The Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy started on 19 April 1986. The proposal for the Non-Stop Picket had been made at the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s Annual General Meeting in January of that year and plans for the launch event had quickly gathered pace. A few days before the launch, on 15 April, the US bombed Tripoli in Libya and many core activists feared the protests against the American military action might detract from their plans to launch the Non-Stop Picket.
In recent months, many of the people we have interviewed were present on the first day of the Picket and have shared their memories of that day and the build-up to it. James Godfrey described the period immediately prior to the launch of the Non-Stop Picket as ‘really exciting’.
I remember particularly planning meetings, because I was on the committee of the group at that stage. … We had several meetings, because we’d been having weekly demonstrations on Fridays and other demonstrations on particular commemorative occasions, and my recollection is that Norma Kitson (and/or in conjunction with Carol Brickley) came up one day and announced their proposal. I think it was Norma. … Announced the strategy that, as they had done before, we should organise a Non-Stop Picket demanding the release of Nelson Mandela and others. And I think there was a pause as people took in the ramifications of what was being proposed. How long would we be outside the South African Embassy for? Would Nelson Mandela every be released? And the enormity of the task that we would be potentially embarking upon. However, having said that, [there was] enormous excitement and enthusiasm as the time got closer and closer to the launch date of 19 April 1986. (James Godfrey, interview recorded 30 January 2013)
Footage of that first day can be seen here. The opening sequence of that video shows the launch demonstration marching up to the site, in front of the South African Embassy in Trafalgar Square, where the Non-Stop Picket would be established. Carol Brickley, City Group’s Convenor, remembers the first day in the following terms:
We had a march down from Camden or Red Lion Square down to Trafalgar Square and there were lots of children holding a banner that Norma [Kitson] had made. It was nice, it was exciting; it was a good day. (Carol Brickley, interview recorded 21 February 2013).
Like Carol, others who were present on that day have only vague memories of where the demonstration started, but several of them have a vivid memory of the children carrying the hand-sewn banner at the head of the march. The demonstration actually started at Camden Town Hall in Bidborough Street near Kings Cross.
I distinctly remember it. I will always remember it, because there was a march – a very short march, actually; possibly from Malet Street to Trafalgar Square. And there was a very, very colourful banner at the front which was held by children and it was a remarkable sight. There were, to my view, about 1500 people on that march. And we marched down to Trafalgar Square and there was this remarkable sight at Trafalgar Square because there seemed to be hundreds and hundreds of people waiting for us to arrive there to start the Non-Stop Picket. So, it was a remarkable event. (David Yaffe, interview recorded 5 April 2013).
On the first day of the Non-Stop Picket we had a march from Camden Town Hall to Trafalgar Square and Carol was the Chief Steward and I was the Chief Steward’s Assistant. … It was a really amazing day. We had planned the demo but then the US bombed Libya the same week. So there was a big demo at the US embassy on the same day, and lots of people who might have wanted to go to one or the other were, obviously, a bit torn. But, it didn’t matter. We had a great demo and then lots of people came down afterwards from that and we carried on. (Nicki, interview recorded 27 March 2013)
One of those people who came to the launch of the Non-Stop Picket from the demonstration at the US Embassy was Cat, who stayed involved throughout the Picket.
I’d come up to London for a demonstration outside the US Embassy against the bombing of Libya and I met [someone] selling FRFI on that and he said “Oh, do you know there’s a demonstration later today outside the South African Embassy?” And I think I was with a friend who slightly knew someone who was involved in City Group … and so we eventually peeled off from the US Embassy demonstration. We weren’t on the march when the Non-Stop Picket began but we were outside the Embassy waiting for it to arrive. I can’t remember hugely what it was like but it was exciting, it was fun, it was noisy. There was singing. (Cat Wiener, interview recorded 5 March 2013)
In preparation for the arrival of the demonstration, a small number of City Group activists were delegated to transport and set up the equipment needed for the Picket and its launch rally. Beyond this technical role, one of their key tasks was to claim and secure the group’s preferred site for the protest in front of the Embassy gates. One of the picketers who took on this role, described his experiences that day:
I remember thinking there were lots of people in Trafalgar Square, just ordinary tourists, and I’m expecting these people to march in at some time from the American embassy – I hope they come, quite soon, because there’s quite a few cops here. But clearly the cops were also deployed outside the American embassy, because they were expecting protests (not just from City Group), quite rightly. … I don’t remember much about the first day really, except for getting there early and setting things up – I’m not technically-minded, but I knew how to plug things in. … And, I was quite relieved when people turned up. (‘Vincent’, interview recorded 1 December 2012)
As well as claiming space and putting the Picket’s minimal infrastructure of banners, placards and supplies of publicity material in place, the planning for the launch of the Non-Stop Picket had also involved preparing a number of contingencies to ensure that the first evening, the first overnight and the shifts on the follow few days were covered. As James explained, for him, there were mixed emotions as the launch rally came to an end:
It was filled with the exuberance of doing what we’d said we’d do and what we’d planned to do for a while. And then, arriving there, there were the inevitable peaks and troughs that were going to take place (which I hadn’t thought about beforehand) … And I remember, as nightfall came and everyone had thrown their big energies into the day, we had contingencies in place and people lined up to do the evening and night shifts, and those of us who had been busy all day moving stuff around took breaks. It was a bit strange to be going away – there had been so many people before and now there were so few. Are we going to be able to do it? (James Godrey, interview recorded 30 January 2013)
Richard, a veteran of City Group’s 86-day Non-Stop Picket in 1982 remembers feeling more prepared and more optimistic about the tasks ahead of the group:
It was quite exciting. Because we’d already had a Non-Stop Picket before that and so, to a certain extent, we knew what we were getting ourselves into. There were a lot of high hopes, high spirits and a great deal of optimism for the future. (Richard, interview recorded 22 March 2013)
Carol Brickley, one of the more experienced activists involved in launching the Picket was perhaps more realistic in her assessment of the challenge City Group had set itself. While many of the younger picketers remember the excitement of the day, in her capacity as the group’s Convenor, she offered a political assessment of the role of the Non-Stop Picket, linking it clearly to events in South Africa:
I thought it was something that you take on, but you don’t project yourself to the end of it. You don’t say I am doing this because it’s possible, because frankly it didn’t seem altogether possible. But the value of it was in the doing of it rather than in the end of it. Especially given what was going on in South Africa. I mean, it’s not that you decide that sort of thing in isolation. There was an enormous build up of militancy in the townships in South Africa from 1985 onwards which was extraordinary and very different from what had gone before. So that was the background to us making any decisions. (Carol Brickley, interview recorded 21 February 2013).
The Non-Stop Picket did not just appear out of nowhere. It built upon the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s experience of regularly picketing the South African Embassy (at least weekly, but often more frequently) since early 1982. During the previous four years, City Group had fought to defend the right to protest outside the South African Embassy and were determined to maintain that right. Their call for a Non-Stop Picket of the Embassy responded to growing anti-apartheid militancy inside South Africa and captured the imagination of young people in Britain who wanted to play an active role in opposing apartheid. While the potential conflict with the US Embassy demonstration on 19 April 1986 understandably made City Group activists fearful that their plans to launch the Non-Stop Picket might be undermined; in the end, the coincidence probably worked in their favour by attracting additional young activists along on the day who were open to City Group’s anti-imperialist analysis of the need to oppose apartheid.