‘Every day the blood of our children flows. While all this is happening, Reagan and Thatcher continue to call themselves friends of black people while in effect they are the friends of racists.’ (Winnie Mandela,6 April 1986)
Helen Yaffe writes: Winnie Mandela’s statement was made less than two weeks prior to the start of the non-stop picket outside the South African Embassy in London. Set up by the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group (City Group), the picket’s demands were the release of Nelson Mandela and all other political prisoners, and the end of the apartheid regime. It was City Group’s response to the intensification in South Africa both of the struggle against apartheid and of the regime’s repression. City Group’s convenor, Carol Brickley, explained:
‘There was an enormous build up of militancy in the Townships in South Africa from 1985 onwards…an enormous community uprising, effectively. In Alexandra Township they had workers’ councils; they were talking about making South Africa ungovernable at one point. The Non-Stop Picket was a response to that…a way of bringing people’s attention to what was going on in South Africa. Not only with the prisoners, but also the sheer brutality of the regime – they were murdering people. And also the role that the British government was playing in supporting that situation. It was Mrs Thatcher’s heyday.’ (Interview, 21 February 2013).
Under Thatcher’s eleven-year term as Prime Minister, Britain remained the main political and economic backer of apartheid South Africa. In its 1985 pamphlet on South Africa, the Revolutionary Communist Group, which helped to found City Group, described how Britain benefited from investments in South Africa.
‘British companies’ stake in apartheid gives an average rate of profit of some 21 per cent. This is extremely high compared to a 6-7 per cent average return on investment in Britain. So it is no surprise that 500 British companies invest in South Africa…British banks and companies earned £1bn last year from their investments in apartheid…Shell and BP control 40 per cent of oil sales in South Africa…British banks had claims of $5.562bn (£4.7bn) on South Africa (end June 1984), a rise of $1.02bn (£0.92bn) or 22.5 per cent on the previous year. Britain’s stake in apartheid is enormous. And precisely because investment in apartheid is so profitable, British collaboration with apartheid will not be easily broken.’ (South Africa: Britain out of Apartheid, Apartheid out of Britain, Larkin Publications, p. 20)
The RCG pamphlet went on to say: ‘A total financial and oil boycott of South Africa would bring it to its knees. But it would also destroy the foundation of those massive profits that the imperialist banks and companies get from their stake in apartheid. Faced with growing international demands for economic sanctions against South Africa, the international backers of apartheid are seeking a strategy to force cosmetic changes on the apartheid regime and to appease international opinion.’ (South Africa, p. 21).
This approach was adopted by Thatcher, who obstructed and undermined international support for sanctions. ‘In a league table of foreign investors in South Africa, published in August 1985, Britain headed the list with £12 billion invested. South Africa accounts for more than 10% of British foreign investment’ (South Africa, p. 54). Despite the fact that the call for sanctions came from the liberation movement itself, Thatcher claimed that economic sanctions were immoral because black workers would lose their jobs. In June 1984, she hosted President P.W Botha, the first visit in 23 years by a South African premier. At the Commonwealth Summit in October 1985, Thatcher came under pressure from 41 heads of state to implement sanctions. Threatened with the break up of the Commonwealth, she conceded only, in her words, ‘a tiny little bit’, but British links with apartheid continued.
Of course, Thatcher’s ruthless agenda impacted every area of life and many of the activists who joined the non-stop picket would have counted themselves among the victims and opponents of both her economic and foreign policies. The Thatcher era saw industries closed, rising unemployment, privatisations, cuts to welfare benefits, the intensification of class divisions and increased (state) racism. Thatcher battled the miners and the trade union movement in general. She waged war with Argentina over the Falklands/Las Malvinas and with the Irish Republican movement, whilst giving support to Chilean dictator, Pinochet. Angry rebellions exploded as inner cities riots of, mainly, black working class youth and in response to the Poll Tax. All these issues were reflected in the composition of City Group and the activists on the non-stop picket, as well as in the political relationships City Group built with other campaigns: with miners, Irish republican activists, anti-racist and anti-deportation campaigns, and so on.
For the activists on the non-stop picket, who saw evidence of British government collusion with the representatives of the South African embassy, Thatcher was synonymous with support for apartheid and the police harassment they experienced on a daily basis. On 8 April, at news of her death, street parties broke out from Brixton to Glasgow, while the Durham Miner’s Association described it as ‘a great day for miners’. It would not be strange to find non-stop picketers among those celebrating or sharing the sentiments of Pallo Jordan, the ANC’s chief propagandist in exile during the apartheid era, who was quoted in The Guardian as saying: ‘good riddance…She was a staunch supporter of the apartheid regime.’