Last week we passed a significant milestone on the Non-Stop Against Apartheid project – we ‘interviewed’ the 40th former supporter of the Non-Stop Picket about their experiences of anti-apartheid protest in London in the 1980s. This means that, with about five months of fieldwork still to go on the project, we have already surpassed the number of interviews we planned for the project as a whole. More importantly, it means that we have recorded the memories of a wide range of the people who became involved with the picket outside the South African embassy.
More than half the participants (23) have been interviewed face-to-face; but as many now live outside the UK, fourteen completed extended qualitative questionnaires (essentially the interview schedule used face-to-face) over the internet, and three have been interviewed via skype. We anticipate that most of the remaining interviews we conduct will be held face-to-face.
We have recorded the stories of former picketers who currently live in Australia, Brazil, Denmark, France, Iceland, Iraq, Ireland, Mexico, the Netherlands, Spain, and the USA. Some of those people have emigrated from the UK since their time on the Non-Stop Picket, while others have returned to live in their country of origin. Ten of the people whose stories we have recorded had either only recently moved to the UK at the time they joined the Picket or were actually still permanently resident in other countries (having encountered the Picket whilst visiting London as a tourist or an exchange student).
We have interviewed participants spanning a forty-year age range, with the oldest person being 83 years old. Most are in their forties or early fifties. This fits with the youthfulness of the picket at the time (now more than a quarter of a century ago). It also reflects the different stages at which our participants became involved with the Non-Stop Picket: fourteen had been involved with the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group before the Non-Stop Picket started; sixteen joined the Picket during its first two years (April 1986 – 1988); and the others joined during the final two years of the Picket.
To date we have interviewed almost equal numbers of men (21) and women (19). This reflects the leading role that women played in the leadership of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group and the day-to-day running of the Non-Stop Picket. All but four of our participants so far are ‘white’. While the majority of those who sustained the Non-Stop Picket over the four years of its existence were white, the significant contribution of Black and Asian picketers is currently under-represented amongst the interviews we have conducted. Several of the interviews lined up for the coming weeks will begin to redress this, but we have more work to do in this area.
At least fifteen of the people we have interviewed served on City Group’s committee at some stage during their involvement. In part, this is because we prioritized interviewing ‘core’ activists and leaders of the group first. The proportion of committee members in our sample also attests to City Group’s success in developing young protesters and drawing them into the leadership of the group, at least for a short while. However, it is important for our research that we record the memories and experiences of people who committed to the Non-Stop Picket in a variety of different ways.
In total, fifteen of the people we have interviewed so far were members of the Revolutionary Communist Group at some stage during their involvement with City Group and the Non-Stop Picket. Of them, four are still closely associated with the RCG, two having become involved through their involvement in City Group. The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group was often accused, at the time, of being little more than an RCG front organisation. In some ways the high number of former RCG supporters in our sample adds weight to those accusations; but, in reality, the situation was more complex. The RCG played a key role in the political leadership of City Group and their members put significant time into maintaining the Picket. Through this leadership they did recruit many new members via contact on the Non-Stop Picket (some stayed involved for years afterwards, others only briefly). However, members of other organisations were also involved in City Group at different times. Of the other political organisations that had a long-term commitment to the Non-Stop Picket, we have interviewed one former member of the Humanist Party but not (yet) anyone who was involved with the Workers Revolutionary Party (Workers Press). We hope to interview more (former) members of both organisations over the coming months.
With forty interviews in the bag (or, rather, saved to a secure server), we have recorded a broad, but not fully representative, sample of stories from those activists who maintained the Non-Stop Picket from April 1986 to February 1990. While we want to continue recording as many interviews as possible in the time remaining, we are also mindful that there are some significant gaps and imbalances in our sample that we still need to address.
If you want to tell the story of your involvement in the Non-Stop Picket, and we have not yet been in touch, please get in contact with Gavin and Helen so that we can arrange an interview with you.