Trying to stop Zola Budd in her tracks

Helen Yaffe’s recent talk about the lessons of the anti-apartheid sports boycott for contemporary Palestinian solidarity reminded me of a particular action in the sports boycott taken by City of London Anti-Apartheid Group activists.  On 31 January 1988, City Group’s Secretary, Andy Higginbottom, and three other activists ran in front of the South African athlete Zola Budd as she competed in a race at Gateshead.

Zola Budd broke the women’s world record for the 5000 metres race at the age of 17 in 1984.  However, as the record-breaking performance took place in South Africa, it was not recognised by the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF), due to the international sports boycott of South Africa.  The sports boycott also threatened her opportunity to compete in the Los Angeles Olympics that summer. The British tabloid newspaper, The Daily Mail, spearheaded a campaign for Budd to be granted British citizenship (on the basis that her grandfather was British), so that she could compete as a British athlete.  Not only was British citizenship granted for Budd, it was fast-tracked.

Four City Group activists attempt to stop Zola Budd, Gateshead, 30 January 1988 (Source:

Four City Group activists attempt to stop Zola Budd, Gateshead, 30 January 1988 (Source:

The case provoked protest, and demonstrations often occurred when she raced.  Andy Higginbottom explained why City Group found her case useful as a means to draw attention to the links between apartheid in South Africa and racism in Britain:

All these queues of black people unable to get British citizenship, all these even longer queues of people being deported from the country and fighting for their kids to stay here, but she gets her citizenship and gets to run for Britain. So this is just unfair, there was quite a broad constituency of people who would say that that’s just not right, but also we tried to make that point. (Interview with Andy Higginbottom, 17 April 2012)

The protest Andy, Adam, Dominic and Gary staged in Gateshead was not the first (nor the last) time City Group attempted to take direct action against Zola Budd. On 30 July 1985, City Group organised a protest at Crystal Palace, where Budd was due to compete.  On that occasion, City Group publicised their protest in advance.  Cannon Row police officers, who normally policed City Group protests outside the South African Embassy were drafted in, out of their normal area, to identify anti-apartheid protestors as they arrived at the stadium.  Although forty City Group supporters demonstrated outside, five more protestors were ejected from the stadium before they could stage their protest inside.

Stewards attempt to prevent City Group action against Zola Budd, 30 January 1988, Gateshed (Source: FRFI No 75)

Stewards attempt to prevent City Group action against Zola Budd, 30 January 1988, Gateshead (Source: FRFI No 75)

The action in Gateshead was more successful, to an extent.  Andy and three other protestors did manage to run onto the track with a banner; but, the event’s stewards were quick to respond and the protest did not have a dramatic effect on Budd’s race.  As Andy reflected last year:

We had a brief campaign, not very long, a couple of incidents of direct action to draw attention to Zola Budd, try and stop her running and so on. That got in the media in a minor way, I don’t think it made quite as big a splash as we had hoped. (Interview with Andy Higginbottom, 17 April 2012).

Dominic and Andy questioned by police after the action, Gateshead, 30 January 1988 (Source:

Dominic and Andy questioned by police after the action, Gateshead, 30 January 1988 (Source:

The Gateshead protest received modest media coverage that weekend. It was notable for the fact that Allison Barrett, the Secretary of the local Tyneside Anti-Apartheid Group, who had allegedly made a ‘no disruption’ deal with local Labour councillors, condemned and distanced her group from the direct action (Fight Racism! Fight Imperialism! 75, February 1988, pg 5). This case, once again, demonstrates the different approaches taken by the national Anti-Apartheid Movement and City Group in the 1980s.  Although City Group was prepared to take direct action, this was not guaranteed to achieve victory in any given campaign. The occasional actions against Zola Budd helped keep case in the limelight, even if they alone did not prevent her continuing to break the international anti-apartheid sports boycott.  Later in 1988, Budd returned to South Africa and retired from international competition for a number of years after the IAAF upheld a charge brought by several African nations that she had competed in a race in South Africa.  When she returned to race in Britain in 1992, City Group were again on the track at Crystal Palace to greet her with a mass direct action.

About Gavin Brown

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

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