A couple of weeks ago I had promised to attend a political meeting on a Friday evening. I didn’t. The meeting seemed important, but at the end of a long working week, I just couldn’t face being sat in a room for a couple of hours debating politics with a group of people I hardly knew. That experience, along with comments made in a number of recent interviews made me reflect on how remarkable the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group’s weekly meetings were during the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy. At the height of the Picket, the group could regularly attract between fifty and a hundred people to attend its weekly meetings.
Every Friday (as they had done for several years before the Non-Stop Picket started), City Group held a themed rally outside the South African Embassy for an hour from 6.00 p.m.. The groups supporters would gather there and swell the size of the picket protesting against the latest atrocity of the apartheid regime, campaigning for the release of anti-apartheid prisoners, or marking a particular anniversary from the liberation struggle. Sometimes the Friday rally only attracted a couple of dozen people; at other times, there could be more like a hundred people present.
After an hour of speeches, chanting and song, most of the group would head off across central London to the venue for City Group’s weekly meeting. Inevitably, a few would slip away to the pub instead. In the early months of the Picket the meetings were held at County Hall on the Southbank, the erstwhile home of the recently abolished Greater London Council. In later years the meetings were held in a variety of community halls in the Kings Cross area. From 7.30 p.m. until often well after 10.00 p.m., City Group’s supporters sat, debated current events in South Africa, and planned their campaigns and protests. The weekly meeting was also important in sustaining the Non-Stop Picket because it was often the best location for plugging any gaps in the Picket’s rota for the forthcoming week.
Frequently, these meetings also attracted guest speakers from the South African liberation movements. Leading members of the Pan-Africanist Congress, like Zolile Keke, Gora Ebrahim and Johnson Mlambo, attended with some regularity. If their presence was anticipated, or there was a major protest being planned, the numbers attending the meeting could grow significantly.
Francis gives a good sense of the business covered in those Friday meetings, balancing what they were useful for with a sense of remembered frustration at their shortcomings.
When I first started going they were usually quite big, with impressive turnouts, but they gradually got smaller. They were democratic but formal. Carol usually convened with great skill. There was a review of recent events, our financial and legal situation. Recent correspondences and news events were outlined and discussed. Importantly, the meetings were the basis from which campaigns and actions were planned. When there was a shortage of people for a particular picket shift, someone had to volunteer. People were often requested to volunteer to help with running the group or to participate in actions. Everyone had the right to speak (though heckling and interruptions happened sometimes). You had to wait your turn, which often annoyed me, because during the wait the subject matter would change to the extent that by the time my turn came, what I had to say was no longer relevant. Although the method was fair and the only way to organise debates when lots of people wish to speak, it was never something I felt comfortable with. I prefer discussions to be more conversational. Some people seemed to take great pleasure in rambling on and on incoherently; others seemed to want to draw attention to themselves or show off how clever they were (perhaps I’m being a bitch, but that’s how it seemed to me). But often the debates were very interesting, amusing and informative. (Francis Squire 25 November 2011)
Like many former picketers, Francis celebrates the inclusive democracy of those meetings, in which everyone had an opportunity to speak, whilst remembering them as dragging on for too long. David Yaffe made a similar observation in his interview.
I also used to attend quite a few of the picket meetings that used to be on a Friday night with a very, very high attendance, very, very democratic meetings, so democratic that at times you just wondered where it was all going because everybody was allowed to have their opinion and some people’s opinion went on for a great deal of time. Frankly I think a lot more time was spent in those meetings that was necessary to complete the work of City Group in making decisions in a democratic forum. But that’s what took place and it was unique in that respect. I don’t think I’ve ever attended a meeting so democratic and so open as those first meetings of City Group which went on for a long period of time. (David Yaffe, 5 April 2013)
As another picketer remarked to me informally recently, if the meetings dragged on and people were getting itchy to leave (and, more often than not, go to the pub), it wasn’t because they were not serious about their politics (as some might have suggested at the time), it was because they had already sat through a three-hour meeting on a Friday evening. The intense shared experience of maintaining the Non-Stop Picket often provoked personality clashes, conflicts, and intense political debates that played out in those meetings. But the intensity of that shared commitment was also what led so many people to attend those meetings Friday evening after Friday evening for so long.