When it was announced that, following his release from gaol, Nelson Mandela would be visiting London in April 1990, several members of the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group wrote to him requesting that he made time during his visit to meet the people who had maintained a Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy calling for his release. The meeting never happened (and, as far as we know, many of the letters received no acknowledgement or reply). These letters were part of a political campaign to gain Mandela’s (retrospective) approval for the Non-Stop Picket in the face of long-standing opposition to it from sections of the London ANC.
We have, however, recently been given access to correspondence between one City Group activist and Nelson Mandela. Colette was a long-time supporter of City Group and had been involved with its campaigning since well before the launch of the Non-Stop Picket in 1986. Her letter of 6 March 1990, addressed to ‘Comrade Mandela’, reads as follows:
It was so thrilling to hear that you were coming to London on 16 April.
As a picketer who stood with my comrades of City AA Group for four years non-stop outside the South African Embassy in London, demanding your release, we were hoping we would have the privilege and honour to hear you speak, and by our presence, express our great affection and respect for you. Unfortunately, we will not be able to be inside Wembley Stadium on that day. We wonder whether there will be other meetings in London we could attend.
We, in City AA, are still maintaining at Trafalgar Square a regular non-stop weekly picket (Saturday noon till Sunday 6pm) against the Embassy and the British government, in solidarity with your courageous people and with the support of the British people who have shown through their signatures on our petitions, which were massive, and at various rallies, how much they hated apartheid.
Hoping we will have the great hour of hearing you in London.
We remain yours in solidarity,
With highest respect to you, to Comrade Nomzamo and to your family.
Mandela’s reply, dispatched after his return from London, was short yet generous in its tone (albeit that it reads like a standard reply):
Thank you so much for your recent letter. Your consideration and continued support is appreciated. This moment is special for me, for my family and for freedom loving people around the world. For my people, the people of South Africa, both black and white, it brings hope for the day break of freedom.
Those City Group members who were able to attend the Wembley concert, and others who watched it on television, took solace from the opening of Mandela’s speech, when he said:
Our first simple and happy task is to say thank you. Thank you very much to you all. Thank you that you chose to care, because you could have decided otherwise. Thank you that you elected not to forget, because our fate could have been a passing concern. We are here today because for almost three decades you sustained a campaign for the unconditional release of all South African political prisoners. We are here because you took the humane decision that you could not ignore the inhumanity represented by the apartheid system. (Nelson Mandela, 16 April 1990. The complete text of his speech is available here).
Having stood outside the South African Embassy calling for the unconditional release of Nelson Mandela and all South African political prisoners for nearly four years, City Group activists took comfort that they were amongst those being thanked for their solidarity action, for caring.
In June of 1990, I wrote again to Nelson Mandela, formally on behalf of City Group. By that time, City Group were aware that Norma and David Kitson had had an opportunity to talk to Nelson Mandela and tell him all about the Non-Stop Picket. My letter stated,
I understand from the British press that you are shortly to be coming to Britain once again. I would like to invite you to take this opportunity to invite you to come and speak to our group when you are next in Britain. Our members are mostly young, many are students and some are unemployed, and most of them could not afford to attend the Wembley concert at Easter.
I am sure that you appreciate the level of commitment shown by our membership and understand how much it would mean to them to hear you speak.
That letter received no reply that we can trace, and Nelson Mandela (unsurprisingly, perhaps) never found time to meet directly with the campaigners who had maintained the Non-Stop Picket calling for his release for so long. These letters demonstrate the respect, admiration and, even, affection that members of the Non-Stop Picket felt for Nelson Mandela. His courage and leadership (but not necessarily his alone) had inspired them to take militant direct action against apartheid, even as they understood him as one man in a popular mass movement. But these were more than just political ‘fan’ letters, they were a political act. City Group knew that, if they could persuade Mandela to come and speak to them, it would be a major blow against all those in the London ANC and the British Anti-Apartheid Movement who had sidelined and rubbished City Group over the previous eight years. They felt City Group’s case for ‘non-sectarian solidarity’ with all the liberation movements, and a militant, street-based solidarity movement would be vindicated. Of course, whatever Mandela himself thought of the Non-Stop Picket and City Group’s politics, his close advisers were never going to let that meeting happen – it would have gone against the plans for a negotiated, diplomatic settlement to end apartheid.