The Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy (which began on 19 April 1986) celebrated its second anniversary on Saturday 16 April 1988 with a march from Hyde Park to Trafalgar Square. We have recently (re)discovered a recording of a report made by Jon Kempster on that day. The report was broadcast on the Black Londoners programme on BBC Radio London on 20 April 1988. Here we present some extracts from the transcript of the recording.
Jon Kempster began his report by offering some contextual information to his listeners:
About one thousand people came from all over Britain to mark the second anniversary of the non-stop picket, which has remained outside the South African embassy every day and night since April 1986.
Next an unnamed picketer (although we think we can identify the voice at as that of Anil, the group’s Legal Officer) explained further the political demands of the Picket:
Well it was founded in response to the second state of emergency in South Africa. The demands of the picket are for the release of Nelson Mandela, the release of all Southern African political prisoners and detainees. It’s also calling for sanctions, its calling for the closing down of the embassy. We have not only increased public awareness in this country, especially over the Sharpeville Six, but we also get reported in the South African press so they know about the picket and as a result it gives them morale there.
There then follow two excerpts from speeches made by members of the South African liberation movements. David Kitson, who had been the longest-serving white political prisoner in South Africa and whose family were centrally involved in founding the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group, is heard to explain,
comrades and friends we are here today to celebrate two years of the Non-Stop Picket outside South Africa House. And believe you me, every freedom fighter in South Africa and every political prisoner in South Africa is watching this picket keenly because they regard it as a part of their struggle for liberation. There was once a non-stop picket before in 1982 run by the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. That was when I was in gaol, and after 86 days we were moved to a better prison and the prison authority told me that we had been moved because of requests from the South African embassy who were irritated by the picket outside its gates.
His words were greeted with loud cheers from the crowd. David Kitson’s sentiments were echoed by Molefe Pheto, who explained why he was there to mark the second anniversary of the Picket.
I am here on behalf of the Black Consciousness Movement of Azania, which is one of the liberation movements from that part of the world. I stand here to congratulate politically the City Anti-Apartheid movement for their courageous stand in the campaign for the Sharpeville Six. But the struggle is not over yet. This is not the end, it is only the beginning and we want to warn you, we who come from that part of the world, that this is serious business. You have only started, so gird your loins for much more heavier work, but the struggle is escalating in that part of the world.
Jon Kempster explains that the picketers ended their rally with a sit-down protest in the road outside the Embassy. The voice of a police officer is heard warning the crowd over a megaphone:
Attention and attention, this is an official police message: You are obstructing the highway and unless you move away from the area you may make yourself liable to arrest. Please leave the area now.
As Carol Brickley explained to the Radio London listeners, contextualizing the more-than-600 arrests that had been made since the Non-Stop Picket started two years earlier,
The main obstacles to us being here actually have been the British police and their interpretation of the law and the right to demonstrate and on a number of occasions they’ve attempted to move us from outside the embassy and prevent us from demonstrating here despite the fact that we do have the right to be here under British law. A sort of attempted wearing down process, if you like.
The recording cuts straight to Norma Kitson addressing the crowd.
When you stand up to the police, by sitting down and saying “we don’t move”, they bugger off. That’s a lesson to you all comrades; that if we stand together then we win the day. We’ve had over 600 arrests in the past year [sic] and 94% acquittals in the courts. 94%! Ok, so we’ll just sit down and continue the picket.
Buoyed on by Norma Kitson’s words of encouragement, the picketers stayed put. The radio audience were then treated to the following exchange between Jon Kempster and an unnamed picketer:
Picketer:‘I think it’s very important on the day of two years of non-stop action against apartheid that we’re here seen to be dedicating ourselves to that struggle. I believe I have a right and a duty in this country to do all I can to support the fighting people of South Africa.’
Jon Kempster: ‘You’ve just had the police message over the speakers that you’re liable to be arrested. What are you going to do now?’
Picketer: ‘Carry on sitting here until they drag us away.’
Another picketer politely declines to give an interview, saying, “I am just about to get arrested, I’m sorry, I really would love to…” With that, we hear the police officer give a final warning and arrest them. A woman with a French accent is heard to declare,
We refuse to move because this is a protest against apartheid and as far as I am concerned apartheid is fascism, apartheid is a crime against humanity.
The same police warning is repeated and she too is arrested – one of thirty-one picketers who were arrested for participating in the sit-down protest that afternoon. On the recording, we hear the crowd chanting “The Sharpeville Six must go free!” As the names of each of the six South Africans who were facing execution are chanted by the crowd, the track fades and the report is over.
This radio news report by a sympathetic journalist (who regularly attended the Non-Stop Picket) gives a good sense of what life on the Picket was like during major rallies. Its carefully edited interviews offer a feel for the personalities and political perspectives of key players in the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group as well as the commitment of ‘ordinary’ picketers to take direct action against British collaboration against apartheid. The major rallies, like those that took place on or around the anniversary of the start of the Picket, were an opportunity for the supporters of City Group to come together and collectively renew their commitment to anti-apartheid protest – often through acts of direct action or support for those taking such action. These acts held the picketers together and kept them focused on their cause.