Transition or revolution? The politics of being a ‘difficult woman’

Several times over the last two years, I have been told by people who were heavily involved with the Anti-Apartheid Movement in Britain that the AAM’s problems with the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group originated with Norma Kitson.  Time and again, I have been told that Norma was “a difficult woman” (or words to that effect).  I disagree.  But, in disagreeing, I make no comment on Norma’s personality.  I disagree because I believe the differences were political.  I disagree because I am uncomfortable with the way in which strong political differences get reduced to the deficiencies in one woman’s personality (often by other women).

Norma Kitson speaks on the Non-Stop Picket (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

Norma Kitson speaks on the Non-Stop Picket (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

In the midst of growing tensions between Norma Kitson and the London ANC, and between City Group and the Anti-Apartheid Movement, when David Kitson refused to distance himself from City Group following his release from gaol in 1984, both he and Norma were ‘suspended’ from the ANC and the South African Communist Party.  In the process, David also found that the funding for the post at Ruskin College, the trade union college in Oxford, that had been promised to him during his imprisonment, had been withdrawn by the leadership of his union, TASS (now part of Unite).

In an article from The Observer (3 May 1987) that outlined the campaign to reinstate David Kitson’s fellowship at Ruskin, Neal Ascherson got to the root causes of the dispute – the political causes.  He explained that City Group’s ‘vigorous picketing’ of the South African embassy had,

[come] to irritate the small, authoritarian clique of white South Africans who dominate the SACP and ANC organisation in London. (Ascherson, The Observer, 3 May 1987)

He noted that Ken Gill, the leader of TASS, shared a similar ‘neo-Stalinist’ politics to that grouping.  Ascherson’s analysis went further:

The Kitson business is also about politics. The ANC is a broad church, by no means under ‘Communist control’ and two tendencies can be distinguished. One wants to achieve majority rule by a combination of military action, sanctions and industrial action, leading to some kind of settlement with the white minority. The transition to socialism would be gradual and pragmatic – a line that accords well with Soviet policy. The other tendency is more interested in socialist revolution, without ‘transitions’ or deals with white capitalism which would castrate the angry power of the people. Norma Kitson, especially, leans to the second version. The militancy of the City Group in Trafalgar Square, seen in that light, is an unmistakable challenge to the Sovietic gradualism of the London clique. (Ascherson, The Observer, 3 May 1987)

Here, I think, is the crux of the matter. It was not about the ‘difficulty’ or otherwise of one woman’s personality.  It was not just a falling out between comrades (stoked by paranoia about South African spies in their midst). It was the clash of opposing sides in a political debate (going back to at least the early 1960s) about competing visions of post-apartheid South Africa and the strategy needed to achieve those different goals.  As we know, the ANC and the SACP played a key and decisive role in determining the outcome of the negotiated settlement that ultimately ended apartheid.  They achieved the ‘transition’ to a democratic, non-racial South Africa that they desired.  Like Patrick Bond, I believe that was an ‘elite transition‘.  As I argued in a recent paper,

The transition held together the elites on all sides of the negotiations (Bond 2000: 5) by ‘modernising’ South African capitalism from a regime of accumulation based on a racist division of labour and sub-imperial forms of (mostly extractive) ‘settler capital’ to compliance with global neoliberalism.  (Brown, Kraftl, Pickerill and Upton 2012: 1611).

Norma and David Kitson had a different vision for the end of apartheid and, to a very large extent, so did the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group. Instead of a transition that held capitalism together in South Africa, they wanted a more fundamental and abrupt transformation of social, political and economic life in post-apartheid South Africa. They wanted a revolution – but I guess that was ‘difficult’ for some people; but for many activists in City Group’s orbit, it made her a remarkable woman with drive and determination.

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
This entry was posted in Archival research, Gavin Brown, Project staff and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Transition or revolution? The politics of being a ‘difficult woman’

  1. Pingback: Transition or revolution? The politics of being...

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  4. Pingback: An archive of solidarity: The City of London Anti-Apartheid Group papers « Africa in Words

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