Our paper “Practices of Solidarity: Opposing apartheid in the centre of London” has now been published online by Antipode: a radical journal of Geography. The paper examines how the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group produced solidarity through the Non-Stop Picket of the South African Embassy in the mid-1980s. In doing so, it engages with contemporary debates about geographical aspects of solidarity and social movements. Here is a short extract from the conclusion to the paper:
For just short of four years, ending thirteen days after Nelson Mandela’s release from jail in February 1990, City Group maintained a Non-Stop Picket outside the South African Embassy in London. … The duration of the picket over those four years was key to its distinctiveness and helped add moral weight to the legitimacy of its cause. In this paper we have examined how the City of London Anti-Apartheid Group framed its solidarity, as well as the numerous entangled practices through which it was enacted and performed.
Our study of the Non-Stop Picket extends recent geographical debates theorizing the heterogeneous ways in which solidarity between subaltern groups generate new political possibilities and reconfigure the relationships between (distant) places (Featherstone 2012; Massey 2008). City Group located its protest outside the South African Embassy for very deliberate reasons – as a diplomatic mission it was the symbolic and material representation of the apartheid regime in Britain. The Embassy materialised British political and economic links with South Africa. By its constant presence and its noisy, confrontational style of protest, the Non-Stop Picket disrupted the ‘peace and dignity’ of the Embassy and, with the aim of forcing its closure (until apartheid was ended), actively sought to disrupt existing relationships between Britain and apartheid South Africa. However in mobilizing British people to stand in solidarity with the Black majority in South Africa and their allies, the group also sought to generate new (subaltern) relationships between the populations of both countries.
We draw three main conclusions from this study as a means of intervening in the ongoing debates about geographies of solidarity. First, that how solidarity is framed politically cannot be separated from how it is performed. City Group understood its role (as a solidarity organisation) as being subordinate to the actions of the Black Majority in South Africa and their popular organisations. As a British-based solidarity organisation, City Group framed its role as being to target and disrupt British economic, political and diplomatic links with apartheid South Africa. The group believed this could not be effective without also challenging systemic racism in Britain. Alongside these tasks, City Group attempted to offer political, moral, practical and material support to those resisting apartheid in South Africa.
Second, we have argued that greater attention needs to be to the micropolitics of the practices through which solidarity is enacted and articulated through key sites. In terms of international anti-apartheid solidarity, the Non-Stop Picket was one such key site. Participants in the Non-Stop Picket embodied City Group’s approach to solidarity through their conduct there. The daily life of the Non-Stop Picket can be thought of as an assemblage of practices through which anti-apartheid solidarity was performed. By understanding solidarity in this way, it is possible to appreciate solidarity as more than a moral obligation. Attention to how solidarity is enacted and practised in specific sites offers greater possibilities for understanding how this form of activism acts for social change and generates new political possibilities beyond the cause it principally addresses.
Finally, we have suggested that relations of solidarity travel in and face more than one direction simultaneously. For a protest sustained by a relatively small group of young activists, the Non-Stop Picket had a disproportionately high-profile in London and internationally. Its longevity, its location, and ways in which it practised its solidarity helped in this respect. Trafalgar Square was at the time a major transport hub in London and an important tourist destination. Many people stumbled across the protest, joined it for a short while and took news and inspiration from it back to their home towns and beyond. In this way, and through the other aspects of its campaigning, City Group positioned itself within transnational networks of anti-apartheid activists. … Crucially, City Group served as a key hub in connecting solidarity groups around the world who were either committed to using direct action tactics in their protests and/or were open to providing solidarity to all political tendencies within the South African liberation movement(s). As we have shown, within these networks, solidarity flowed laterally as well as being extended to those resisting apartheid in South Africa. When Non-Stop Picketers were arrested or harassed, letters of protest were dispatched by supporters around the world. … Through the strong interpersonal bonds fostered through the shared experience of participating in the Picket over an extended period of time, as well as the structures of legal support that the group held in place, City Group also generated solidarity in defence of its own members.
Through the Non-Stop Picket, the members and supporters of City Group practised solidarity in many different ways. These practices operated at multiple spatial scales and were orientated towards disrupting or reconfiguring spatial relationships at different distances from the protest. These practices not only sought to embody City Group’s political framework and understanding of the role of a solidarity organisation, they also served to sustain the Non-Stop Picket opposing apartheid in the centre of London.
For those with access to an institutional subscription, the full paper can be accessed here. If you don’t have a subscription, but would like to read the paper, please get in touch and we would be happy to send you a copy of the manuscript.