On 23 February 1985 the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group ceased to be an officially recognised local group of the national Anti-Apartheid Movement. This was the culmination of more than two years of growing political tensions between the leadership of the national movement and City Group about how to build an effective solidarity movement.
While the National Committee of the Anti-Apartheid Movement met in Cardiff to decide City Group’s fate, City Group members were holding a 24-hour picket outside the South African Embassy in London. The irony of this comparison was drawn out in an article published in Fight Racism, Fight Imperialism at the time:
There could be no greater contrast between the singing youth, black and white, employed and unemployed, on the 24 hour picket outside South Africa House organised by the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group on 22/23 February, and the tired, cynical and manipulative body of AAM committee men and women who met in Cardiff on the same day to rid the movement of City Group’s influence and enthusiasm. (FRFI, March 1985).
The differences between the two groups went back almost to the beginning of City Group. When City Group held an 86-day picket of the embassy in 1982, the national office of the AAM asked them to suspend the picket for an hour a week, so as not to be confused with its own weekly hour of protest. The tensions were undoubtedly stoked by leading members of the London ANC over the next couple of years and cannot be disentangled from the long-standing differences over political strategy between Norma and David Kitson and the leading faction of the ANC and SACP in exile.
These differences in strategic perspective were also expressed tactically. When the Metropolitan Police banned protests outside the South African Embassy during PW Botha’s visit to London in May 1983, the AAM leadership sought negotiations with an Assistant Commissioner of Police. City Group, in contrast, launched the South African Embassy Picket Campaign (SAEPC) and defied the ban through direct action, leading to over 130 arrests. Even Roger Fieldhouse, the AAM’s historian, acknowledged that it was City Group’s defiant approach that won out in the end.
When the police later lifted the ban, AAM claimed this as a vindication of its diplomatic approach, but in reality the police waited until the Chief Metropolitan Magistrate ruled against them before lifting ban. It was more likely the demonstrators’ willingness to defy the police rather than AAM’s negotiations that won back the right to demonstrate outside the South African Embassy. (Fieldhouse 2005: 220-1).
The AAM leadership repeatedly asked City Group to given an account of their actions and comply with the AAM’s constitution. Ultimately, the reason given for City Group’s removal as a local AAM group in February 1985 was that it failed to restrict its activities to the boundaries of the City of London and did not restrict its membership to those living and working within the City of London. It is certainly true that most of City Group’s activities took place in other areas of central London and it recruited its members far and wide. However, technically none of these actions represented a breach of the AAM constitution. As Roger Fieldhouse acknowledges,
Although some of these complaints were justified and were aggravating, none of them offended against any written rules of the Movement, nor would they have caused much concern had they not been coupled with an unacceptable ideology. (Fieldhouse 2005: 220).
It is also true that at times the officers and executive [of AAM] were not above inventing rules to impose on CLAAG, for example that they should confine their activities to a particular geographical area or refrain from distributing non-AAM literature at demonstrations. There were no such written rules and many other groups overstepped them. (Fieldhouse 2005: 226).
City Group, of course, made exactly this point loudly and repeatedly in contesting the National Committee decision at the time. The subtleties of language are important in such disputes: City Group maintained that they were ‘expelled’ from the national AAM; while, to this day, some commentators close to the AAM leadership insist that they were merely ‘disaffiliated’ as a local group. At the heart of this semantic dispute is the question of the AAM’s constitution – they did not have grounds to expel City Group from the national movement, all they could do was cease to recognise them as a local group within the movement.
Both in the run up to the February 1985 National Committee meeting and afterwards, City Group mobilised its members and supporters to challenge and contest the AAM leadership’s decision. Between the papers lodged in the AAM Archives in Oxford and the City Group papers we have been working with, I have read many of the letters sent to protest this decision. In addition to the letters sent my City Group activists, some appear to be from individual AAM members around the country who were angered by the decision. Two key themes occur over and over in the letters: first, there is praise for City Group’s level of anti-apartheid activity; and, second, there is contempt for the bureaucratic imposition of tight geographical restrictions on where it could organise. Here are extracts from just a few of these letters.
Steve Whitehead, who stressed he was not a City Group member, wrote to the AAM to,
express my disgust that, at a time when black South Africans are being shot dead by police in the Crossroads township, you can find nothing better to do than to threaten active anti-apartheid campaigners with expulsion. (letter from S. Whitehead to AAM, 19 February 1985).
Mick Gavan wrote on behalf of Tower Hamlets Trades Council to Mike Terry, the Executive Secretary of the AAM, stating that they were,
very concerned to hear that attempts are being made to expel City Anti Apartheid Group from the Anti Apartheid Movement and that the Executive are behind these attempts… City are one of the most active branches in the country – if every local AA group worked as hard as them the Anti Apartheid Movement would be immensely stronger throughout the country… We will continue to support their excellent campaigning work. (Letter from M . Gavan to M. Terry, 21 February 1995).
The letter of protest from one London Labour Councillor, Terry Rich, raises both themes and deserves to be quoted at length. Councillor Rich expressed,
deep concern at the proposed expulsion of the City Group of the Anti Apartheid Movement. I find it hard to comprehend how a movement such as ours, committed to work for the defeat of the evils of apartheid, and for the liberation of the South African people, can engage in such a divisive and senseless campaign against a group of committed Anti Apartheid activists… All of us from Lambeth Labour Parties who have attended and supported the picket have done so not because we wish to undermine the National Movement or cause divisions within Anti Apartheid… For those of us who work in Central London, the City Group has provided a means of regular expression of opposition to Apartheid in a positive way. To take a narrow definition of geographic territory seems to me to be the height of obtusity. It can only hint at a level of underlying vindictiveness amongst some quarters of the Executive Committee, if it is seriously being proposed that the City Group should draw its membership exclusively from those who live or work in the City of London, and confine its activities to the square mile… It can only be a betrayal of our cause to waste our time and energies in this futile way. (Letter from T. Rich to Bob Hughes, Chair of the AAM, 22 February 1985).
Although City Group was officially disaffiliated from the Anti-Apartheid Movement in a dispute over geographical boundaries and territory, its expulsion from the movement had its roots in a political dispute over the tactics and strategy needed to end apartheid.