid.  But, one of their main interventions concerned the role of Bob Hughes MP, the national Chair of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, who they accused of undermining the principles of anti-apartheid solidarity.

City Group’s main argument with Bob Hughes was that he had signed a letter in The Scotsman newspaper calling on Commonwealth nations to call off their boycott of the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh in protest at the Thatcher government’s refusal to implement a sports boycott of South Africa.

In his history of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, Roger Fieldhouse (2005: 225) discusses the conflict with City Group supporters at this AGM in the following terms:

Before the 1986 AGM (which was postponed to January 1987) AAM received a warning from an ex-member of CLAAG who had resigned in protest at the “undemocratic plans they have for disrupting the AAM AGM” again [Note: our reading of the archival records suggests that Edward Pursell’s letter referred to the 1985 AGM].  He alleged that disruptive tactics had been discussed and that CLAAG officers had been giving out to sympathisers false membership cards that had been bought before the three-month [registration] deadline.  At the AGM there was a series of violent disruptions, including a physical assault on the SWAPO representative.  Debates were curtailed and the whole proceeding had to be suspended for an hour at one point.  The RCG also produced a leaflet for circulation at the AGM, accusing AAM of subordinating its activities to the interests of the Labour Party and Trade Union Movement and favouring selective organisations in the liberation struggle that were approved of by the ANC rather than supporting all those fighting against apartheid. The leaflet also (rightly) claimed that AAM had undermin[ed] a planned boycott of the 1986 Commonwealth Games in Edinburgh by black Commonwealth nations because the Scottish TUC wanted the Games to go ahead for economic reasons.

This was the last major conflict between the AAM and CLAAG. After this the constitutional reforms agreed at the AGM in January 1987 enabled AAM to exert a much tighter control over these public occasions.

City Group supporters at the AAM AGM, January 1987 (Source: Non-Stop Against Apartheid, 16)

City Group supporters at the AAM AGM, January 1987 (Source: Non-Stop Against Apartheid, 16)

We have found no record of City Group buying ‘fake’ AAM membership cards before the new three-month qualifying period for attendance at that year’s AGM.  However, it is certainly true that City Group encouraged its supporters, nationally, to ensure they signed up for personal membership of the AAM in time.  In September 1986 a delegation of City Group activists spent a weekend with sympathetic members of the Chesterfield AA Group, discussed the forthcoming AGM, and encouraged them to join the national organisation quickly.  A similar intervention was made at a meeting of Deeside AA Group in December.  On 25 September 1986 the City Group office wrote to all its members reminding them that the AAM had instigated a rule change and that in order to attend the AGM they had to be a member of three-months’ standing by the date of the event.  This letter highlighted three issue around which City Group would base its intervention in the AAM AGM.  First, questioning why the AAM had mobilised 100,000 people for its demonstration on 28 July and taken them to a festival on Clapham Common rather than a protest at the South African embassy?  Second, the letter raised the issue of Bob Hughes attempt to undermine the boycott of the Commonwealth Games.  And, finally, it raised the question of democracy within AAM and the proposed constitutional reforms which limited the involvement of individual members in its decision-making processes.

The Revolutionary Communist Group also spent the autumn of 1986 organising their intervention in the AAM AGM.  They anticipated trouble and made arrangements to provide stewards as bodyguards for their members David Reed and Carol Brickley, but also for Norma and David Kitson.  They also produced a leaflet, AAM – a year of failure, for distribution at the meeting.

City Group invited members of the RCG and Workers’ Revolutionary Party (Workers’ Press) to organise a joint briefing meeting of their members in December 1986 ahead of the AAM AGM.  It is unclear whether this meeting took place, but there was certainly a briefing on the evening of 9 January.  In a letter date 1 January 1987, Andy Higginbottom, City Group’s Secretary, wrote to members of the Hull City AA Support Group inviting them to attend this briefing, offering a list of recommendations regarding the business of the AGM, and insisting “it is now important to establish a more formal relationship between City AA and the Hull City AA Support Group”.

Documents held in the AAM Archive at the Bodleian Library in Oxford show that groups and individuals sympathetic to City Group submitted several motions and amendments to the AAM AGM that year.  These condemned police harassment of anti-apartheid protestors outside the South African Embassy and sought to commit the AAM to supporting anti-racist campaigns in Britain, including the RCG’s Viraj Mendis Defence Campaign.  Of these motions, eight were ruled out-of-order – two for being late, one for being too long, and five because they were submitted from organisations which were not affiliated to the AAM.  A motion from Exeter and District AA Group proposed:

This AGM believes that the crushing of the non-stop picket in front of South Africa house by the state and the police would be a victory for the forces which support Apartheid.

It further believes that regardless of the history of the dispute between the AAM and the City AA Group, old differences should now be put aside and the AAM should take up the issue of a permanent picket outside South Africa house as a campaigning priority. It therefore calls on the Executive Committee to join with those people currently staffing the picket and to devote some of the campaigning resources of the AAM into promoting the picket on a nationwide basis.

A motion from Fife AA Group also noted the success of the Non-Stop Picket.  These motions were not debated.

City Group supports march to the South African Embassy, 10 January 1987 (Source: City Group)

City Group supporters march to the South African Embassy, 10 January 1987 (Source: City Group)

A press release issued by City Group on Monday 12 January 1987 offers their perspective on the “violent disruptions” noted by Roger Fieldhouse.  They condemned the violence of the AAM’s stewards at the event.

Black City AA supporters were physically assaulted and had to fight to be allowed to speak in debates … women were also attacked … others were punched and one was knocked to the ground … Bob Hughes MP, refused to count the vote on a City AA procedural motion aimed at lifting the ban on political literature … refused even to allow the AGM to discuss a motion in support of City AA’s non-stop picket of the South African embassy.

The same day, City Group’s Convenor, Carol Brickley wrote a reply to a report of the AAM AGM in The Guardian newspaper which referred to City Group’s “ruthlessly organised” “attempted take-overs”. She noted,

There was no attempt to “invade” the rostrum… To be accurate you would have to accuse us of staying in our seats – but that doesn’t fit with scare-mongering does it?… [We] called on Bob Hughes and Brian Filling to account for their attempt to call off the boycott of the 1986 Edinburgh Commonwealth games…. With all eyes on the City Group “attempted coup d’état” you have failed to spot the real take-over. The AAM is now subservient to the interests of the Labour Party.

At the close of business on the Saturday evening, City Group and its allies marched from the AAM AGM to the Non-Stop Picket of the South African embassy. City Group’s press release claimed over 400 people joined this march.  City Group’s intervention in the January 1987 AAM AGM did not succeed in re-orienting the Anti-Apartheid Movement to enacting a more militant programme of action.  In that respect, it was a failure; however, it consolidated City Group’s existing national network of supporters through the process of organising the intervention.  At the AGM new activists found themselves disgruntled by the actions of the AAM leadership and moved into the orbit of City Group.  The AAM and City Group had very different political understandings of the role of a British-based solidarity movement.  The AAM largely understood the South African liberation struggle as a human rights issue; while City Group understood it as part of an international (revolutionary) struggle against imperialism.  As their own historian has acknowledged, the AAM had an “almost pathological fear of the militancy and direct action advocated by the ‘far-left’ at the time,” (Fieldhouse 2005: 226) and “believed that no-one would listen to them if they became more extreme”.  The AAM used its reputation to try to influence political and diplomatic solutions to apartheid, while City Group favoured popular, grassroots solidarity action on the streets.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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2 Responses to Organising for militant solidarity: City Group and the 1986 Anti-Apartheid Movement AGM

  1. Very Intersting stuff. On a side note, I am wondering what role the WRP (either faction) had in the anti-apartheid movement in the 1980s, particularly as the party seemed headed to oblivion by this stage.

    • Gavin Brown says:

      Evan, the WRP (Workers’ Press) in London participated in the work of City Group (albeit inconsistently). They certainly attended larger rallies outside the South African embassy and, at times, some of their members maintained regular shifts on the Non-Stop Picket. I believe (although I would need to check some material that I don’t have with me right now) that nationally they were particularly active in advocating workers’ sanctions against South Africa within the trade unions. Many of their trade unionists were also active in supporting David Kitson in his battles with the leadership of TASS for the reinstatement of the promised funding for his post at Ruskin College. The Workers’ Press faction also had links with the Namibian WRP. They were the first (and, to a large extent, only) group on the British far Left to take notice of the evidence accumulated by Paul Trewhela and Baruch Hirson (through the pages of Searchlight South Africa) of the repression and murder of dissidents within the SWAPO and ANC camps in the frontline states of southern Africa.
      To the best of my knowledge, I am not aware of any consistent anti-apartheid work undertaken by the Newsline group.

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