Since writing last week’s blog piece about Norma Kitson and the accusations that she was “a difficult woman”, we have interviewed a number of other former Non-Stop Picketers. One interview, in particular, offered a different perspective on Norma’s contribution to British anti-apartheid solidarity work and how that made her ‘difficult’ in the eyes of some.
Ann Elliot was involved in the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group from the very beginning in 1982. She described the launch of the Non-Stop Picket as ‘exhilarating’ and explained that this was
because of the particular qualities of this demonstration which, I will say, were bought to it by Norma Kitson and her experience of struggle in South Africa. I think I personally, and my political tendency, owe a great deal to Norma’s interpretation of the South African struggle in the British situation. This involved things like having children and women very much to the fore, having colourful and noisy demonstrations and having singing. This was a completely different tradition from the one I sort of breached from my earliest days, which was trade union meetings which undoubtedly was roomfuls of grey men in grey suits full of smoke. (Ann Elliot, interview 29 May 2013)
What I think is interesting here is the way in which Ann links Norma Kitson’s political analysis to the ways in which she encouraged City Group to perform its solidarity. The form and content of anti-apartheid protest is linked here. Norma’s understanding of the situation in South Africa led her to appreciate the importance of noisy demonstrations to disrupt the work of apartheid’s representatives in London. Because she was committed to mobilizing as many people as possible to anti-apartheid work, she recognised that demonstrations should be visible, lively and attractive – that they should be colourful and noisy with singing. Ann implies that there was a gendered element to Norma’s approach to solidarity work – that in recognising the role of women and children in the struggle against apartheid, she encouraged women and children to be at the fore in the demonstration that launched the Non-Stop Picket. [Incidentally, my colleague, Helen Yaffe was one of the children who carried the banner at the front of that demonstration]. Norma’s colourful approach to solidarity is contrasted to the grey men of the British Left in the preceding period. In this respect, clearly, Norma’s approach was not unique (even if it was still relatively unusual in British anti-apartheid work) – in the early and mid-1980s women peace activists at Greenham Common playfully reworked many assumptions about who could take political action, as well as what that might look like and feel like.
If similar processes were taking place in other contexts in Britain at the time, Ann Elliot locates Norma’s contribution as clearly originating in South Africa. She reflected that,
The picket was important to me at the time because it was a whole new way of developing protest in this country, imported from South Africa – and gradually I realized, of course, from many other parts of the world. First of all the picket was a very sharp learning process for me understanding Britain’s relations with South Africa. I started reading much more than I had ever done before about the history of Africa. So intellectually it was a very important learning process for me, but the actual physical conduct of the picket; the comradeliness, the gestures towards equality of whoever came on the picket and their right to protest in their way, the communal atmosphere that was generated, the singing, the integration of children and everybody into the picket activity. This was, there is no doubt about it, a new step forward for the politics of protest in Britain. (Ann Elliot, interview 29 May 2013).
For Ann, the form and conduct of the Non-Stop Picket inspired a deeper intellectual engagement with African history and a desire to find out more about the non-European forms of protest that the Picket emulated and learnt from. As the mother of young children at the time, Ann clearly valued the ‘integration of children’ into the Picket’s activities. For her, the colourful, noisy nature of the Picket drew a wide range of people into its campaigning. They were greeted by a friendly and inclusive conviviality. Over time, this conviviality deepened into ‘comradeliness’. Ann passionately articulates the ways in which the appearance and performance of the Non-Stop Picket were connected to its modes of conduct. For her, none of these qualities were simply superficial, they stemmed from (and encouraged engagement with) a particular way of analysing the struggle against apartheid. She clearly identifies Norma Kitson as one of the key figures in developing this approach as a “new step forward in the politics of protest in Britain”. It is not surprising that while she inspired many people, Norma’s passion and creativity also upset the bearers of long-established traditions on the British Left (and within the progressive South Africa diaspora in London).