Surveillance of anti-apartheid activists revealed

After the exposure of long-term police infiltration of environmental and anti-capitalist activist networks over the last couple of years, the idea that the British police monitored anti-apartheid activists in the 1980s is hardly a surprise. However, two publications from March 1985 give an insight into the different ways in which activists responded to this surveillance.

On 23 March 1985, Seumas Milne published an article in The Guardian about the national Anti-Apartheid Movement’s disaffiliation of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group.  The Guardian sub-editors must have thought they were very clever when the came up with the headline – “Separate developments in common” – playing on the apartheid regime’s ideological doublespeak for its legal framework of racialized inequality.  Milne’s article reports, at length, the numerous ways in which City Group had antagonized the national movement and threatened to undermine its 25-year commitment to uniting “activists from the ultra-left to the Conservative Party in common opposition to the Pretoria regime”.   Having enumerated City Group’s numerous misdemeanors, towards the end of the article Milne quotes Mike Terry, the Executive Secretary of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, as complaining that:

The level of Special Branch surveillance of our work has increased enormously since the City group came on the scene. (Milne, 23 March 1985).

While I am sure Mike Terry was not naive enough to think this, his comment is presented in the article as if he hoped, by distancing itself from City Group, Special Branch surveillance of AAM activities would go away.  Certainly the major implication running throughout Milne’s article is that the AAM were correct to distance themselves from the more radical City Group.

Carol Brickley speaks at City Groups protest against MI5 phone tapping, 1985 (Source: City Group)

Carol Brickley speaks at City Groups protest against MI5 phone tapping, 1985 (Source: City Group)

A few days after Milne’s article appeared, a second article was published in Monochrome magazine (not, I think, the glossy art and fashion magazine of the same name published today).  This article contained an interview with John Wilson, who is described as “an operative with MI5 for more than 20 years”.  In the article claims that he offered,

new revelations on MI5 activities includ[ing]: surveillance of the Anti-Apartheid Movement – Executive Members and in particular, the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, who recently won a campaign to maintain the right to protest outside the South African Embassy; Passing on of information concerning members of City AAG to officials attached to the South African Embassy to “help them apply pressure on the families of South Africans living in England” (Monochrome #4, page 8, 27 March 1985).

Around this time in 1985 a number of MI5 whistleblowers, including Cathy Massiter, revealed details of state surveillance of trade unionists, peace activists and other campaigners.  Out of this maelstrom of revelations, City Group received information that the phone of its Convenor, Carol Brickley, had been tapped.  The group responded to this revelation in typical fashion – they responded politically.  City Group organised a protest outside the MI5 building (at the time) in Mayfair.  They also mobilized supportive politicians to raise questions about the issue.  In May 1985, the Labour group on Westminster City Council issued a statement titled ‘Defend Carol Brickley: No more taps of anti-apartheid activists!’, which stated,

We condemn the MI5 phone tapping of Ms. Carol Brickley, convenor of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, and the passing of this information to the South African Embassy… We demand to know: did the Home Secretary authorize this tap, did he know that the information was passed to the South African Embassy and will he stop this tapping? We demand a full public enquiry. (Statement by Westminster Labour councillors, 14 May 1985).

Ken Livingstone (then the leader of the Greater London Council) also raised the issue with the Home Secretary.  As City Group noted in a letter to Councillor Joe Hegarty, the reply Livingstone received was evasive and non-committal.

It fails to answer the main questions at issue; whether or not Ms Carol Brickley’s phone was tapped; and whether or not information was given to the South African Embassy. Moreover the Home Office is unprepared to conduct an enquiry into this matter. (Letter to Joe Hegarty, 26 June 1985).

When we interviewed Carol Brickley recently, we asked her about this episode.  For her, the incident was unsurprising and unexceptional:

I find it difficult to take much interest in that sort of thing. I don’t like conspiracy theories and I just assume that the British state is interested in anybody who is challenging it. So I don’t find it particularly, like, news that that should happen.  (Interview with Carol Brickley, 21 February 2013).

If Mike Terry’s comments in the Seumas Milne article suggest that the AAM sought to distance itself from radicals like the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group in order to maintain its ‘respectability’ and access, as a pressure group, to the corridors of power; City Group understood surveillance of its leadership as further evidence of British collaboration with apartheid.  As opposition to all British links with apartheid South Africa was the cornerstone of City Group’s politics, it is not surprising that they made a political issue out of highlighting and challenging this surveillance.  They were not necessarily shocked or surprised by this monitoring of their activities, but they were prepared to make political capital out of them.

About Gavin Brown

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

1 Response to Surveillance of anti-apartheid activists revealed

  1. Pingback: Viva Carol, our convenor. No one tougher, no one meaner | Non-Stop Against Apartheid

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