On the evening of Wednesday 15 March 1989, South African Foreign Minister Pik Botha visited the South African Embassy in London for ‘secret’ talks with his British counterpart, Geoffrey Howe. The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (and the national Anti-Apartheid Movement) were tipped off about this meeting and vocally made their presence felt. During the course of the demonstration that evening, three Non-Stop Picket supporters attempted to ‘arrest’ Pik Botha.
On the evening of Pik Botha’s visit to the Embassy, the Non-Stop Picket swelled in numbers, and members of the AAM turned up to protest too. About a hundred noisy anti-apartheid protesters ensured that their presence was audible. The police barricaded Duncannon Street (at the north side of the Embassy), creating a ‘sterile zone’ to facilitate Pik Botha’s safe access to the building via the side entrance.
Here is an account of what happened next, written by ‘Mackerel’ for Picketers News, City Group’s weekly internal bulletin.
But for all the plain clothed and uniformed coppers, bodyguards and barricades that the British Government could muster up, City Group still proved too strong. Protesters flew over the barriers and, as Dominique Sacré later said, “A few years ago, the British Government and the South African regime conspired to allow four white South African arms smugglers safe passage to South Africa and escape British Justice. Soon afterwards, Pik Botha made a statement to the effect that he had no intention of returning the four men to Britain. We merely wanted to make a citizen’s arrest of Pik Botha for conspiracy to pervert the course of justice”. (Picketers News, 17 March 1989).
Further details of the action were presented to the public in the next issue of City Group’s newsletter Non-Stop Against Apartheid,
At 6.40 pm nine demonstrators from the 100 strong picket jointly called by City AA and the AAM, jumped over the barriers and tried to make their way towards Botha and Howe as they left through the back door. Immediately the police jumped on top of the demonstrators, throwing them to the ground, sitting on top of them and smashing them against the wall. Six were released at the time but the cops decided to arrest three […] activists – Maureen Oliver, National Coordinator of OLGA [the Organisation for Lesbian and Gay Action]; [Dominique Sacré], RCG member and Youth & Students Organiser of City AA; and Andrew Gardner, City AA member.
All three of us sustained heavy bruising and cuts to our arms, shoulders, faces and legs. Two of us were charged under Section 4 (sic) of the Public Order Act. At the time, Inspector Read informed us we would be charged with Attempted Murder (even siccer!). After the arrests, Inspector Read went further to demand that City AA’s Legal Officer show him his passport, apparently threatening deportation. (Non-Stop Against Apartheid, No 34, June 1989, pg 3)
We interviewed Andrew Privett (previously known as Gardner) last year, and he offered these memories of that night.
We did our research and found that visiting foreign ministers don’t have diplomatic immunity. He visited the South African Embassy and used the side entrance. The police had created a sterile area with barriers. We jumped over the barriers and ran towards him – I got within a foot. It was worrying, as I recall his security reaching under their jackets! I got grabbed by a policeman who started smashing my head against the embassy wall saying “Calm down! calm down!” (Interview with Andrew Privett, 12 March 2012).
The preparations for this high level meeting at the Embassy probably explain why the Metropolitan Police arrested the entire Picket a few days earlier (on 11 March) and moved the Picket from outside the Embassy on three separate occasions that week (10, 12 and 14 March) using the “Commissioner’s Directions” provision of the Metropolitan Police Act. Within days of these events, Carol Brickley, City Group’s Convenor, had written to Chief Inspector Tose (presumably at Cannon Row police station) to complain about recent policing strategies. Her letter raise concerns about “a number of things going wrong on the ground” and leading to friction. In particular, she highlighted the
Use or abuse of Commissioners Directions viz: 12 January, 10 March, 12 March, 14 March. … It is our view that you use the Commissioner’s Directions opportunistically because you have no power to move us under the Public Order Act when there are less than 20 people… For the moment I have asked stewards not to move unless they are given a copy of the directions and told the time for which they will apply.
Both the attempted action against Pik Botha and the group’s response to the police actions over the previous few days are indicative of the way that City Group and the Non-Stop Picket organised. On the streets they were prepared to take direct action against the representatives of apartheid; but they were also determined to defend their right to protest when, where and how they wanted to. The attempted arrest of Pik Botha served to question the legitimacy of the apartheid regime and to draw attention to its covert military operations around the world.