Norma Kitson and creative innovations in British protest

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)

City Group Singers perform in hand-painted costumes (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

City Group Singers perform in hand-painted costumes (Photographer: Jon Kempster)

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).

About Gavin Brown

Professor of Political Geography and Sexualities University of Leicester
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7 Responses to Norma Kitson and creative innovations in British protest

  1. Reading this fascinating post made me wonder whether Norma Kitson’s challenge to “long-established traditions on the British Left” might best be interpreted not as a “new step forward in the politics of protest in Britain” in the 1980s, but as one episode in a long-standing strategy debate among leftist activists – not just in the 1980s in Britain, the context empahsised here, but throughout the twentieth century and throughout the world. Perhaps we can see two opposite ends of a spectrum of strategies of radical activism. At one end of the spectrum would be painstaking organisation-building, particularly, though not necessarily, in the trades unions. At the other end of the spectrum would be protest that is more spontaneous, “creative,” and with a greater emphasis on “performance” – as in Norma Kitson’s stress on making demonstrations “visible, lively and attractive… colourful, noisy.” Since the 1960s many advocates of the latter approach have presumably been influenced, directly or indirectly, by Che Guevara’s “foco” or “detonator” approach (though transposed from a strategy of guerilla warfare to one of non-violent protest).

    Both approaches clearly have their weaknesses. Organisation-building can be boring (“roomfuls of grey men in grey suits full of smoke”), and is prone to bureaucratisation and perhaps to the creation of a group of leading bureacrats particularly vulnerable to co-optation into state reformism in order to maintain their positions of bureauratic power. It also seems particularly prone to being male-dominated.

    Creative, spontaneous, and performative approaches to activism, on the other hand, frequently fail to maintain momentum, even if they are briefly spectacular (vide 1968 in many places around the world, or, in the context of anti-apartheid in Britain, the petering out of the mass “direct action”-focused approach of Peter Hain’s “Stop the Seventy Tour” campaign in 1969-70, and the inability of Hain and other STST/Young Liberal leaders to direct the new anti-apartheid energy they had generated at new targets after the Springbok tour had ended). The non-stop picket is perhaps an example of an unusually-sustained protest of this type.

    The idea of these approaches as opposite ends of a spectrum is clearly not quite right, as they are not necessarily mutually exclusive, and presumably most campaigns contain elements of both, even if one approach is dominant or receives greater emphasis. Perhaps some of the most successful campaigns are those that have been able to combine the two approaches, and I wonder if the UDF in South Africa in the 1980s might be one of the best examples of this.

  2. razia meer says:

    My dad was a card carrying C.L.A.A.G member and was involved in demonstrations outside the embassy. He would send us photographs and cassette tapes hidden inside the paddings of other things as it would have been illegal to receive such things in South Africa at the time. We learnt all their songs and sang them with gusto 🙂 He had the highest opinion of Norma Kitson, Vannessa Redgrave and the rest.

    Just until Nelson Mandela is free!
    We’re on a non-stop picket of the Embassy!
    We are here until Mandela’s free on a non-stop picket of the Embassy.
    And we call on each and everyone, to lend a helping hand, ’til they release the man.
    Rolihlahla Mandela, the Freedom Fighters are inspired by you
    Rolihlahla Mandela, you are a hero to us through and through

    I humbly ask for prayers for Madiba to be released from the shackles of his Earthly prison and take the long walk into God’s light. He has given us the best years of his life, it’s time he was truly free.

    Senzeni na…

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